For starters, a booming stock market encourages mergers, which can spell trouble. Deals done with highly rated stock as currency are easy and cheap, but the strategic thinking behind them may be easy and cheap too. Also, mergers are often attempt to imitate: somebody else has done a big merger, which prompts other top executives to follow suit.
A merger may often have more to do with glory-seeking than business strategy. The executive ego, which is boosted by buying the competition, is a major force in M&A, especially when combined with the influences from the bankers, lawyers and other assorted advisers who can earn big fees from clients engaged in mergers. Most CEOs get to where they are because they want to be the biggest and the best, and many top executives get a big bonus for merger deals, no matter what happens to the share price later.
On the other side of the coin, mergers can be driven by generalized fear. Globalization, the arrival of new technological developments or a fast-changing economic landscape that makes the outlook uncertain are all factors that can create a strong incentive for defensive mergers. Sometimes the management team feels they have no choice and must acquire a rival before being acquired. The idea is that only big players will survive a more competitive world.
The Obstacles to Making it Work
Even if the rationale for a merger or acquisition is sound, executives face major stumbling blocks after the deal is consummated. Potential operational difficulties may seem trivial to managers caught up in the thrill of the big deal; but in many cases, integrating the operations of two companies proves to be a much more difficult task in practice than it seemed in theory.
The chances for success are further hampered if the corporate cultures of the companies are very different. When a company is acquired, the decision is typically based on product or market synergies, but cultural differences are often ignored. It's a mistake to assume that personnel issues are easily overcome. For example, employees at a target company might be accustomed to easy access to top management, flexible work schedules or even a relaxed dress code. These aspects of a working environment may not seem significant, but if new management removes them, the result can be resentment and shrinking productivity.
Cultural clashes between the two entities often mean that employees do not execute post-integration plans well. And since the merger of two workforces often creates redundant functions, which in turn often result in layoffs, scared employees will act to protect their own jobs, as opposed to helping their employers realize synergies.
And sometimes, the expected advantages of acquiring a rival don't prove worth the price paid. Say pharma company A is unduly bullish about pharma company B’s prospects – and wants to forestall a possible bid for B from a rival – so it offers a very substantial premium for B. Once it has acquired company B, the best-case scenario that A had anticipated doesn't materialize: A key drug being developed by B may turns out to have unexpectedly severe side-effects, significantly curtailing its market potential. Company A’s management (and shareholders) may then be left to rue the fact that it paid much more for B than what it was worth.
More insight into the failure of mergers is found in a highly acclaimed study from McKinsey, a global consultancy. The study concludes that companies often focus too intently on cutting costs following mergers, while revenues, and ultimately, profits, suffer. Merging companies can focus on integration and cost-cutting so much that they neglect day-to-day business, thereby prompting nervous customers to flee. This loss of revenue momentum is one reason so many mergers fail to create value for shareholders.