Automation Global Economy: How to Survive Merger Madness

How Do You Survive After an Acquisition? Update Your Skills, Learn the Business Side, and Take Charge of Your Own Career

By Walt Boyes

As the economy continues to improve, for automation companies at least, we have begun seeing really big mergers such as ABB's acquisition of Thomas and Betts. More are on the horizon. My little voices tell me that at least two of the top 10 automation companies are actively seeking new ownership right now.

For workers in the process industries, whether you are an end user or a vendor employee, these mergers are seriously problematic. For the companies involved, there are potential problems too.

Clayton Christensen, author of Crossing the Chasm and The Innovator's Dilemma and Harvard Business School's guru on mergers and acquisitions, said in an article in the March 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review that most mergers fail, and that the failure rate is between 70% and 90%. The acquiring company believes it will get access to new markets, new channels, new customers and new talent. In reality, what happens is the newly purchased company gets squeezed into the acquiring company mold, raising costs and reducing the benefit of the acquisition. He goes on to explain how to avoid those obvious screw-ups, but he didn't, for me at least, explain satisfactorily why companies continue to do them.

In the process industries, both among end-user companies and automation vendors, a little looking will produce case studies that clearly meet Christensen's dictum. And yet, mergers continue, often without any meaningful thought or planning behind how to achieve the economies of scale, additional revenue, new markets and new channels without destroying what made the acquisition attractive to begin with. Having been through the mergers and acquisitions process many times as a consultant, a participant and sometimes a victim, I can vouch for the correctness of Christensen's ideas.

So what do workers in the process industries, end users and vendors alike, do to survive the Procrustean bed of "rationalization" that happens after acquisition? How do you become one of the human assets that are retained?

We all should know the answers by now.

Join professional organizations, such as ISA, AWWA, WEF, InstMC and other professional organizations with a global reach like IEEE. And don't just join and read the magazine every month. Each of those organizations offers, at ridiculously low prices, training for members on every subject germane to your job. Take it, either from those organizations or from third parties. Don't let your skills get stale.

And while you're at it, learn things other than the technical track. To survive the current round of merger mania, you need to know how the company makes money, and that's a skill that is as important as knowing how to make product. In the future, companies are going to be run more tightly integrated with the business requirements. It will be active control by business, not process variables. If you don't know how to do that, you lose.

And don't expect your employer to pay for all this learning. Employers' point of view is that it is your knowledge, so you should pay for it. Whether we agree or not is beside the point.

So if you want to survive the coming round of merger madness, you will need to take charge of your own career, your own learning and your own professional development. Years ago, I wrote of receiving a letter from an engineer who'd just been laid off after 35 years with the same employer. He asked me for help preparing a resume. I was deeply saddened by what I finally had to tell him—that he'd better get one of those blue vests with the orange piping and practice saying, "Welcome to Wal-Mart."

Don't let that happen to you.