Michael Dell, founder and CEO of struggling computer maker Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), is immensely wealthy. Not Bill Gates rich, but according to Forbes, he’s the 17th richest person in America with a net worth of $14.6 billion.
He’s firmly in the 1%.
I’m not sure how much of that fortune is in cash, but considering that he already owns a $3.6 billion chunk of Dell (a 15.7% stake), why would he would he use a sizable pile of it to buy a majority share and take the company private? Given Dell’s performance trajectory, wouldn’t that be throwing good money after bad?
Dell is caught in a hurting PC market, revenue is declining in many divisions, its mobile strategy has gone nowhere and the company’s stock has bled 20% in the past year alone, and nearly 75% below the halcyon days of 2000. DELL shares have bounced back of late, but that has largely been on speculation that Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) — and then Dell himself — are plotting something.
Here’s the thing: Michael Dell likely is worried that, given the way things are going for DELL, his investment is liable to shrink further in value unless drastic measures are taken.
Michael built the company starting in 1984. He saw Dell Computer through to its 1988 IPO and was CEO during its rapid growth and pre-Internet bubble when it was trading for more than $50. After he resigned as CEO in 2004, Dell began a slow decline in sales. He took over again in 2007, pushing a series of acquisitions in an attempt to diversify from the company’s core PC business, including Perot Systems in 2009. He has overseen cost-cutting measures including layoffs, trimming of management ranks and shuttering Dell mall kiosks (while expanding its retail partners).
However, the results of “Dell 2.0” haven’t been great. More extreme measures are clearly needed if the company is to remain relevant — or regain relevance, depending on your viewpoint. Revisiting the “Dell Dude” commercials isn’t going to be enough for a corporate comeback.
Speculation is that Dell is seeking to invest another $1 billion (plus his existing stake) and enlist partners including Silver Lake Management and Microsoft to finance a majority ownership stake, taking the company private. Once in control, Bloomberg thinks Dell would push the company away from the commodity PC sales that have been stagnant and further into an enterprise-focused direction, big on mobile and cloud computing.
Call it Dell 3.0.
Trying to accomplish a major transformation in its business model while operating as a publicly traded company puts Dell in a tough position. Every move is subject to scrutiny and analysis by the financial and investment press. The results of every move are publicly dissected and depending on the viewpoint of the press. Investors can be spooked (or encouraged to buy), causing stock fluctuation that puts pressure on management.
In extreme cases, corporate leadership can spend more time dealing with PR fires than in actually steering the company. For a good example of this, just look at Research In Motion BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) CEO Thorsten Heins, who has spent months crisscrossing the globe, speaking to developers, investors, retail partners and the press in an effort to convince them that his company isn’t in a death spiral. Between BlackBerry Jams, meeting with tech bloggers, radio interviews and penning letters to the editor, when has the guy had a chance to even think strategy?
Dell 3.0 — a private company under the majority ownership of CEO Michael Dell — would be able to take advantage of its leader’s entrepreneurial acumen (although his direction hasn’t exactly been stellar), remove the distractions and likely find ways to tighten up its fiscal management. That tends to happen when it’s your own money at stake. Dell 3.0 would have more freedom to ditch poor-performing, money-losing product lines (possibly even consumer PCs) and could end up being leaner, meaner, more successful — and profitable.
So yes, by investing another billion dollars of his own cash, Michael Dell could just be throwing money away. And if so, he probably can afford to lose it. But if he succeeds in reinvigorating Dell, that investment could save the billions he already has tied up in the company.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.