In 2016, we’ve come a lot closer to reaching the corporate singularity. Before year’s end, we can add one more big acquisition to the list — earlier today, Samsung announced in a press release that it plans to acquire audio and car tech giant Harman for $8 billion.
Usually when we talk about Harman, it’s in reference to one of their many audio brands — it’s the parent company of Harman/Kardon, JBL, AKG, and Revel, among many others. They make consistently excellent headphones and speakers, from the affordable sort to the very, very high end. But, this acquisition is nothing like the Apple/Beats deal — while Samsung no doubt looks forward to adding those brands to its balance sheets, they didn’t have music in mind when they struck this deal.
While Harman is an audio giant, they’ve shifted their focus in recent years, becoming a huge presence in the automotive industry. They’ve always been a major provider of in-car speakers (they work with BMW, Dodge, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, and Volvo, among others), dominating market share by using their many brands and by purchasing the in-car audio businesses of Bang & Olufsen and Bowers & Wilkins. Last year, they bolstered their in-car infotainment systems by purchasing Symphony Teleca, which added cloud-based analytics software — we saw some of the fruits of that acquisition earlier this year at CES. The result? Per Samsung’s press release, “approximately 65% of HARMAN’s $7.0 billion of reported sales during the 12 months ended September 30, 2016 are automotive-related, and its order backlog for this market at June 30, 2016 was approximately $24 billion.” Harman’s quarterly report can be found here.
Harman is now one of the biggest providers of in-car tech, including both audio and infotainment systems. That caught Samsung’s attention — although Samung is best known for its hardware, it’s never been satisfied just being a device maker. They tinker with Android more than any other smartphone manufacturer with their TouchWiz UI, and they’ve developed services like Samsung Pay to compete directly with Apple and Google. They’ve even tried to break into software, developing their own Tizen OS, which is now used on their smartwatches and smart TVs.
Buying Harman is a way for Samsung to get into one of the surest growth markets out there. There’s been a lot of excitement over virtual reality and wearables, but some of the luster has worn off as both device categories are growing more slowly than expected. In-car infotainment systems, on the other hand, are virtually a sure thing — they help drivers use advanced safety features like rearview cameras and can supply navigation information with voice controls. With the analytics software Harman now has, they can power driver evaluation programs for insurance companies and provide smart cities with information about the cars on the road, helping them to manage traffic. Those are just a couple examples — there are many, many more reasons to get cars talking to each other, and Harman’s one of the best in the business at figuring out what those reasons are.
Needless to say, the deal gives Samsung an enormous automotive presence — one that, at least right now, dwarfs what Google and Apple have. The one problem might be that Harman risks being a medium-term player — if Tesla, Apple, and Google get their own autonomous cars on the road (or license their technology to auto manufacturers), Harman could find itself at the risk of getting squeezed out. It’s a bold and risky move for Samsung, but maybe one they felt the need to make — they’re poised to lose billions because of the Galaxy Note 7 recall, losses compounded by the recent large-scale recall of some of their washing machines. Acquiring Harman and its healthy balance sheet looks like a great way to cover those losses over the next few years.
The $8 billion acquisition is all cash and is pending shareholder and regulatory approval. The latter is worth thinking about — President-elect Trump was a vocal critic of the AT&T-Time Warner deal before the election, but it’s unclear whether or not his comments will crystallize into an anti-merger and acquisition policy when he takes office in January. If the deal does clear as expected in mid-2017, Harman will, at least at the outset, continue to operate independently under the leadership of current CEO Dinesh Paliwal.