Yes, I remember Dun and Bradstreet. In the old UK headquarters in High Wycombe, the “white elephant” building that was intended to become the global data centre (in the days when you concentrated data instead of distributing it) had a waxwork  figure in the foyer depicting a frock-coated Mr Dun (or was it Mr Bradstreet , or Lewis Tappan , the real founder?) collecting together the vital credit rating clues of the 1840s, as well as a discreet reminder that Abraham Lincoln had acted as as a data collector in Illinois in the 1850s. But the company I knew was a large and prosperous portfolio player, the very demonstrator for the theory that markets never go all bad at once, and that change in one can be nurtured from sustained growth in others. Under the portfolio, if I recall correctly, there nestled Nielsen in market research , IMS Health in medical market research, Donnelley in directories and market-leading marketing services, Cognizant in technology, Moodys in global rating services and Hoovers in company profiling. Never, you might say, was there a better example of a company with a portfolio of related interests who could interconnect these data collections to create fresh value in wider marketplaces – and take it all global as D&B itself was already going global. What a huge opportunity that now seems to create value through connecting hitherto unconnected  data values and effect the type of transformation that Thomson Reuters are now attempting.

But the voices that D&B listened to were not the voices that said things like this. They were the siren voices of the market, who said that short term values could be increased by selling off all these allied companies, organizing the buyback of shares on a major scale and creating a greater value in the parent than would have been possible if it had remained in the group. So all of these companies went, and mostly to private equity buyers. But this was still not enough in terms of value creation, so the majority of the overseas subsidiaries were franchised to local operators , with valuable operations like China, Russia, Australia, and Germany having their data leased out to previously competing market players, who would then pay fees and royalties and contribute to the global data holding (now around 200 million companies and 53 m  details of directors) in return for local re-use.

Markets and managements change, and over time D&B have bought back Hoovers ( revamped and without its research services ), and bought out their local franchise holders in places like China (where they now face a  local data privacy infringement case) and Australia. No one adds the loss of value from these buybacks to the long term calculation, but presumably at some point the company became aware that by paring itself to the operational bone in search of value, it was actually losing opportunity. Now we gather (Wall Street Journal, 31 July 2012) that the company has been seeking a buyer for the past year, and has now appointed financial advisors to “explore opportunities” that may or may not lead to a sale.

D&B know all about creating value. In 1963 they created the DUNS number , forcing consistency and their own metadata on a market they meant to dominate globally. In just the same way IMS Health created its proprietory BRICS system for measuring medical activity in a community. Here were the forefathers of dominant metadata systems, whose value creation (think of the recent Thomson Reuters argument with the European Union over its RICS metadata nomenclature) is the bedrock of value add in data driven systems. Given its birthright, D&B might have been the dominant player today in value-added workflow services and systems offering solutions in areas like procurement and customer profiling. Question: has it been competitively outflanked by Experian (compare performances in Brazil, for example, where D&B have been since 1933) and lost touch with a value growth plan beyond buying back the franchises it once leased out?

It seems to me sometimes as if value in the sense that markets use the word is in fact a bell curve. It is clear how the asset sales drove D&B’s valuation up one side of this and how it has peaked through an inability to add fresh value in the narrow front on which it now operates, without the advantages of platform integration and Big Data-style development. It is possible that in places where these factors have come together (insurance risk in the US would be an example, where Lexis Risk use these elements to dominate in a related but consumer-orientated marketplace) it may be very difficult, without very extensive strategic partnerships and joint venturing, for D&B to prevent itself from losing ground.

So does this mean sale at a discount to a private equity player, or are there trade buyers who would offer a premium. Before Sanford Bernstein suggest again that Reed Elsevier should sell Lexis Law and buy this, let me just say that, in my view, the only real potential fit is with Thomson Reuters, and they probably have enough on their plates without trying to absorb a $1.7 bn revenue player, or Bloomberg. Competitors would all face anti-trust issues, but enterprize software and systems players might be interested – and D&B already has good links with Oracle.

A friend reading the last two pieces on this blog – a sort of odd trilogy on valuations – kindly asked how the UBM announcement that it “might” sell its “data services” fitted into all of this. Surely, as with D&B, we do not sell data at the moment: instead we try the alchemy of value add. So I have looked at this too, and am now even more confused than when I started. For example, by “data services” UBM appear to mean the databases from which they once sourced their print directory products. Apparently they have found that advertising online earns such diminished CPMs that it is very difficult to sustain the services. Similarly with Tech Insights, which they acquired and seems to suffer from the same problem. Is this surprizing? Not at all, since unless that data can be recombined with other internal or third party content there is no real hope of getting a subscription value from it. Advertising online is always going to be dodgy territory and at best a subsidiary income source.

And what does all this demonstrate ? Is the portfolio model broken for good and cannot ever be mended ? Or maybe D&B were right fifteen years ago , as Thomson Reuters are now : you can build portfolio if the players you buy are data-related and if you have platform and distributed search going for you . When D&B lost faith in their original model they did not have the technologies to do the job . So they followed the equity market view of value , and the chronic short term thinking that results from that has brought them to this . Now comes a more interesting question : what is credit rating and how do you reconstruct the service future of this marketplace ?


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