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TCS poised for strategic purchases in 2020 as peers’ M&A activity slows

Despite COVID-19 pressures, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has not shied away from enacting bold initiatives, evidenced by the announcement of Vision 25×25 during the company’s CY1Q20 earnings call. Even in the face of decelerating revenue growth in the first quarter, executives remained optimistic, suggesting that — unlike the broader trend in the IT services industry — TCS is not ruling out investing in M&A if the price is right. For TCS, key characteristics of its business model enable the company to kick the tires in the M&A market and take advantage of favorable valuations brought about by a dwindling number of interested buyers.

Massive scale and healthy balance sheet support M&A consideration

A strong financial model provides the foundation for TCS’ capital allocation strategy and gives the company more flexibility compared to its peers around strategic investments. For example, TCS’ operating margin was 25.1% in 1Q20, far exceeding TBR’s benchmark average of 9.6% and surpassing all of TCS’ India-based peers by over 400 basis points (Infosys’ operating margin trailed closest behind at 21.1% in 1Q20). Additionally, TCS is backed by massive conglomerate Tata Group and has limited long-term debt, putting it in a comparatively lower-risk position even during a time of global macroeconomic uncertainty, provided the company can mitigate impacts to its top line in the coming quarters.

In CEO’s words: “The best time to execute is when nobody else is buying”

Although TCS made two acquisitions in 2018, ending a four-year lull in the company’s M&A activity, competitors with more mature acquisition proficiencies such as Accenture, Cognizant and IBM usually tend to crowd the market and challenge TCS’ ability to gain market share in key areas. For example, Accenture remains committed to carrying out its $1.6 billion acquisition budget in FY20, evidenced by the five AI-centric purchases the company made in CY2Q20. Driving the optimistic viewpoint of TCS CEO Rajesh Gopinathan, however, are opportunities to pick up acquisitions at attractive price points as typically active buyers have lost purchasing power and/or voluntarily corralled investment strategies.

DXC Technology, for instance, remains weighed down by elevated integration costs and restructuring plans following six acquisitions in 2019, including the $2 billion buyout of Switzerland-based engineering firm Luxoft. India-based peer HCL Technologies (HCLT) is in a similar situation, as executives expressed a cautionary mindset while the company looks to complete remaining payments on the $1.8 billion purchase of several IBM software products such as Unica, Portal and Connections in late 2018. As HCLT CFO Prateek Aggarwal explained, “As you can imagine, these are turbulent times, and we don’t want to sort of fritter away the cash at this point in time.”

Previous investments display an audacious mindset amid macroeconomic turmoil

TCS’ acquisition strategy has historically been very selective, with the company opting to build its talent, IP and technology capabilities in-house and normally waiting several years before kick-starting new activity. During its most recent spending pickup, the company has stuck to low-risk and nonintensive purchases such as BridgePoint and W12 Studios in 2018, both consultancies with fewer than 50 employees and with estimated annual revenues of less than $5 million. In mid-2019 TCS also increased its stake in TCS Japan, a 2014 joint venture with Mitsubishi Corp., from 51% to 66%, in what was already a safe bet as the unit achieved double-digit constant currency growth in the two years prior.  

TCS’ last large-scale acquisition came during a risky time for most companies — the peak of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In the fourth quarter of 2008, TCS completed its acquisition of Citigroup Global Services Limited for $512 million cash and brought on 12,000 India-based employees to provide BPO services in the banking, financial services and insurance sectors. While TBR anticipates the company will likely stay true to its existing strategy around more tactical tuck-in plays versus making a bold large-scale merger, a reflection on the past reminds us that the option — and willingness — exists.

IP will remain at the forefront of TCS’ acquisitions strategy

TCS already touts scale and well-trained talent, leading TBR to believe that the company will focus on obtaining IP, filling portfolio gaps and expanding its addressable market when considering M&A candidates. Because of its selective M&A stance, TCS is often left playing catch-up in the M&A market, reflected in its 2018 purchases of BridgePoint and W12 Studios, which mimicked Accenture’s push around digital design capabilities, and TBR believes this trend will continue.

According to TBR’s 1Q20 IT Services Vendor Benchmark, “The acquisition pace slowed in 1Q20; the nature of acquisitions remained similar to that in 2019 as vendors look to build out emerging technology portfolios, including security and deepened software practices around Salesforce and Workday.” This sets the stage for TCS to follow in the footsteps of its India-centric peers Infosys and Cognizant, which recently completed the acquisitions of Salesforce consultancy Simplus, as well as Salesforce Platinum Partner and digital consulting firm Lev. In TBR’s view, the central component of TCS’ acquisitions strategy will be targeting M&A candidates that can quickly and cost-efficiently add to its IP portfolio, similar to HCLT’s purchase of several IBM software assets in 2018, as TCS has built lucrative services offerings around the success of its homegrown products and platforms, such as BaNCS and Ignio.

Even with slower growth, management consultancies should come through 2020 positioned to help clients weather disrupted digital transformations

Even with slower growth, management consultancies should come through 2020 positioned to help clients weather disrupted digital transformations

Management consulting market summary

Outlook

Regardless of whether the pandemic lingers, re-emerges in the second half of 2020 or significantly subsides, TBR expects consultancies will benefit from opportunities created by the chaos of COVID-19, such as uneven responses from government authorities around economic fallout, pandemic protocols and continued uncertainty throughout 2020. Vendors with greater scale, more established technology-centric brands, and deeper partnerships with cloud and software providers will weather the crisis and alleviate pressures on front-end management consulting by price-conscious clients that demand flexible payment terms. TBR expects management consulting revenue growth for the benchmarked vendors to decelerate to 3.5% year-to-year in 2020 but to continue to outperform revenue growth for the benchmarked IT services vendors.

Disruptors

Every part of the global economy, including the IT services and management consulting markets, are experiencing serious disruptions from the global COVID-19 outbreak. Countrywide lockdowns and changes in travel and personal interaction to limit the spread of the virus, have forced changes in human resource management for vendors and their clients, some short term and some likely permanent. Macroeconomic uncertainty due to the pandemic is pushing clients to re-evaluate their spending and shift their priorities from high-touch, large-scale strategic transformational discussions to tactical run-the-business and price-competitive managed services opportunities.

Overview

Benchmarked vendors in the management consulting segment increased revenue 7% year-to-year in 2019, a growth trend that continued to surpass that of benchmarked IT services vendors in TBR’s IT Services Vendor Benchmark, which expanded 1.9% year-to-year in 2019. The Big Four vendor group remained the largest revenue contributor at 55.8% of benchmarked revenue in 2019; however, strategy-led vendors increased their market share by 10 basis points year-to-year to 28%. Big Four and strategy-led firms are expanding their intellectual property assets and managed services capabilities to position as business advisers with holistic service capabilities.

The Management Consulting Benchmark provides key service line, regional, vertical and operational data and analysis for 13 leading management consulting firms. The research program also includes a deep dive into 11 vendors’ business strategies as well as SWOT analysis.

Infosys must learn from missteps over the past 5 years to become a partner of choice for managed services

From time will tell to now is the time

In late 2013 TBR published The next 5 years: A successful strategy for Infosys that examined what it would take for Infosys to catch up with multinational corporation rivals such as Accenture and IBM. We believed Infosys needed to build up nearshore Americas capacity and capabilities, acquire consulting capacity in Europe, and invest in IP — and we were right. More than five years later, Infosys is aggressively executing in all of these areas. But success did not come easy, as the company witnessed a spate of executive departures, including its CEO. Additionally, revenue growth fluctuated: 5.8% in FY13, 11.5% in FY14, 5.6% in FY15, 9.1% in FY16, 7.4% in FY17, 7.2% in FY18 and 7.9% in FY19.  While Infosys is showing appetite to transform its sales strategy through aggressive hiring and training of sales and support staff, the company’s delivery framework remains fragile.

Investments in onshore and nearshore personnel in the U.S. and Europe, including the opening of Innovation Hubs (five in the U.S. and two in Europe) to support Agile-based projects, are positive steps forward. However, it appears these investment decisions were forced on the company by market demand and peer pressure. Recent purchases, including 75% of Netherlands-based ABN AMRO subsidiary Stater, Nordic-based Salesforce consultancy Fluido, and U.K-headquartered digital agency Brilliant Basics, suggest Infosys is well positioned to grow its revenue share from Europe-based operations from its current 24% to 30% in the next two years. These investments have taken a toll on company margins, which declined from 25.8% in FY13 to 22.8% in FY19.

Departing from a margin-first culture is not easy, especially as founder N.R. Narayana Murthy remains involved in board decisions, although behind the scenes. Infosys is trying to offset some of its resources investments by expanding proprietary and co-developed industry-centric IP, but monetization of such offerings is a challenge. Former CEO Vishal Sikka tried to rotate the entire 200,000-plus services workforce to act as a software-like company with the associated KPIs and culture changes, but he failed.

March marked the end of Infosys’ first year in its three-year go-to-market strategy, during which it vigorously shifted the composition of its sales to digitally enabled awards, which contributed 31.2% of total sales in FY19. Navigating the dynamically evolving IT services market will not be an easy task as the company balances execution with operational efficiency to meet stakeholders’ expectations. While the company had the last five years to stabilize its performance and realign portfolio and skills to market demand, the accelerated cycle enabled by adoption of digital transformation initiatives has invited many new participants into the IT services space, forcing Infosys to look for blind spots.

Infosys is far from reaching the scale of Accenture and IBM. However, the company still has a chance to secure a top 3 ranking among its India-centric peers either by doubling down on what it does best — participating on the services supply side — or becoming an exclusive partner for managed services to one of the many consultancies aggressively moving into the IT services space.

TBR published initial findings on Infosys’ 1Q19 quarterly earnings in its recent Infosys Initial Response. TBR will dive deeper into Infosys’ resource management strategy in the April 2019 edition of TBR’s Global Delivery Benchmark.