Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/04/08/dell_critics_circle/

Rare Dell critics spotted circling over Austin

Not extinct and inquisitive as all hell

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Financial News, 8th April 2005 13:32 GMT

For the first time in ages, the famed "Dell model" has come into question.

Analysts have started wondering if Dell can surge from $49bn in annual sales to $80bn within three or four years. Such a jump would require solid results from Dell's computer business and far above average growth from its server, storage, services and consumer products businesses. In a rare moment of Dell doubt, many pundits question whether Dell can get the growth it needs from these non-computer areas to reach the lofty $80bn goal. Delli management insists that the company can stretch beyond the computer game with ease.

"Our principal short-term concern around Dell has been that revenue growth expectations remain overzealous, particularly in light of what we believe will become an increasingly difficult market for PCs as 2005 progresses," wrote Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Toni Sacconaghi in a recent note. "Longer-term, we believe that Dell’s secular attractiveness is high, and despite its significant size, we estimate that the company can deliver double-digit revenue growth and 13-15% EPS (earnings per share) growth over the next six years, which places it among a select group of large cap technology growth companies. "

One of the more comic bits of baggage Dell carries with it is a history of phenomenal success. Analysts aren't arguing over whether or not Dell will grow - just by how much. This isn't "Will Dell be profitable this quarter or the next". It's "Can Dell meet its own dramatic target?"

The always sharp Sacconaghi nailed this question yesterday during Dell's analyst conference held in Austin, Texas and broadcast over the internet.

To reach the $80bn mark, Dell expects the vast majority of its growth to come from non-PC sales. In fact, these non-PC items will need to grow at twice the rate of Dell's PCs. We're talking about severs, storage boxes, printers, displays and handhelds. In addition, more than 55 per cent of Delli's growth will likely happen overseas, said CEO Kevin Rollins.

Sacconaghi wondered how such non-PC growth could change Dell's bottom line as dramatically as management suggests when current PC, notebook and related software and services account for close to 75 per cent of Dell's total sales, according to the analyst. Isn't Dell really more dependent on the PC market going forward than it would have the public believe?

"I agree with you . . . in that a lot of things are closely associated with the (PC) hardware that we sell," Dell's CFO Jim Schneider told Sacconaghi. "Yes, we have concerns of what the industry growth is over time."

Chairman Michael Delhi stepped in to emphasize a different point.

"There's no doubt that the client business is still very important to us, but I think the nature of the business is changing," Dell said.

PC sales aren't just PC sales anymore. They're door openers for software, services, peripherals and other more lucrative goods.

"The base client is less and less important, but still helps us originate these new activities," he added.

It's more and more obvious now why Dell pulled the 'Computer Corp.' out of its name and replaced it with 'Inc.'. The public shouldn't think of it as just a boring old box house. Dell is so much more than just the PC.

We can see your PC

But Sacconaghi is not the only one who questioning this theory.

"As things stand, Dell's growth prospects are less than stellar," BusinessWeek reported today. "Even after recent downward revisions, the Street's expectations might still be too high. While most analysts predict 20% earnings growth in the next few years, 16% to 18% might be more realistic, says Zack Schroeder, an analyst with BB&T Asset Management in Raleigh, N.C. And while the consensus projects sales to rise 16% in that period. Schroeder believes 12% to 15% will be more like it."

Neither these growth rates nor the long-term rates forecasted by Sacconaghi would be enough to hit $80bn in the timeframe laid out by Dell.

Many wonder how well the "Dell model" will play long-term overseas. In potential high-growth markets such as India and China, customers are far less likely to order a PC directly over the internet or via the mail. It's much easier to check out the boxes in a store. In addition, the Dell "low-cost" brand doesn't mean all that much in these developing countries. Customers are happy to pick up recognized brands. Dell must battle local PC makers who could end up being just as cheap and efficient as the lean, mean Texas firm.

And these are just the problems Dell faces in the PC market. Its growth, you'll remember, is supposed to come from less familiar non-PC gear.

If recent trends are any indication, this could be bad news for Dell. About Dell's enterprise business, Sacconaghi wrote, "Despite being the company’s purported growth engine, Dell’s enterprise business grew slower than the company average in (fiscal 2005), and actually lost market share in Intel servers with greater than two processors and ASPs of more than $6000."

Dell certainly creamed its competition over the past couple of years. It nailed rivals HP and Sun Microsystems to the wall with double-digit growth and laughed as the Silicon Valley boys reorganized their unprofitable businesses again and again. IBM's server business also failed to impress like that of Dell.

But could a lack of imagination and research and development come back to haunt Dell?

AMD will shortly announce a dual-core version of its 64-bit Opteron processor that will immediately slide into servers from Sun, HP and IBM. This will turn one-ways into two-ways and two-ways into four-ways and help customers save money on some software. Dell will have to wait until 2006 to offer its customers a comparable Intel chip. It won't go the AMD route because of the disruption a second-supplier would cause to its server production system. We'll see if being lean and mean equals customer satisfaction in this case.

Elsewhere Dell admits that a lack of R&D can be a pain.

Rollins told the analysts that getting into the laser printer business was no problem since intellectual property issues could be overcome. "When you get to the inkjet side, things are a bit more restricted in terms of the IP," he said. Dell has managed to find some "disruptive technologies" from other "sources" but Rollins wouldn't comment on exactly what such inkjet technology is or where it came from. With all its printer giveaways, Dell said its new printer business isn't producing any profit at all. Heavy R&D firm HP might have the better model on this one.

Dell's relentless efficiency and remarkable ability to make skeptics look foolish leads us to believe that it will probably hit the $80bn target. But, for the first time in a long, long while, the company may be showing unhealthy levels of self-confidence and some chinks in its model.

Dell is better when it minds its own business, plodding along and taking share from competitors. With the brash $80bn target meant to please investors, Dell has basically begged analysts to question its hubris and put the lofty claims under the microscope. And the only way for Dell to fly so high is to abandon a long-held, rigid focus on the PC. Is that asking too much? ®

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