(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There's a difference between leveraged buyouts and venture capital: debt. It's a distinction one European private equity firm seems to want investors to overlook. They shouldn’t let their eagerness to jump on the tech bandwagon blind them to it.
London-based private equity firm Permira Holdings LLP is preparing an initial public offering of TeamViewer AG. The deal may value the German software maker at as much as 5.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion). That’s more than 17 times 2019 billings. ServiceNow Inc., a similar enterprise cloud software firm in the U.S., trades at a mere 12.5 times forward billings.
That lofty valuation isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. Investors may well fall over themselves to get a piece of what is, after all, a rarity in Europe: a fast-growing tech company that generates cash and operating profit.
But they shouldn’t ignore the warning signs. All the roughly 2 billion euros of net proceeds from the IPO are going to Permira, which will also keep a 58% stake. In all, the firm could end up sitting on a return of almost 13 times its original investment.
Then look at TeamViewer’s debt. Include the cost of servicing its borrowings, and the operating profit it posted last year turns into a net loss. After the IPO, the company’s balance sheet will be still laden with debt. TeamViewer expects net debt to fall to 3.1 times cash Ebitda by the end of this year, but that’s well above the level of its tech peers, which typically target lower debt ratios because they don’t have many fixed assets to fall back on should things go awry. In fact, TeamViewer had negative net assets at the end of June. That alone is cause for caution.
Potential shareholders will need to have absolute faith that the company can continue to grow and avoid major bear-traps. On one hand, TeamViewer is shifting to a subscription-based business model, which should give it a more predictable recurring revenue stream. But it has also warned that larger U.S. competitors like Microsoft Corp. might try and muscle in on its territory. That could make it hard to continue the 35% annual growth in billings it posted this year.
Then there’s the risk of cyberattack. TeamViewer’s key offering is software to monitor computers and equipment remotely, which makes just one major hack a big operational risk. Indeed, the prospectus confirms that in 2016 the company was the target of an attack on its IT infrastructure. The firm detected the activity – but only disclosed it in May when Der Spiegel revealed what it said was a breach by Chinese hackers.
This IPO isn’t just a missed opportunity to improve TeamViewer’s balance sheet. Cloud software companies can be inherently volatile, as my colleague Shira Ovide pointed out last week, so it makes even less sense to include debt in this combustible mix. That investors are prepared to overlook all this is testament to the dearth of publicly traded technology companies in Europe. They have next to no choice.
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Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
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