Blackboard’s buyout suitors may signal heightened interest in education tech sector

The range of companies suggested as potential suitors for Blackboard was varied after news broke last week that the online learning management company had received multiple unsolicited buyout offers.

Some analysts surmised textbook publishers looking to stake a digital footprint made sense. Others thought Microsoft, Oracle or another software giant might bite. Private equity firms could see potential. And, of course, there’s always Google.

The answer could have implications for the broader education technology sector, which has roots in the Washington area. Blackboard has its headquarters here, as do burgeoning education-minded companies such as K12, EverFi and Echo360.

Michael Stanton, Blackboard’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, declined to name the suitors or discuss the impetus for their interest. The company issued a statement saying the offers were unsolicited and non-binding. The company said it had retained Barclays Capital to evaluate its options.

The statement sent shares up by more than a third as the prospect of multiple offers excited investors. The stock closed at $48.80 per share on Thursday, the last day of trading in a holiday-shortened week on Wall Street.

When the company will reach a decision, or if it plans to sell at all, remains unclear.

“From a time frame perspective there’s nothing I could detail in terms of sequencing. It can be a very wide spectrum,” Stanton said.

He suggested, however, that the company is not likely to drag its feet, lest it lose momentum in the marketplace.

Signal Hill Managing Director Trace Urdan said that Blackboard was likely facing its own internal debate about how to move forward as its market matures and the growth potential in higher education slows.

“There are few colleges, if any colleges, that don’t have some kind of a learning management system,” Urdan said. Blackboard’s “choices, in my view, were to invest heavily into developing a new market or to sell . . . and I think the board is going through that evaluative process right now.”

Private equity firms looking to derive profits from Blackboard may be among the suitors, analysts said, given that its stock has been trading below its perceived value in recent months.

“If I was a betting man I would say at least one of the bids that came in came from a financial buyer, just given how cheap the stock was at the beginning of the week,” said Michael Nemeroff, an analyst with Wedbush Securities.

Blackboard’s key asset is the online learning management software that it sells to thousands of high schools and colleges, connecting students with teachers and their classmates in a virtual realm.

Michael Malouf, a senior research analyst at Craig-Hallum Capital Group, said other software firms could see value in that property, both as an addition to their slate of programs as well as a means of capturing the student market.

“The synergistic effect of incorporating Blackboard’s business into a much larger software company could add a tremendous amount of value to a suitor,” Malouf said.

Textbook publishers such as Pearson or McGraw-Hill, which has partnered with Blackboard in the past, were also named as options. That industry has been rattled in recent years as its print-oriented business meets demand from educators for more digital content.

But Urdan at Signal Hill surmised that Google could be among the most compelling suitors should its hat be among those in the ring. He said the company has a penchant for making large investments in industries poised for transformation.

“It’s not like Blackboard is a dead company, but it doesn’t have any new horizons to conquer that are easy to see from here,” Urdan said. “So whatever you do with Blackboard to drive significant growth beyond this level would really require a whole new concept.”

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.

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