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Private Equity Perspective

Will Silver Lake and its New Fund Save Dell?

The private equity firm faces a daunting challenge as smartphones and tablets take the lead over desktops and laptops

Silver Lake has played an increasingly significant role in technology investing over the last few years. Now that the Meno Park, Calif. private equity firm has raised a $10.3 billion fund, called Silver Lake Partners IV, which it says is the largest PE fund focused on tech ever, all eyes will be on the firm. For starters, will Silver Lake succeed in its $24.4 billion bid to take private Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL)? In Silver Lake's favor, its co-bidder is none other than Michael Dell, who pioneered direct sales in the personal computer business by selling upgrade kits for PCs out of his dorm room at the University of Texas at Austin, back in the early 1980s, when PCs were sold primarily through the retail channel.

Today, the question is, can anyone can save Dell now that PCs have long been commoditized and when consumers are choosing smartphones and tablets over desktops and laptops?

The Blackstone Group LP (NYSE: BX) doesn't seem to think so. Blackstone withdrew its bid for Dell in mid-April after research house IDC said that global PC unit shipments had fallen 14 percent in the first quarter, the steepest decline since the firm began tracking the data in 1994.

Blackstone may not have the stomach for Dell, but Silver Lake seems to have a knack for unleashing value where others have failed.

Consider the illustrious case of Skype Technologies SA. The Luxembourg startup founded in 2003 by Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström popularized Internet -- and video -- phone calls the world over. A darling of the tech world, it was bought by eBay Inc. (Nasdaq: EBAY) for $2.5 billion in 2005.

But despite eBay's successful track record in the purchase of online payment service PayPal, which it bought for $1.5 billion in 2002, the online auctioneer never did a good job of integrating Skype into its businesses. Adding insult to injury, eBay got into an intellectual property dispute with Skype's developers. As a result, the technology languished, and eBay didn't make much money off it.

Enter Silver Lake. In 2009, the PE firm acquired a 70 percent stake in Skype from eBay for $1.9 billion in a deal that valued the company at $2.5 billion. Then Silver Lake went to work on the Internet phone service. Within about 18 months, Silver Lake revamped Skype's management, settled the intellectual property issues and accelerated product development. Best of all, Silver Lake sold Skype to Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MFST) for $8.5 billion, about four and a half times its value when the Silver Lake-led consortium took it off eBay's hands.

Whether or not Silver Lake can work wonders on Dell remains to be seen, the PE firm is sure to do some interesting things with the new fund.


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