Home >Companies >Dell’s life after Wall Street

A year after spending $24.9 billion taking his computer company private, Michael S. Dell is gleeful to have his namesake firm to himself. And to be done with Wall Street.

“This morning on the treadmill I was watching Bloomberg and CNBC, all the circus clowns," Dell said in a recent interview. His disdain for investment advice as entertainment is obvious—so obvious that no one should have been surprised that to get away from Wall Street’s influence, Dell endured a months-long, often personal campaign for a higher shareholder buyout price by corporate raider Carl C. Icahn.

On Tuesday, Dell will show what he has been up to since the seven-month struggle with Icahn ended last year. At a coming-out party in Austin, Texas, for the new Dell Inc., Michael Dell will try to persuade people that his company is about far more than the personal computers and computer servers it has been known for, with products intended for things as varied as the cloud computing networks of global enterprises and handy personal devices.

It is a transformation Dell says he actually started six years ago, spending $18 billion on 40 acquisitions, infuriating investors like Icahn and confounding industry analysts along the way.

In a conference room high above Columbus Circle in Manhattan, Dell recently provided the first extensive look inside his new plans for his company, explaining the many pieces that add up to a new Dell and reflecting on his tussle with Icahn, whom he calls “the great Icahn", in tones sarcastic even for a wealthy Texan. It is clear the fight has not been forgotten.

When Dell first proposed taking his company private, it was handicapped by declining computer prices and backbreaking failure to get into hot markets like mobile computing.

The only way to fix it, Dell argued, was to buy out investors and go private so he could stop worrying about profit for a few quarters and remake the business.

The biggest roadblock was Icahn’s demand for a higher price for his shares. After many shareholder votes and court challenges, Dell and his partners at the private equity firm Silver Lake raised their offer by a few pennies. But Icahn did not exactly bless the transaction.

“I intend to call him to wish him good luck (he may need it)," Icahn wrote in a letter to shareholders as he gave up the fight. A call to Icahn was not returned.

Dell founded the company when he was just 18, assembling and selling personal computers from his college dorm, and he took it public at 23.

Now, at 49, he wears a pinstripe suit but no tie, has some gray at the temples and rises excitedly to draw elementary diagrams that forecast his profitability and the competition’s demise. You can own 75% of the world’s third biggest PC company, it seems, and still delight in simple vindication.

“I think he’s having the time of his life," said Aaron Levie, co-founder and chief executive of Box, an online data storage and collaboration company, who has known Dell for two years. “He has control, and a lot of assets that people don’t understand yet."

The company has a comprehensive strategy at a time when peers like Hewlett-Packard Co. (H-P) and International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) are splitting apart and selling bits of themselves.

The new Dell has software, equipment for data storage and computer networking, services and sensors. It is developing software that measures facial expressions, voice tone, even how we individually swipe key cards. There is a device that can make a hotel room’s digital television into a secure corporate computer. A Dell tablet is the world’s thinnest and lightest, the company says, with a 4-million-pixel screen and a three-dimensional camera. And, of course, there are lots of new personal computers.

But some things have not changed. Dell is using the same plan in software and services that it used with PCs and servers two decades ago: Come in with a lower-profit-margin, “good enough" version of something like networking, then make the cheap stuff better.

“It works," Michael Dell said. “You start out not as good, not as fast, and a year or two later it’s faster and better and you can’t do stuff unless you’re in it."

Undercutting the competition on prices is usually effective. But will the big reboot of the company work? Toni Sacconaghi, a financial analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, said Dell’s strategy will hold up as long as PCs sell well.

Being private, Dell does not have to disclose much about sales and profits, but there are indications that it is getting the cash from PCs to finance its transformation.

According to IDC, a tech-industry analysis firm, in the third quarter of this year Dell shipped 10.4 million computers worldwide, a 9.7% increase from a year earlier.

In the lucrative US market, Dell’s shipments increased 19.7%, to make up 24% of the total market for PCs. H-P, the top supplier of PCs to the US, had a 27.7% share, but grew 8.3%.

PC sales throw off enough cash that in the first half of this year Dell’s buyers paid off $2.4 billion of the $18 billion in debt that they took out to make the purchase. The question is: Can Dell ignite sales enough to become less reliant on the same old business?

For Dell’s plan to work, his company has to get bigger and become better at alliances. Dell has announced deals with Red Hat, a maker of open-source software, regarding building cloud computing systems. His networking equipment also relies on open source. There is a Dell-Microsoft partnership, to sell Microsoft Corp.’s proprietary Azure cloud computing software on Dell boxes.

A deal with Oracle Corp. sells Oracle’s powerful database applications on Dell machines to small- and mid-sized companies, long a Dell stronghold. Dell is working with industrial companies like John Deere and Boeing Co. to develop algorithms for precision farming and cloud computing systems for aerospace research. In India, Dell has been putting chips in the ears of cows to better manage livestock.

As a private firm, its deals move faster—exactly what Dell wanted. Last March, Dell bought Statsoft, a maker of predictive analytic software. John A. Swainson, the head of software at Dell, said it took two meetings with Michael Dell lasting a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

“In a public company, there would be at least one board meeting about this, maybe two, so that would be two quarters," he said.

That’s not to say this transition has been easy. Dell had about 110,000 employees when it went private and is now estimated to have around 90,000. It is unclear how many more cuts there will be.

“They need to revive themselves from the inside out," said Matt Eastwood, an executive director at IDC. “Twenty to 30% of the people inside haven’t converted from the old ways. They probably won’t survive."

Now that Dell is stepping back into the spotlight, Icahn is not the only one Dell remembers for kicking his company while it was down. A year ago, H-P’s sales force marketed against the confusion caused by Dell going private. In a note to his staff the day after H-P announced it would begin the process of splitting in half, Dell told them to do the same thing to H-P.

Even so, his three-quarter stake in Dell is a significant amount of his net worth, estimated at $16 billion by Bloomberg, something that makes Sacconaghi and others wonder if Dell will again take his company public at a much higher price.

In another room where numerous Dell devices were on display, Dell hefted his new tablet, pointed out a curved monitor and obsessed over the 10-hour battery life of a new laptop with a detachable screen. A ruggedized PC for Afghanistan led to a story about a Pentagon general who asked for a “kill" zone, so the machine’s hard drive could be destroyed with a pistol shot during a fast getaway.

What Dell doesn’t yearn for, he said, is a life under the eyes of Wall Street.

“I went public in 1988 because we needed the capital, and we needed to be known."

And now? “Been there, done that," he said.

©2014/The New York Times

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