McKinsey Quarterly

A lighter touch for postmerger integration

Some Asian companies take a different approach to M&A outside their borders.

When it comes to acquisitions, some Asian companies are forging a novel path through the thicket of postmerger integration: they aren’t doing it. Among Western companies, the process can vary considerably from deal to deal, yet it’s an article of faith that acquirers must integrate quickly. Otherwise, the logic goes, they may lose the momentum of a deal before they can capture the synergies that justified it.

But in Asia, a sizable proportion of acquiring companies aren’t rushing to become hands-on managers. With over 1,900 deals, valued at $145 billion, in 2009 alone, the trend is worth noting.1 In a recent review,2 we estimated that roughly half of all Asian deals deviated significantly from the traditional postmerger-management model, which aims for rapid integration and the maximum capture of synergies. Over a third of the Asian deals involved only limited functional integration and focused instead on the capture of synergies in areas such as procurement, with an overwhelming emphasis on business stability. An additional 10 percent attempted no functional integration whatsoever.

By the standards of developed markets, at least, this approach is counterintuitive. When potential synergies aren’t captured in an initial postmerger shake-up, they become all the more elusive the longer an acquirer waits. Replacing an existing management team person by person through natural attrition, for example, could take years. Delaying integration could risk losing prominent customers to competitors or undermine confidence in a merger.3 So why buy a business and then leave it substantially alone?

The answer is that some Asian acquirers often have priorities that are quite different from those of their Western counterparts. More accustomed to organic growth than to M&A growth, executives at Asian companies are understandably keen to minimize the short-term risk of failure. Their calculus trades the benefits of immediate synergies for the advantages of expanding into new and unfamiliar geographies, product lines, and capabilities. These inexperienced acquirers also gain some breathing room as they learn how to operate effectively in new and unfamiliar situations. In many cases, they are acquiring a complete business in a new geography, so value creation depends on the stability and growth of the business—not, for instance, on broad cost reduction efforts. Yet this Asian approach also leads to the accumulation of some difficult choices around integration.

It is probably too early to judge the implications for value creation. Traditional M&A wisdom dictates that a hands-off approach to postmerger management is seldom the best long-term choice. Later on, Asian acquirers that have taken this approach will probably need to pursue more comprehensive integration programs, which will be all the more challenging as a result of the delay. However, if acquirers do eventually integrate successfully, they will have lowered the short-term postacquisition risks without seriously compromising longer-term benefits.

Different motivations

Companies in Europe and the United States share a common approach to integration, growing out of their need to meet the requirements for adequate internal controls as publicly listed companies and for quarterly reports. Investors typically expect rapid evidence that managers are actively coordinating the integration effort so that it will produce synergies. Slow and cautious are words rarely heard in integration-planning sessions, though a rising debate among Western analysts weighs the risks created by the pressure to demonstrate short-term earnings.

By contrast, Asian acquirers often feel much less pressure to show short-term results to the capital markets. The reason is less frequent reporting requirements or different ownership structures, such as family or state control. Contrary to common perceptions, these deals are seldom purely financial portfolio investments: all but 5 percent of those we examined had a clearly articulated commercial rationale, similar to what might be expected in a Western acquisition, for how they would generate synergies. For half of the deals, the disclosed rationale was expansion into a new market (including a new geography),4 an adjacent business line, or a related business area.5 For a further 20 percent, it was the acquisition of a new organizational capability, and for an additional 18 percent, access to scarce resources, vertical integration to ensure security of supply, or both.

The more hands-off approach allows an acquirer to step into geographies or businesses where it has limited experience and where its managers perceive a high likelihood of difficulties in a full integration. The acquirer therefore faces a difficult trade-off between maximizing returns and minimizing the risk of failure. In all these cases, a prudent acquirer with little or no experience in the target’s geography or industry may well decide that the benefits of rapid integration are outweighed by the risks of damaging the sources of value that inspired the deal.

Consider, for example, a Chinese industrial company’s acquisition of a European business in 2006. Although the track record of active restructuring in past acquisitions in the sector suggested that this one could produce significant synergies, the Chinese acquirer was equally aware of the downside. Its president believed that it was unnecessary to assign a Chinese team to manage the newly acquired company in Europe, observing that many Chinese acquirers that did so had failed in their overseas ventures.

A light touch

Many of the acquisitions we examined follow a similar model: the acquirer attempts to minimize integration activity and disruption to the target, leaving most of its operations and organization intact. As unobtrusively as possible, the acquirer focuses on the few synergies that its managers feel will capture most of the available short-term value. We have observed several core elements of this approach.

A ‘minimalist’ governance structure

The acquirer generally aims to achieve effective oversight of its acquisition rather than to substitute its own judgment for that of the existing line management by micromanaging. Successful examples of this approach have involved the creation of a board or supervisory committee that combines the incumbent’s and acquirer’s management, as well as select external appointees—much as a private-equity firm might restructure an acquisition’s board.

This approach can be implemented in different ways. Consider the following three examples, each an Asian cross-border deal in the telecom sector.

  • The acquirer replaced the acquired company’s board with a newly created advisory subcommittee in its own board. This subcommittee, focusing solely on the acquired company’s performance, consisted mostly of independent directors and the acquired company’s CEO.

  • The acquirer appointed its own country CEO as chairman of the acquired company’s board and otherwise let the acquisition’s top team run the business—none of the acquirer’s other managers were transferred.

  • The acquirer insisted that the CFO of the acquired company report daily on progress in strategic planning. The CFO criticized this approach, feeling that it gave the acquisition no “time to perform.”

Keeping the core top team intact

Asian acquirers usually build the leadership team of an acquired company from its incumbent management, along with select local hires. They avoid inserting their own staff—especially people who lack language skills or local experience—into key roles. In the case of the Chinese industrial company mentioned earlier, the acquired company’s management team remained in place with only very minor changes: indeed, the acquirer asked the team to develop its own business plan independently and to provide input to the overall business unit strategy at the group level. The acquired company’s CEO continues to bear responsibility for developing and delivering its business strategy, though he meets periodically with top executives of the parent company to get input and approval.

A similar approach is evident in the way a major Asian bank acquires smaller ones in other countries around the region. Rather than impose management teams and operating models early on, executives at the bank make a priority of keeping intact the acquired companies’ management teams and planning and management processes. When the major bank replaces top-team members who are not aligned with a deal’s strategic objectives, it searches for local executives rather than parachuting in its own people. As is common in such deals, the bank’s executives manage acquisitions primarily through collaborative discussions with existing management teams. The discussions focus on the performance potential and priorities of the business and avoid intrusive scrutiny or pressure for fast results.

A few key performance indicators

Asian acquirers that take a hands-off approach to deals typically manage them by tracking a very limited set of key performance indicators (KPIs). The integration approach of the Chinese industrial company shows an extreme form of this model. Executives of Asian acquirers focused on a few top sources of synergy, delivering impressive results in a small number of initiatives (such as joint sourcing) rather than dissipating their attention across a broad portfolio of projects. The executives managed the business through only five KPIs, as well as through a broader dialogue over the acquisition’s objectives and strategic direction during the quarterly and annual planning processes.

The amount of data the acquirer monitors depends a lot on the sector: in some industrial deals we examined, a scorecard with as few as five to ten metrics was the basis for performance discussions. By contrast, in some consumer-facing businesses, acquirers used a very detailed and rich scorecard. The extent of the data tracked is perhaps less important than getting clarity early on about what should be tracked. In a 1997 acquisition by one Japanese high-tech company, for example, no clear process was established up front for tracking the business plan. Consequently, when the acquired company’s progress faltered, the parent company’s executives were slow to pick up the warning signs and intervened too late.

Limited back-office integration

Asian acquirers do conduct an initial review of an acquired company’s back-office functions to coordinate KPIs and catch data reliability issues. But the full-scale migration of the acquirer’s enterprise-resource-planning platforms is not the default option. Instead, if a much more limited data extraction system can generate the required management information, Asian acquirers find this approach faster, cheaper, and more likely to succeed.

Light touch does not mean no touch. In most cases, acquirers created teams—made up of both their own and the acquired company’s staff—to examine specific, limited synergy capture opportunities, such as technology transfer or cross-selling. This approach provides an important learning opportunity for both sides, without staking too much on the outcome.

Western readers might ask whether this Asian approach merely produces a transitory structure that will inevitably lead to full integration. At this stage, it’s too early to tell. Of the deals we reviewed, none of those that had limited the initial integration subsequently proceeded to a full-blown, traditional one. Moreover, none had concrete plans to do so—even in some cases where several years had passed since the acquisition. And while all the acquirers in the deals we reviewed were satisfied that this approach had achieved enough synergies to justify their acquisitions, they had implicitly accepted limiting any readily quantifiable upside for the time being. They might conceivably continue owning these businesses indefinitely without fully integrating them—or they might eventually implement full integration. However, given the increasing volumes of cross-border deals by these acquirers, and the greater willingness amongst Asian companies to step outside their borders, we are likely to continue seeing more such deals.