IT involvement in mergers and acquisitions

The current economic news portends a potential serious downturn in growth.  This usually means acquisitions and mergers.  The purchase of Bear Stearns by JPMorgan Chase is one recent example. Anytime two companies merge, systems and networks must be quickly integrated.  The success of this integration depends on how well the two IT Management teams consolidate their technology, but more importantly how well they consolidate their culture.

I once worked for an outfit that had two completely different cultures.  One was the outside group consisting of the upper level management in the corporate HQ and the other subsidiaries in various parts of the country.  Then there was our little group - about 150 to 200 of the brightest and probably most arrogant techs and sales geeks of our day.  We were self-absorbed, living in our own little world and not giving a damn about anything but making gobs of money.

The reason we had two cultures is because we had recently been acquired.  It is a typical story for an ambitious company: in the right place at the right time with people who knew how to take advantage of emerging opportunities.  Venture capital is brought in to help fund growth, the investors wait patiently for a few years for either an IPO or to sell to the highest bidder.  The market wouldn't take an IPO so we got sold.  It was a shock and a blow to our ego.

A visit from the new owners 

One day we were paid a visit by the new owners.  We were told that we needed to merge our operations with another subsidiary.  It was obvious from the start that the sister company had a completely different culture than we did.  As software distributors, we shared many of the same product lines and dealt with many of the same technologies.  We both did the same thing - sold tech products to computer retailers across the country and around the world.

The merger failed miserably.  We simply could not get along.  There were too many egos and too many superstars.  Eventually our West coast outfit was closed in favor of the East coast company.  That group was closed down not more than a few years later as another West Coast distributor was acquired by the parent company and operations transferred back to Southern California.  And that's the story of Softeam, SDS and Ingram Micro in a nutshell.

I'm only telling this story to illustrate a point.  The details of who was involved are not important.  It could have been any high-tech startup and growth company.  It could have been a company from your past with a similar background.  It could have been AOL and Time Warner, Oracle and PeopleSoft, AT&T and Cingular, Oracle and BEA, Sprint and Nextel, Oracle and Siebel, HP & Compaq. It could even be the company you work for now.

Most mergers fail for one reason 

The point is, the merger in my story failed not because it wasn't a good idea.  We had a lot in common.  The merger failed because we couldn't accept each other's culture.  Some mergers succeed and some fail, but almost all struggle with one major component - the integration of diverse cultures.  It starts at the top and moves all the way down to the lowest levels of the tech support staff.  Networks and systems need to be merged or one scrapped in favor of another.

So what does this have to do with you and me?  I have been through two mergers in my career.  Both of them failed.  It was a painful experience for all involved.  A lot of careers suddenly took directions that were not originally intended.  Jobs were lost, families moved, and lives changed forever all because two corporate cultures could not be integrated.

Have you been though a recent acquisition or merger? Was it successful?  What was your involvement?  Was there a sudden increase in the stress level in your life?  How did you handle it?  What could have been done better?  I'm curious.  Oh, by the way, I'm especially interested in international transactions and how that culture difference was managed.