Alibaba’s IPO means a big cash hoard, big ambitions

September 16, 2014, 10:00 AM UTC
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China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba is slated to become the newest entrant to the IPO club with an expected valuation of 24 times future earnings in the public markets, which would net it almost $24 billion in cash and make it one of the largest technology companies in the world.

Investors are understandably excited about this prospect, but more to the point, the company will likely be able to borrow even more money for acquisitions, resulting in a $50 billion war chest that Alibaba intends to use to make rapid-fire acquisitions. According to Bloomberg, the company’s post-IPO shopping list could include messaging companies Snapchat and Kik, movie and television studio Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF), Internet TV provider Roku, cloud computing companies Rackspace (RAX) and Akamai (AKAM), and even Yahoo (YHOO)

What all this points to is that Alibaba has the ambition beyond its core business of e-commerce to become a technology conglomerate along the lines of a Google (GOOG) or Facebook (FB), which have acquired many companies over the past few years in areas as diverse as robotics, thermostats and smoke alarms, fitness tracking, education, hardware, biotech, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

Alibaba is already making acquisitions in China and investments abroad, including in car-service app provider Lyft and online retailer Shoprunner, stating in its prospectus that “We have made, and intend to continue to make, strategic investments and acquisitions to expand our user base, enhance our cloud computing business, add complementary products and technologies and further strengthen our ecosystem.”

The conglomerate model was wildly popular during the 1970s and 1980s but eventually fell out of favor as companies found it difficult to integrate and manage different lines of business. In the dynamics are different, and that is why Alibaba has a shot at success –with some caveats.

On the plus side, the tech arena has the potential for integration and crossover applications naturally built in. For example, Lions Gate could make exclusive content for Alibaba, which the company could then deliver over the content-delivery network of Akamai and provide to consumers over Roku. Moreover, Alibaba could integrate e-commerce interactivity with content to enable viewers to buy products while watching a show, and to create a dialogue with other viewers about the show via Snapchat. This type of self-contained universe can provide tremendous value to consumers, and by extension, tremendous profits to Alibaba.

The challenge here is in the complexity and cost of integrating all this in a seamless way, both on the technological as well as corporate side. Conglomerates are big entities and can become unwieldy and difficult to manage from a business perspective. How should the pricing of services between divisions of a conglomerate be determined? Would it be more profitable to provide those services to outside parties at arms length instead? And how would that impact the competitiveness of the parent company? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed.

There is also the risk that a particular acquisition may not integrate well with the rest of the company and would then require Alibaba to have the right expertise and resources to run profitably as a standalone line of business. A good example of this might be Intuit (INTU), a maker of tax software, whose business does not automatically seem to fit Alibaba’s core platform but which is one of the companies also rumored to be in Alibaba’s sights.

Companies like Google and Facebook have performed extremely well but it is hard to tell how much of that success is attributable to organic growth in their core businesses and how much stems from the synergies realized through acquired technologies. The technology conglomerate model is still in its early days and investors waiting eagerly for Alibaba’s IPO should keep that in mind.

The Chinese giant may well be a great investment in the e-commerce space, but if it does carry through on its plans to acquire several companies across the technology spectrum, it may morph into a different type of company altogether, and the results of that are difficult to predict. Such uncertainty contains both risk and promise, but whatever the outcome, it should certainly be priced into the stock when the opening bell rings.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius. Sanghoee sits on the Board of Davidson Media Group, a mid-market radio station operator. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is also the author of two thriller novels. Follow him @sanghoee.