29 September 2010

Southwest's Expansion M&A

M&A can work, just not for the elephants in the room. This week, I intertwine two topics I've discussed before in light of major events announced last week in the airline industry.

First, the good. I like to write about admirable companies; those that are profitable, well run, culturally hip, and leave a positive footprint on society. I wrote about Starbucks in great detail; and certainly Southwest Airlines is one that tops my list.

I've always had a soft spot for Southwest Airlines. They are the only airliner that hasn't lost money, filed bankruptcy, or use that awful hub and spoke model. They've posted profit every year of their existence, never had a single layoff (they didn't use their employees as pawns during the 9/11 crisis as others did), and still let your bags fly for free. Sure they make you find your own seat and sing showtunes every now and then. But its their playbook, and it works well. And they've done right to all of us. Have you ever priced out fares in markets that Southwest is in versus ones they aren't?

Southwest announced last week its buying Airtran for $1.4B. Its the largest risk in the company's history. They plan on eliminating many of Airtran's ancillary fees, increase flight routes, and adding 2,000 jobs over the next two years. The merger is predicated on growth and achieving greater scale. I think its smart. It's not too big that it's unmanageable, they can pool their plane orders, and Airtran's cost structure is actually almost comparable to Southwest. Despite my skepticism of large scale M&A, I think Southwest is looking at this as expansion M&A. An area that has at least has a chance to succeed.

Now the bad. They are the legacy, inefficient companies that look at M&A differently. They do deals despite the pitfalls I outlined in a prior post mostly for defensive measures. In this case, I'm referring to the United and Continental's $3B merger closing announced last week.

These companies, on the other hand, use lots of red ink (lost a combined $7B in 2008 and 2009), filed for bankruptcy 3 times, offer a customer experience that rivals governmental agencies, and require a 10 page manual to decipher all their fees. With their merger, they plan to cut heads, rationalize routes (i.e. delete), and try to somehow squeak out a profit in an obvious business model that doesn't work. Eliminating peanuts was the answer to your financial woes? Really ?

Who will prevail in the airline wars? I believe that the faster, nimbler horse will stay on top. Southwest has a sustainable business model based on efficiency, giving customers what they want, and treating their employees better than their executives. Southwest is looking to grow while UA/Continental is looking to retrench. Cutting costs is not a gateway to success, building a sustainable business model is. The basic rationale behind a deal will generally dictate whether they will work or not; Ones that attempt to defend market share, generally don't. Ones that are more offensive minded have a shot, in my opinion, if executed by a quality company.

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