02 Nov’10

How to Avoid Another Rolls Royce? The Role of IP Due Diligence in M&A Transactions

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A recent Harvard Business Review article states the following: “Deal making is glamorous; due diligence is not” [1]. The article goes on to say: “That simple statement goes a long way toward explaining why so many companies have made so many acquisitions that have produced so little value”. One of the most extreme examples of IP due diligence-gone -wrong happened in 1998, when German car maker Volkswagen purchased the assets of Rolls Royce and Bentley automobiles for about $900 million. Volkswagen did not realize until after the deal was closed that the IP assets did not include the right to use the Rolls Royce trademark… The trademark was owned by another car maker, BMW, pursuant to a prior agreement. Volkswagen had therefore acquired all the rights necessary to manufacture the car, but did not have the right to brand it as a Rolls Royce! This story highlights the critical role of IP Due Diligence in the acquisition process, and should serve as a reminder to M&A corporate teams, especially with the recent rise in acquisition activity.

The San Jose Mercury called 2010: “the season of billion-dollar deals…”[2] From HP’s $1.1 billion purchase of Palm Inc. to Symantec’s $1.3 billion acquisition of VeriSign. Many large Silicon Valley companies are emerging from the recession with large cash reserves and are looking for opportunities to reshape their businesses around emerging technologies. According to Dealogic [3] technology companies have bought over 1,500 firms for over $50 billion this year. This represents a significant increase over the same period last year, when sector companies bought just about 1,000 companies for a little under $30 billion.

Frankly, acquisitions are risky deals. In a seminal 1987 study, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter found that companies sold off many more acquisitions than they kept. He also found that companies with acquisition strategies reduced, instead of creating shareholder value. Later studies reinforced Porter’s conclusions. A KPMG study conducted 15 years later found that over 80% of mergers were unsuccessful in producing any business benefit, as measured by shareholder value. That study further identified due diligence as one of three key activities that successful acquirers had prioritized in the pre-deal phase, and that had a tangible impact on their ability to deliver financial benefits from the deal (synergy evaluation and integration project planning were the other two).

Although big companies often assemble large teams and spend lots of money analyzing the size and scope of a deal in question —the fact is, the momentum of the transaction is hard to resist once senior management has the target in its sights. Due diligence all too often becomes an exercise in verifying the target’s financial statements rather than conducting a fair analysis of the deal’s strategic logic and the acquirer’s ability to realize value from it. Seldom does the process lead managers to kill potential acquisitions, even when the deals are deeply flawed. The lack of prioritization of IP due diligence further compounds the problem. Corporate, tax and accounting issues often take precedence, and by the time the deal team gets to dealing with the IP, the deal structure has already been set.

The topic of IP Due Diligence was discussed in a recent panel moderated by Foresight Valuation Group, as part of the IP Summit, which took place in Silicon Valley. The panel included some of the Valley’s largest corporate buyers (Intel, Cisco, Juniper) along with corporate lawyers and IP consultants with knowledge of M&A due diligence activities. The panel members have all agreed that the process of IP Due Diligence, in the context of corporate M&A deals, should be prioritized, both in terms of timeline (earlier in the deal) and importance. The panel identified several major topics that could be addressed to streamline the IP Due Diligence process:

1. Education about the risks associated with the IP portfolio. Given the general risk associated with acquisitions, tech deals are even riskier than average, because of the complexity of the products involved. The IP portfolio is a key asset in technology deals, much more so than in any other deal. IP due diligence is therefore absolutely critical to managing risks associated with the deal. Knowing the risks associated with a flawed IP Due Diligence process can go a long way towards encouraging senior management to allocate more resources to the process. The panel members brought examples of serious problems with IP portfolios of acquisition targets (lack of licensing rights, forged inventor assignments) that could have devastated the post-deal integration had they not been found through the due diligence process.

2. IP Assets should be incorporated in the valuation of the target. IP assets are treated as an afterthought, and usually do not drive the value of the target. A deal is not driven by the IP assets, but vice versa, and this is an unacceptable situation when it comes to high tech acquisitions. Several of the panelists mentioned the fact that investment bankers and other financial advisers participating on the deal often sideline issues that could alter the value of the deal, or complicate the process. It is therefore the case that IP assets are not evaluated and priced separately from the target, but are rather priced after the deal is concluded, often for accounting purposes, where the price of the deal needs to be allocated among the various assets purchased with the target. IP Valuation is a general issue that hinders many transactions, due to the lack of efficient markets for IP (no comps) and the lack of transparency when it comes to reporting IP deals, and the valuation considerations that went into pricing them. Improving the transparency through better reporting of IP deals will go a long way in improving IP transaction markets, and will also help with M&A due diligence and the quantitative assessment of IP assets in the pre-deal phase.

3. Integrate the seller in the process. Considering the seller’s post-deal indemnifications exposure with respect to the representations and warranties given in the transaction agreement, sellers should have a vested interest in the IP Due Diligence process. Sellers should be integrated in IP Due Diligence in a way that would help both sides streamline the process in a more efficient and cost effective way. Panel members representing buyer organizations actually mentioned that, from a seller perspective, better presentation of IP assets will help the sellers in getting better terms for the deal, which is not necessarily in the buyer’s best interest. That is an interesting point to keep in mind, as the buyer’s and seller’s objectives aren’t always aligned.

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