Mergers as the Next COVID-19 ‘Solution’

A multi-billion dollar deal to buy a food deliverer. Talks of a big telecom merger. Reports of closed-door meetings suggest firms may be reviving M&A.

It’s the obvious move for leaders during an unprecedented pandemic: play defense. But recent talks of a few proposed big deals may suggest that the offense game is back—as one way to deal with the times.

Ride-sharing service Uber has offered to buy food delivery-app GrubHub for about $6 billion, for instance. Two major UK telecom companies, O2 and Virgin Media, recently announced they are in talks to merge in what could be a deal valued at ?10.25 billion ($12.9 billion). And there is speculation that Amazon might acquire AMC Entertainment Holdings, the largest U.S. movie-theater owner.

To be sure, none of these deals have been finalized. But event talks or rumors of them are significant, especially given the generally subdued merger activity in the market, says Kirsta Anderson, Korn Ferry’s global leader for culture and engagement. “Leaders can hunker down, or they can say let’s take advantage of our strong position,” she says. In the case of the telecom industry, experts say, there is clearly strength with growing demand from more people working from home and increased need for video-led remote communication.

Without doubt, even before COVID-19, a once-robust period of merger activity was slowing. Worldwide, the value of deal activity in the first quarter dropped 35% versus the last quarter of 2019, according to Dealogic data. Still, the activity was relatively hot—there were $3.9 trillion in mergers for the year, a near all-time record.

Before the lockdowns started, many companies were investigating opportunities to grow their business either through gobbling up other firms or by merging with others. “What I’ve seen is a fairly active building of M&A pipelines,” says Rory Singleton, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial Markets practice. Those behind-doors talks are likely still continuing, along with corporate contingency planning in light of the pandemic, Singleton says. Part of the impetus for continued discussions is that the near-global lockdown has put exceptional financial pressures on many companies. 

Combining two companies into one may help leaders gain economies of scale or at least the potential to run more efficiently—which is especially critical as firms emerge from the pandemic. “I think mergers may be a way out of the financial stress for some,” he says. The result of current closed-door deal talks may result in a future surge in M&A activity once normalcy returns. “I wouldn’t be surprised that many behind-closed-door talks come to fruition after the lockdown,” he says.

Of course, mergers aren’t a cure-all for financial problems. Joining any two companies together comes with its own set of challenges for leaders, even in normal times, Anderson says. During a pandemic, it could be even harder. The first part of making any merger work is combining culture well—which means combining two separate sets of employees to work together effectively with shared goals. “That requires a common understanding of what a good outcome looks like,” she says. “It’s about establishing common norms and values.”

One small but potentially helpful approach is to have employees share real-life stories of them at their best and at their worst, Anderson says. And this is something that can be done by video, which is especially useful during the current crisis. For example, a group meeting might involve an executive sharing an example of when the company was too bureaucratic. Or it could be a story of unexpected insights into better ways to do things. “Concrete stories get you beyond assumptions and prejudices,” Anderson says. “That’s better than slogans.”