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Why HP Needs to Make its $3 Billion Aruba Networks Deal Worthwhile

By Eric Volkman – Mar 17, 2015 at 2:20PM

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The company has done poorly with big-ticket acquisitions in recent years.

Well, well. Look who's back in the acquisition game -- Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). The company announced that it's agreed to buy wireless networking specialist Aruba Networks (NASDAQ: ARUN) for a total of around $3 billion. To put it mildly, HP hasn't had many successes with acquisitions over the last few years. It very much needs a win with this deal.

Big spender
Say this for HP -- it isn't stingy. The $24.67 per share it's paying for Aruba Networks is something in the neighborhood of 34% higher than where the stock traded before rumors of HP's interest started to bubble. That's a fat premium.

What might have contributed to this is Aruba Networks' Q2 results, which were announced at roughly the same time as that HP scuttlebutt started to make the rounds. For the quarter, revenue was up a muscular 21% on a year-over-year basis to $213 million, and the firm swung to a net profit (nearly $6 million) from a net loss of almost $11 million in Q2 2014. Both top and bottom line handily beat analyst estimates.

It's always good to buy into success, especially one that theoretically compliments an existing business. In its press release announcing the buyout, HP quoted Aruba Networks' CEO Dominic Orr as saying that the deal "brings together Aruba's best-of-breed mobility hardware and software solutions with HP's leading switching portfolio."

Out of pocket
In contrast to the lift Aruba Networks' stock received when whispers of the HP deal began to circulate, the tech giant's shares have slipped a bit since (this hasn't been helped by its recent Q1 earnings release showed a lackluster quarter that didn't impress investors).

A price slump is fairly normal when a company announces an expensive acquisition, no matter how attractive the asset. But I think there's more at work here.

HP doesn't have a great deal of credibility with acquisitions. Its last massive one, the 2011 purchase of UK-based data management concern Autonomy, cost it $11 billion -- nearly 80% above market value. This was a mess from almost the beginning, with the company soon taking a hard-to-believe $8.8 billion writedown for the purchase. In 2008, it spent $14 billion to buy IT services powerhouse EDS. Again, flop, and again, writedown, to the tune of approximately $8 billion four years later.

Earlier, HP effected a blockbuster $25 billion swallow of giant PC manufacturer Compaq in 2001. The company tried hard to make that one work, but with tough competition and mobile computing on the horizon, there wasn't much of a future in making PCs. HP booked a $1.2 billion writedown for that acquisition in 2012.

The Aruba Networks buy is certainly a sensible and complimentary move in theory ... but HP's recent history shows that the company, to put it charitably, really struggles to make its acquisitions work in practice.

This would be a particularly bad year to fumble an acquisition, and not only because of that unhappy track record. The firm is preparing to split into a pair of companies over the coming months -- HP, which will focus on hardware like PCs and printers, and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, which will target enterprise hardware, software, and services.

Investors are already skeptical that the split will produce any great change in the way the company(ies) do(es) business.  HP will have to be smart about integrating Aruba Networks effectively and profitability in order to help turn around that kind of perception.

Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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