Michael Dellís Play Nice But Win: Business & Growth Strategy (Part II)

Private. Now public. Private. Now public again. Did this strategy work?  A $100 billion enterprise is the answer.

Michael Dell has grown his eponymous company over 37 years and has faced many interesting challenges during that time—and has kept adapting.

On May 3, 1984, Dell Computer Corporation, doing business as “PC’s Limited,” was incorporated [76]. Dell was born in 1965, so he founded the company when he was only 19. It’s an interesting personal story interwoven with the early days of the personal computer market, involved IBM, Microsoft, and Apple.

Due to the rapid growth of the company, by 1987 he was looking for financing options. Another important date was October 19, 1987—also known as “Black Monday.” Dell recounts that “…the miraculous happened: out of literally hundreds of financings that were in process that Black Monday, our was the sole survivor.” [158] 

As the company grew Michael Dell looked at ways to leverage the company brand. Not everything worked. Their early attempt at the server market failed. He conceded defeat: “Compaq kicked our ass.” [194] Why? The core reason was that “the customers buying this type of product, bigger companies, banks, government agencies, didn’t trust us yet when it came to this product.” [194]

The misfires are part of the entrepreneurial process. Dell notes that, “…growth covers up a lot of sins” [202]. Failure is not a problem. He points out that, “How successful you are is really a function of how well you deal with failure—and how much you learn from it.” [203]

You can’t always anticipate everything. As he colourfully notes, “In business you can surround yourself with the smartest people, you can plan ahead with the greatest care and intelligence, but one thing you can count on is that from time to time you’ll get smacked in the face with a flounder—aka something you’d never anticipated.” [93]

A milestone was on June 22, 1988, when the company listed under “DELL” on NASDAQ at $8.50/share. This was a great measure of success for a four-year old company.

What was at the core? In 1998 he wrote a statement of values:

  1. The Business: Provide high-quality products and excellent customer service
  2. The People:Treat people with respect
  3. The Process: Employees will learn and be growing at all times
  4. The Standard: Be the best at everything we do! [216]

The company thrived as a public company for many years. But Dell felt it was losing its competitive edge. As he explains, “I felt strongly that going private would give us a chance to do good for our customers along with doing well for Dell.” [240]. So, on October 30, 2013, the company went private with Michael Dell leading a buyback of shares.

But this did not happen without enduring the hijinks of wealthy New York City-based financier Carl Icahn who loves to make money by, in effect, by blackmailing, sorry greenmailing, companies. How does this work?  “Sometimes—and this got more and more effective as his [Carl Icahn] reputation and wealth grew—all he had to do was threaten to take over a company in order to get it to buy out his shares at a big markup…” [92]

Even with Michael Dell’s success he still needs what money can’t buy: vindication. Throughout the book, he uses a lot of ink to lambaste, ridicule and vilify Carl Icahn to demonstrate that he was unfairly maligned in the press. In short, Michael Dell wants to make abundantly clear that he was, in fact, the good guy in this particular tale.

Dell characterizes Icahn as a “greedy pirate” [98], who would “repeatedly lie on national television” [101] and had a “complete lack of moral fiber” [101]. My personal favourites: Dell considered him a “circus clown” who didn’t know whether Dell made “French fries or nuclear power plants” [128] and that Icahn was “like a zombie that you couldn’t kill!” [292]

Despite Icahn’s machinations, Dell was committed to going private. He explains: “We [Michael Dell along with senior executive, Jeff Clarke] both saw going private as a way of liberating the company—of reinvigorating the entrepreneurial spirit of the company’s origins, of getting much more aggressive on gaining share, of investing in R&D and adding sales capacity.” [47]. After much struggle, they succeeded in taking the company private.

Another important milestone was the massive merger of Dell with EMC on Oct 12, 2015. EMC Corporation, based in Hopkinton, MA, focused on developing and selling data storage and data management hardware and software. Dell and EMC became one company with over 150,000 team members as “Dell Technologies” and led by Michael Dell [280]. The merger worked well, the two companies were greater than the sum of the parts, and sales were close to $73B [289].

After having been public, then private, Dell decided to go public again. So, on Dec 28, 2018, Dell went public again [297] – but as a very different company. According to Dell, “…we continue to deliver innovation, long-term vision, and integrated solutions from the edge to the core to the cloud. We’ve created Dell Technologies to be our customers’ most trusted partner in their digital transformation.” [297]

Is it working?  As of Jan 31, 2021, Dell recorded their highest-ever revenues, profits, and cash-flow—the enterprise value increased to over $100B [300].