Dell: Shareholders approve plan to go private, but can it be saved?

Michael Dell has won control of the computer company he started in an Austin dorm room nearly 30 years ago, buying the beleaguered PC maker on Thursday from its public shareholders after a months-long boardroom fight.

Now the real challenge begins.

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Dell’s value has sunk along with PCs
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Dell’s value has sunk along with PCs

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In the years since its launch, the company has lost its footing as competitors emerged with cheaper desktop and laptop computers and its core audience migrated to hand-held devices such as tablets. Dell’s stock has lost more than 25 percent of its value during the past five years.

Michael Dell, who will be chairman and chief executive of the newly private firm, said it will fare better without the pressure of meeting Wall Street expectations. “As a private enterprise . . . we’ll serve our customers with a single-minded purpose and drive the innovations that will help them achieve their goals,” he said.

The company’s shareholders approved a $25 billion sale of the firm to Michael Dell, who partnered with investment firm Silver Lake Partners to secure the deal. The deal is expected to close within a few months and must be approved by regulators.

The shareholder approval comes after a protracted battle between Michael Dell and prominent investor Carl Icahn, who made his own bid for the company. In a letter to shareholders, the notoriously outspoken Icahn said that he believed the deal, which offered $13.75 per share for the company, undervalued the firm and that, despite dropping his own buyout bid, he still opposed the agreement.

Michael Dell will face a staggering set of challenges in rebuilding the Round Rock, Tex.-based company. The company’s profit dropped more than 70 percent during its most recent fiscal second quarter compared with the same period the previous year. It was once a market leader, but it now captures just about 12 percent of worldwide PC sales.

Demand for PCs has plummeted as consumers delay buying new computers and opt for tablets. The International Data Corporation analysis firm projected Thursday that tablet sales would overtake PCs this holiday season for the first time.

Ahead of the Dell announcement, Standard and Poor’s lowered the company’s credit rating, citing the pressures that Dell faces in its “primary business segments.”

In recent years, Dell has invested in research and development to launch fresh products such as super-light ultrabooks or laptops with flexible forms. But it has lost ground to firms such as Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard.

It’s common for companies that go private to cut struggling parts of their business. But with the company’s founder at the wheel, Dell may go a different way, said Howard Anderson, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Management school.

“This is a unique situation; there’s no model for this one,” he said.

Anderson said thatMichael Dell has more flexibility to remake the company, which he knows inside and out.

“I think he can wing it better than anyone else,” Anderson said. “One of the big problems when you bring in new management is that they don’t know where the bodies are buried. He knows.”

And the firm could apply some of the consumer strategies it used in more successful times to the business market, said NPD analyst Stephen Baker. Michael Dell has indicated that the firm may target small or mid-size companies looking for hardware and server management, a market that has been underserved by rivals such as IBM, HP and Oracle, Baker said. Dell could find a niche there, he said.

“It’s like they were able to do in the PC markets,” Baker said. “Going forward, they’re likely to be focused on delivering great hardware with the necessary pieces of software.”

Baker said that he also does not expect Dell to spin off or close down its consumer business — especially as the line between what consumers want and what businesses need is steadily blurring.

“It’s hard to be just a consumer or client device company,” he said. “You need both to get scale and leverage.”

 
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