UK: EDITORIAL - BIG CAN BE BEAUTIFUL BUT IS IT ALWAYS BEST?

UK: EDITORIAL - BIG CAN BE BEAUTIFUL BUT IS IT ALWAYS BEST? - Mergers. They are everywhere, moving through the financial sector, into the world of pharmaceuticals and on to the world of retailing. No industry is immune. Why?

by RUFUS OLINS.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Mergers. They are everywhere, moving through the financial sector, into the world of pharmaceuticals and on to the world of retailing. No industry is immune. Why?

Globalisation and competition is only part of the reason. When we look back on this frenzy, other less edifying motives will be discussed. Simple ego and vanity are playing a significant part in some of biggest deals in industrial history.

In this issue we ask whether companies are growing too big. Not just for themselves but for their employees, customers and shareholders. In an entertaining debate, Oxford's John Kay argues they are heading for a fall, while McKinsey's Lowell Bryan says the world is changing. The views of leading players such as Reed Elsevier's Nigel Stapleton, Lloyds TSB's Peter Ellwood, Unipart's John Neill and Virgin's Richard Branson demonstrate the diversity of views on this important topic.

There are no easy answers. But one should not forget the human agenda.

Which big company chief executive does not want to make a dramatic and direct impact on the business? How many ways can they do that? A merger means they can be heroes and top dogs in even more powerful organisations.

It is easy to see why some are attracted by the idea. It is exciting, as well as offering potential rewards.

Feeding into this psychology are the investment banks, who are now in the business of selling deals. And there is little problem raising the capital to finance them. There is real pressure from the stock market.

Growth expectations have become so high that a merger looks the only way to keep winning. Pressures are particularly high in the pharmaceutical sector in the face of government price pressure and expiring patents.

A deal that offers cost-savings can be the only sure way to feed the appetite for earnings growth.

The danger is that chief executives and their advisers underestimate the difficulties of integration. Who will do what in the new organisation?

In which areas will one company lead and the other follow? Today the old conglomerate takeover deals are derided like kipper ties and wide lapels.

Now deals are invariably presented as strategic and synergistic.

But does one need to do a mega-deal to be a world player? Two truly global companies, McDonald's and Coca-Cola, have managed without. Closer to home, Psion, with modest operations outside the UK, can also claim a place at the world table. Still, many companies do not want to be left out of the dance in case the music stops and they find themselves without a partner.

They may be too close to notice that some of the couplings will end badly, destroying jobs and value instead of creating them.

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