• Telefonica
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Not Interested When Telcos Acquire Tech Companies? You Should Be

Stuart Ravens
Apr 12, 2017

A recent post on my LinkedIn news feed demonstrates how an emerging trend in the technology industry will affect the pace of utilities' digital transformation. Crucially, it had little to do with utilities: it was the acquisition of data startup Statiq by Telefonica. Statiq’s specialty is the analysis of geo-locational and other consumer data to assist with online marketing. Telefonica has 300 million customers worldwide and is rapidly building up its advertising business.

On first reading, it seems to have very little impact on the industry: "telco giant buys advertising data business" doesn’t sound like the kind of headline that will grab the attention of many utility CEOs. However, "a network operator—as part of its digitization strategy—has acquired a data and analytics business to help it develop products and services beyond its core supply-based business model" sounds a lot closer to home.

Historically, the growth curve of analytics companies would follow a similar path: each company starts with a great idea to tackle a gap in the market, gains initial funding, grows a significant client base, then gets acquired by a tech giant. IBM, SAP, and Oracle have all made analytics-focused acquisitions over the past decade, and the trend shows little sign of abating. But one tech company buying another tech company should have little impact on end users. The technology remains commercially available and, one would hope, being part of a larger organization means that there will be sufficient development resources to improve the product.

Utilities Are Steadily Becoming Tech Companies

However, there has been a significant shift in the types of companies investing in technology startups. Rather than tech giants swallowing up successful startups, utilities are getting in on the act. As we’ve said many times before, utilities are becoming technology companies. My colleague Alexandre Metz has analyzed different utilities’ digitization strategies, and both equity investments in and outright acquisitions of technology companies by utilities are becoming commonplace.

There will be significant implications for the industry should this trend continue: there are finite resources in terms of the number of successful startups, robust technologies, and excellent staff—particularly in the field of data and analytics. As a result, some technology-focused utilities will emerge with significant competitive strength. They will either sell these technologies to other utilities or, if it is to their advantage, keep the technologies for themselves. Does anyone expect Telefonica to share the market insights its Statiq acquisition will bring with its competitors?

Risks Abound When Utilities’ Digitization Strategies Involve Mergers and Acquisitions

So why refer to a telco-based acquisition at all? Telefonica brings into focus the fact that utilities are not the only companies undergoing a digital transformation. The competition for limited investment opportunities is heating up, and it will not be restricted to the utility industry. Utilities will have to compete against tech vendors and other industries to acquire at least some technology companies.

The main challenge for utilities is that they are not used to rapid change, and acquisitions have largely been restricted to other utility companies. There are significant risks involved in technology company acquisitions, to which most utilities have no previous exposure. Thus, technology acquisition will not be for every utility. However, those utilities that want to acquire technology companies must recognize the risks involved, understand how the target acquisition supports their corporate strategy, and ensure they have the requisite skills to succeed. Utilities must choose trusted advisors who understand their overall corporate strategy; have deep knowledge of target markets, companies, and technologies; can help identify important targets; have experience in technology-specific due diligence; and can support the successful integration of the acquisitions within their corporate structure.