Arik Hesseldahl

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A Look Back at IBM’s Palmisano Era and the China Strategy

Saturday was Sam Palmisano’s last day on the job as CEO of IBM, and Sunday was Ginny Rometty’s first.

The New York Times published something of an exit interview with Palmisano over the weekend. It read a bit like a victory lap, and that’s not undeserved. The record books will show that IBM shares during the Palmisano era (2003-2011) rose by 125 percent; sales grew from $81 billion in 2002 to an expected $107 billion; and annual profits on a per-share basis went from $3.07 to a consensus forecast of $13.38.

But it got me to thinking about one of the highlights of the Palmisano era; one that generated a great deal of attention at the time: IBM’s decision to sell its personal computer division to Lenovo, the Chinese PC maker. It was a relatively small deal, worth less than $2 billion at the time, but it was a controversial move. Despite the fact that IBM wasn’t making much money on the business, IBM PCs, especially its ThinkPad line of notebooks, were generally considered to be pretty good.

Nearly seven years later, it’s worth noting that Lenovo is now the world’s second-largest PC vendor, behind Hewlett-Packard, having vaulted past Dell earlier this year, according to the market research firm IDC. It’s also worth noting that Lenovo is in fifth place in the U.S., behind HP, Dell, Apple and Toshiba, in that order.

IBM initially owned 15 percent of Lenovo and maintained a stake in that company until February of this year, when it sold its remaining 4.3 percent shares at a profit of more than a quarter-billion dollars.

Lenovo’s biggest shareholder is Legend Holdings, of which 36 percent is owned by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a.k.a. CAS Holdings, a state-controlled entity. The state has pared back its stake, though: When the IBM-Lenovo deal was announced in 2005, Lenovo was 57 percent state-owned.

There was a lot of natural controversy, and even national security concerns in 2005, about selling so red-blooded an American product as the IBM PC to China. But there was also a solid business case to consider. The PC business was a drag on earnings because of downward price pressure exerted by Dell and all the others, and it wasn’t even leading the market, as was the case with Hewlett-Packard, which engaged in some very public contemplation about spinning off its own PC division.

But there was also a potential strategic benefit, which Michael Useem, a professor a the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Management, pointed out at the time: Making friends with China.

By selling an underperforming asset to a buyer willing to take it and run with it, IBM got solid access to the exploding Chinese market. In paraphrased remarks to the Times, Palmisano concedes the point:

Palmisano says he deflected overtures from Dell and private equity firms, preferring the sale to a company in China for strategic reasons: the Chinese government wants its corporations to expand globally, and by aiding that national goal, IBM enhanced its stature in the lucrative Chinese market, where the government still steers business.

So how has that worked out? It’s a little hard to tell from reading Big Blue’s Byzantine financial statements. In fiscal 2005, the year the deal closed, IBM reported $18.6 billion, or about 20 percent of revenue, came from the Asia-Pacific region, including China.

And though it declined to provide specific dollar amounts, it said that year that sales in China had dropped by 19 percent, but after after stripping out the PC division, would have grown by 8 percent.

For the first nine months of fiscal 2011, IBM reported that the Asia-Pacific region accounted for exactly the same dollar figure — $18.6 billion — amounting to 24 percent of its overall sales of $77.4 billion, and there’s still a quarter to go. That would put Asia on track to account for a little less than a quarter of IBM’s revenue.

In its earnings statement, IBM also makes a point of calling attention to what it calls “growth markets,” which are generally the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China. These markets combined for 23 percent of sales in IBM’s most recent quarter.

This is about as close to understanding the size of IBM’s business in China as we’re going to get. On balance, it looks to have been a positive move, especially when you consider that if IBM had kept its PC division, it would have likely only gotten smaller and become more of a profit drag on a company that’s increasingly focused on high-margin businesses like services and consulting.

Nor can we judge by IBM’s headcount. Globally, as of the publication of its last annual report, IBM employed 426,751 people. But it has stopped providing a geographical breakdown. A report in the Times of India in 2010, mentioned by The Wall Street Journal, suggested that Big Blue’s headcount in India might be as high as 130,000; which, if true, would make it one of that country’s top 10 employers.

There is no question that IBM’s presence in China has grown. You can tell by the press releases. There was for example, a new IBM Research lab in Shanghai in 2008, and another in 2010. Just last month, IBM announced that it had closed a significant IT deal for a major health-care provider in Hong Kong, and another with a Chinese province to improve the safety of pork (which included a food-safety video I embedded below).

For better or worse, Palmisano will be remembered as the man who traded PCs for access to China. On balance, it seems to have been a good trade, but the jury is still out.

Tomorrow is the first business day of IBM’s Rometty era. Assuming she retires at age 60, a well-established IBM tradition, she’ll have about six years to make her mark. One wonders what she’ll be remembered for most.

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