Palm hands Wall Street an unusual deal

Deal with Elevation Partners means shareholders will get a chunk of cash, but the smart-phone maker will be taking on debt.

Although there have been a raft of deals with private equity firms buying out public tech companies, Palm's recent deal with Elevation Partners is breaking new ground.

With more traditional buyout deals, shareholders get cash, typically at a slight premium over where the stock is trading, with all future risks and rewards going to the private equity firm. Deals of that ilk have been announced in recent weeks for cellular carrier Alltel, telecommunications equipment maker Avaya and reseller CDW. On occasion, private firms buy just a stake in a company, adding cash to the firm's coffers.

Evolution of Palm

Earlier this week, Palm announced that it is selling a 25 percent stake to private-equity firm Elevation Partners for $325 million.

January 1992
Jeff Hawkins launches Palm Computing.

September 1995
U.S. Robotics acquires Palm Computing.

May 1997
3Com acquires U.S. Robotics, in the process gaining Palm.

March 2000
Palm is spun off from 3Com as a separate public company.

November 2001
Palm announces plans to spin off its operating system unit as a separate public company.

June 2003
Palm announces plans to buy Handspring.

October 2003
Operating system subsidiary PalmSource is spun off, Palm is renamed PalmOne.

December 2006
Palm reacquires the rights to make changes to PalmOS from Access.

June 2007
Palm announces an equity investment from Elevation Partners.

Under the Palm deal, announced Monday, Elevation is buying 25 percent of the company. However, while billed as a recapitalization, Palm will actually end up with less capital than it had before the investment as the company returns $940 million in cash to shareholders.

Palm and Elevation are quick to tout the benefits of their approach: Shareholders get $9 a share in cash--more than half of Palm's current share price, while at the same time retaining a 75 percent interest in the company.

To make that happen, Palm is handing over not just the $325 million that Elevation is investing, but also the proceeds of a $400 million debt offering as well as some of its own cash.

Wall Street has generally reacted favorably--Palm shares have risen more than 9 percent since the deal was announced. However, the move to add debt to the balance sheet has raised some eyebrows.

Palm is already a small firm competing against larger device makers, such as Motorola and Nokia. And, though Palm's business is not typically capital intensive, the company does have to manage inventory, particularly as it launches new products.

Longtime Palm watchers recall problems the company encountered back in 2001 that led to a glut of inventory, causing Palm to burn through a substantial amount of its cash reserves.

Financial analyst Charlie Wolf said he was surprised Palm chose to return so much cash to shareholders, wondering why the company didn't choose a lower amount, say $7 or $8 per share.

"Nine dollars a share seemed pretty outrageous to me," said Wolf, a longtime Needham & Co. analyst who is now president of his own company, Wolf Insights.

That said, Wolf noted that Palm has plenty of cash on hand as well as tax benefits that mean that, provided its business remains on track, its cash flow should be more than ample to pay off the interest on its new debt.

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