By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The number of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley familiar with the work of Harold Geneen would hardly fill a 140-character tweet. After all, Geneen wasn’t a technologist, the inventor of a new computing language or the founder of a seminal startup. He was the original M&A machine – the man whose deal-making 50 years ago turned ITT into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate.
As tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, Rakuten and Google mature and canvass the globe for businesses they can buy that are a few steps removed from their core activities, Geneen’s story is becoming more relevant. These titans of the internet age are embarking on diversification strategies not entirely dissimilar from those of Geneen’s ITT and its many followers, including LTV, Transamerica and Gulf+Western.
Just tick through some of the recent techland shopping excursions. Front of mind, there’s Apple’s potential $3.2 billion pickup of Beats Electronics. It makes headphones not telephones and tablets, from which the company founded by the late Steve Jobs derived three-quarters of its revenue in its most recent quarter. Still, the company can make some sort of industrial case for Beats, given its streaming music service.
That’s less the case with Google’s purchase of Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude drones. The search giant run by Larry Page argues that both companies “share a profound optimism about the potential for technology to improve the world.” According to Google: “It’s still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation.”