How to survive the joys of a corporate integration

'Don't panic' is the catch-phrase for both IT managers and staff when a merger looms

Brian Fellows had seen it all before. When media conglomerate Thomson acquired NewsEdge five years ago it was the second time NewsEdge had been swallowed up by a larger competitor. The anxiety that swept through NewsEdge’s 20-person IT department was palpable. But Fellows, then the distributor of electronic news and the security manager, kept his head.

“The second acquisition — for me, at least — was a little more known,” Fellows recalls. “I’d been through the fires before. I knew it was coming. On the other hand, I was now a manager, and I knew that the higher up you are in the hierarchy the more likely [you are] to get peeled off.”

Fellows not only survived his company’s second acquisition, he prospered. His team grew from two people at NewsEdge to six at Thomson, which folded NewsEdge into its Dialog division. Even as four datacentres, including his, were being eliminated and their functions absorbed by exisiting Dialog facilities, his IT group became a primary network-support operation for the 900-employee division.

“My group had grown. My budget had grown. My responsibilities had grown,” Fellows says about Thomson Dialog, which he left after a few years to work for a smaller firm. “If I’d stayed there I would have probably ended up with ten people, managing the networking for one of the [company’s] major divisions.”

Fellows learned through experience what recruitment and human resources experts agree are the keys to prospering through an acquisition or merger: have patience; plan for the contingencies; maintain a co-operative attitude and practice problem-solving that can demonstrate your value to the combined company.

Mergers and acquisitions typically create high anxiety for employees

uncertain about their role in the newly combined company, but keeping cool and taking certain precautionary steps can go a long way towards ensuring a smooth landing, experts and mergers-and-acquisitions veterans say.

“Be patient,” advises Mitchell Marks, a professor at San Francisco State University’s College of Business and a consultant specialising in managing corporate transitions. Employees whose companies have been acquired or merged with another company typically have more time than they realise to assess the situation and explore their options, he says. Decisions about workforce restructuring and potential job cuts are usually several months away.

“The reality is that companies buy companies, and only after that do they really explore what they’ve purchased. The deal gets done, and then they do their homework,” says Marks, author of Joining Forces: Making One Plus One Equal Three in Mergers, Acquisitions and Alliances.

Even when redundancies are identified and targeted for cuts, employees shouldn’t panic. “If they’re having a 20% [reduction], there are still going to be 80% who stay,” he says. “So [the] odds are you’re not going to lose your job.”

Kevin Rosenberg, managing partner at BridgeGate, an executive recruiter specialising in technology, agrees that integration doesn’t happen overnight.

“There’s time to build relationships inside the acquiring company and show them that they acquired more than just market share or intellectual property, they also acquired a talent pool that’s worthy of consideration.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare yourself for possible upheaval. The next step after taking a deep breath is to dust off your CV and start thinking about your options.

“Prepare a contingency plan,” Marks advises. “Make a list of who you would call [about a job]. Update your resumé. You don’t have to send it out yet, but just get it ready.”

“If you’re the acquired party start getting your resumé ready,” Fellows agrees. “Have it ready to go, but don’t pull the trigger unless you get something so great that you would have left your [employer] anyhow.” If you immediately jump ship, you not only forgo potential opportunities at the newly merged company but also forfeit severance payments and benefits that are frequently offered when companies trim jobs after an acquisition.

“Through every acquisition or downsizing I went through, there were severance packages that came along with it. It’s kind of like leaving money on the table,” Fellows says.

Volunteer for any transition or integration teams that are formed after a merger or acquisition is consummated. Demonstrating a constructive attitude and valuable problem-solving skills improves your odds of surviving and even prospering in the newly combined company, experts say.

“There were lots of redundancies and lots of axes falling with each merger,” recalls Roy Hayward, an application support manager who has survived the consolidation of at least seven companies in fewer than six years with his current employer, Global Healthcare Exchange.

“Everyone would come to me to solve problems. As a technology person, when the companies merged, that made me very valuable to keep around,” Hayward says.

Back-office functions, especially networking and IT infrastructure, often play a significant role in integrating merged companies, BridgeGate’s Rosenberg says. In addition to the bonuses and other incentives frequently offered to key IT personnel to stay and help with the transition, mergers can provide an opportunity for IT pros to showcase their talent.

“During that period of time, it’s a great opportunity for the up-and-coming, highly ambitious, over-achiever types to show the acquiring company their personal value,” Rosenberg says.

“And it’s a great way to be noticed, whereas in your former life, you may have been taken for granted.”

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