A dellion here, a dellion there, & pretty soon we’re talking about real money

microsoft-1978

Microsoft 1978: Would you have invested?

Here in lovely Austin, a growing bloom of progressive blue America encroaching steadily in to the red blight that has infested the Lone Star State for a generation, it’s not unknown to meet a real, full-blown dellionaire. That term may not be familiar to everyone so here’s a little background: back in the day, IBM had a big plant here. My whole family worked there at one time or another. But a few influential employees got together in the 80s and decided to found a new company focusing on IBM compatible computers, as Big Blue had recently standardized a diverse, chaotic PC market around the Intel 8086 architecture running a neolithic disc operating system from a small start up company called Microsoft. The founders of MSFT are shown above; would you have invested a big chunk of your life savings with those kids? Well, that’s another story.

This merry band of former IBM engineers and proven PC pioneers called their new company CompuAdd. It had every advantage. The best and the brightest designers, veteran quality assurance pros, sales execs with a big swinging book of business shipping the growing reseller channel, the latest in manufacturing methods, all sitting atop a cheap, youthful manufacturing and PC literate clerical workforce like a cherry on a money sunday. But they weren’t the only ones to see the writing on the wall, not by a long shot. There were several others in Austin alone. One IBM PC clone was even started up around the same time by a college kid who dropped out of UT and made a few PCs a week, essentially handcrafted and built to custom order. Which one of those box makers would you have invested in?

Well, if you chose CompuAdd, you lost every dime a long, long time ago. In fact it would have been hard for a retail investor to invest at all, CompuAdd never even made it to the NASDAQ. But if you bought Dell common stock on the secondary market after the IPO in 1988, at about $10-15 a share, and held on to it through the dot-com boom in the late 90s, with splits and appreciation, you bagged something like a 100 to one return. Which made the college drop out, Michael Dell, the first of many dellionaires.

Today Mr Dell has another idea, sort of a repeat, but this one isn’t drawing anywhere near the applause of that past miracle. In fact it’s causing a lot of neurosis and fear, from here in Central Texas to the elite boardrooms of Wall Street and beyond. What is it? Follow me below.

On Friday, Dell common stock was briefly halted then opened at $13.62 for a very good reason: Michael Dell and his zillionaire investment partner Silver Lake want to buy out everyone at 13 dollars and change and take the company private, the opposite of an IPO. Most analysts agree the plan is to hold it private for a few years, perhaps make some product innovations, and then take it public again at a much higher price making themselves more billions. If you happen to hold Dell shares and don’t want to sell them at that negotiated price, too bad!

Here’s the latest on where things stand as of Friday morning:

Under the terms of the new agreement, Michael S. Dell and his partner, the investment firm Silver Lake, would pay $13.75 a share. They would also pay a special dividend of 13 cents a share, while shareholders would still receive a regularly scheduled third-quarter dividend of 8 cents a share. …
In return, the special committee would agree to change the rules for victory by no longer counting Dell shares not cast in a special election as “no” votes. The current rules mandate that absentee votes count as “no” votes, creating a high hurdle.

In other words, Mr. Dell and his partner are working toward a dividend that will only matter to giant shareholders — presumably including some who have influence with or perhaps serve on the committee — in hope of changing the rules at the last second to suppress “no” votes. It’s all the rage, in politics and in business. If I worked on that committee and helped this deal go through, my next job application might be for unicorn trainer at Michael Dell’s home in Austin, affectionately called The Castle.

micheal_dell_The-Castle

The Castle: Looking out on Lake Austin, the computer czar’€™s granite and stainless steel abode, with its indoor pool and gym, sits behind high walls and touts tight security. Source: Homes of Billionaires/Forbes

Let me put this in class war perspective: there are thousands of people here in Austin and around the world who have put their entire professional lives into Dell Computer. Many have worked there 10 to 20 years, during which time they have built up a massive set of skills and corporate relationships with big-time customers. The vast majority are not dellionaires, not even close, most of those folks are long gone into happy, early retirement. The average veteran Dell employee today is middle-aged, making between 35k and 75k a year. But they’ve earned a few small perks by sheer length of service and loyalty. Vacation time, full vesting in retirement savings accounts, FSA and Flex accounts, qualification for Family Medical Leave Act, that kind of stuff.

Dell Computer doesn’t have a pension, naturally, they have a 401-k, and many of these veteran employees are way over exposed to Dell stock in those retirement accounts. If forced to sell at ~$13.75 some would do OK, many would barely break even, many would take a huge loss. But that’s just a skirmish in this war on workers.

One of the easiest, quickest ways to boost any mature company’s earnings, called Morganization in honor of the robber baron JP Morgan who helped invent it, is to cut benefits, reduce or eliminate raise schedules and bonuses, load more work on to whoever is left, and most important of all, shit can as many older folks as possible and back-fill those positions with younger workers who have never known a booming economy or robust job market: healthier workers who will work for a fraction of the cost and shittier benefits. The fear among many Dell employees I know is that that work could even be outsourced to call centers and third party sales contractors staffed by twenty-something kids, thus eliminating more full-time jobs. In this grim scenario, these long-time employees will lose not only a job they are great at, some will get burned on their 401-k, they’ll lose their entire livelihood, and perhaps worst of all, their healthcare at a time in their lives when they and their loved ones are likely to need it most.

No one can say what Michael Dell’s plans really are. Who knows? Maybe he’ll choose to keep veteran employees, or maybe there will be a voluntary buy-out deal, with extended benefits, severance pay, contract work, or job placement services for some of them. But if any of that worst case scenario comes to pass it will be exacerbated here in Texas by the policies of Rick Perry and his utlra-conservative cronies. A state heavily run by the Koch-ALEC cabals, a state that is hell bent on being a neolibertarian, temp-worker paradise. A state government which is dragging their collective feet on implementing even the most basic provisions of the Affordable Care Act in every way possible. A state which has proudly been on an unemployment/safety net cutting jihad for years. Sad to say some of the current employees might switch political affiliations, maybe Texas will become a tiny bit bluer when the blows really start landing one after another. But by then it will be way too late for a lot of them.

I suspect some may well drown in a financial-health scare crises I have experienced first-hand and was lucky to survive, one I would not wish on my most dedicated middle-class political rivals. Because statistics are indifferent, some will never recover, they’ll tumble helplessly out of the middle class and become permanent members of the growing have-nots. The consequences are staggering and far reaching for these folks — people will lose their homes, critical medical care, their kids will have to withdraw from college, every member of their family and many of their friends will be forced to shoulder the burden with them.

I wish I could help them. I wish I could offer some sage advice, say that it will be OK. But I can’t. If they have never experienced it for years on end, nothing in the past can even remotely prepare a once prosperous, middle-aged person for being suddenly, permanently poor in red America, in any way, let alone while facing a life-threatening medical condition or trying to support a family. Nothing.

All this uncertainty, all this unwelcome stress, all so that Michael Dell, one of the richest men on earth, a man who has more money than he could spend in 100 lavish lifetimes, has a shot at being just a little bit richer. Assuming he doesn’t run what’s left of the company bearing his name into the ground and walk away from the smoking wreckage just an ordinary billionaire.