Dell faces a tough road ahead

Taking Dell private is a bold move, but won’t ensure success. If you can’t recognise opportunities and execute properly as a public company, buying yourself shelter from investors only takes you so far. The bigger challenge will be rejiggering the corporate culture and core processes to make more innovation possible.

Why take this $24 billion gamble, which saddles the company with $15 billion in new debt?

Stagnated sales could be one reason. Since fiscal 2008 revenue has flat-lined: $61.1b, $61.1b, $52.9b, $61.5b and $62b. The company’s fiscal 2013 ends later this month and analysts expect sales to dip to $56.7b.

But the last five years have been hard on many computer shops. IBM’s 2012 sales of $104.5b, for example, were just a hair above the 2008 mark. The intervening years saw a high of $107b and a low of $96b. HP fared better in that period, using acquisitions to grow top line sales, but the fruits of that labour have left it with a confused strategy and a loss of $12b in 2012.

To reignite growth, Dell has been trying to diversify its products and services, an effort it kicked off a few years ago to become an “end-to-end technology solutions company.”

While Dell has managed to reduce its dependency on the cutthroat PC business, “Desktops and Mobility” still accounted for a whopping 54 percent of sales in the first nine months of FY13 (ended Nov. 2). The good news: Revenue for servers and networking grew 9 percent in this period, driven by the acquisitions of Force 10 Networks, SonicWall and other recent additions.

The question is whether Dell can scale these other core sectors fast enough. Revenue for “Mobility” (notebooks, mobile workstations and tablets) fell 18 percent for the first nine months of FY13 (mostly due to lower unit sales), and “Desktop” revenue was off 6 percent for the period (mostly from falling prices). By way of comparison, Apple racked up more in iPad sales last quarter than Dell mustered in Desktop sales over the first three quarters of FY13 — $10.6b in iPads vs. Dell’s $9.8b worth of PCs.

Add it up, and it looks like the company has its work cut out for it. No wonder Michael Dell wants to make the sausage without demanding shareholders looking over his shoulder. The question is, can Dell muster enough cultural and process change to capitalise on the newfound freedom?

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