Analysts Warn VARs: Dell's Future Is Rocky

Now set for Aug. 2, the vote pits Dell CEO Michael Dell against investor Carl Icahn as they both fight for two different visions of the company.

Caught in the crossfire are Dell channel partners, which nearly unanimously are rooting for Michael Dell to emerge victorious from next week's vote. Partners are in line with CEO Dell's goal of taking his company private and focusing on growth instead of shareholders value -- an Icahn priority.

"There are going to be some significant downstream effects on [Dell] partners no matter what happens with the vote," said IDC analyst Crawford Del Prete. He said VARs should "pay attention to what happens in the next two weeks, because no matter what Dell is going to be a very different company in six months," he said.

Meanwhile, Dell is stuck in shareholder-vote limbo and is putting on the best face it can to partners. "During the pendency of the transaction, we maintain an unwavering focus on our customers and our commitment to provide you, our channel partners, with a superior experience and the products and solutions to drive your business," wrote Dell's Greg Davis, vice president and general manager of Dell's global commercial channels, in an email sent to partners Wednesday.

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Dell VAR partners say they have seen that focus first-hand. "From my perspective, Dell hasn't missed a beat despite all its distractions," said Michael Goldstein, president and CEO of LAN Infotech, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Dell partner.

Nevertheless, analysts say Dell's future is far from settled, and no matter the vote's outcome, the company's future is a moving target.

Here is a round-robin of analyst opinions about Dell.

"Dell is going to be hitting some very bumpy air no matter what," IDC's Del Prete said.

"VARs need to have a plan 'B,'" said IDC's Crawford. "If customers are asking a lot about Dell, you need to have an alternative enterprise hardware and software plan to start talking about."

Under one scenario, Del Prete said, if Dell and Silver Lake win the shareholder vote, channel partners are going to see a new reinvigorate Michael Dell willing to make bold moves fast -- without worrying about impact on share prices. "Look for Michael Dell to change things up quickly. Maybe he'll get rid of the client PC division, maybe not, but whatever he does he'll act soon."

Icahn's CEO Pick Will Have Ripple Effect On Management Icahn might actually move more cautiously than Michael Dell when it comes to changes or selling of divisions of the company in order to keep shareholders confident in his leadership and the company's direction. But moving slow only applies to products and services. Ousting Michael Dell and replacing the board will happen as fast under Icahn's leadership.

Icahn has promised a management makeover from the CEO to the board of directors. Whoever Icahn picks as CEO, IDC's Del Prete said, it will have a ripple effect on management. "The Dell faces that work with channel partners might not change, but their bosses will be different," he said. In an effort to boost profits and pay down debt, an Icahn-owned Dell might be less likely to be price competitive, Del Prete said. That could mean VARs will have slimmer margins.

Dell is trying very hard to reinvent itself as an enterprise solutions provider fashioned after HP and IBM. That transition could include Dell jettisoning its low-end server and client PC business, said Frank Gillett, analyst with market research firm Forrester.

Gillett compared Dell to IBM, which bought PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2002 -- a deal that complicated IBM's vendor alliances.

"Its go-to-market strategy could be modeled after a company like IBM and include more of its own sales force," Gillett said.

IBM's acquisition of PwC helped Big Blue bolster an area of comparative weakness in the company, planning and installing high-end software for corporate accounting, dealing with customers, and managing corporate supplies. Sound familiar?

Ben Bajarin, analyst with market research firm Creative Strategies, doesn't think a Michael Dell-owned Dell will differ radically from one controlled by Icahn. He says Dell's strongest growth is with servers and server solutions. "Those are the company's strongest suits. If anything, it will double-down on that part of the business," Bajarin said.

On client PCs, Bajarin said the margins may be thin, but a high volume of PC sales still make it a lucrative part of Dell's core business. Bajarin said that Icahn will seek to keep the company strong by not tinkering with profit centers. Icahn says if he is given control of Dell, he will find $2 billion to take out of the company and reinvest in more profitable parts of Dell. Under that scenario, underperforming products and services might not have a bright future, Bajarin said.

His advice to Dell VARs is to have a good backup plan just in case. "Either way Dell will be a very different company six months from now," Bajarin said. "It's not going to be business as usual no matter what happens."

Whichever way the vote goes, Michael Dell says he is okay with whatever shareholders decide. "The decision is now yours. I am at peace either way and I will honor your decision," wrote Michael Dell in an open letter to shareholders on Wednesday.

The buyout vote is expected to be extremely close.