Disney / Pixar – lessons in cultural integration

After being on the buy and sell side of many merger & acquisition transactions, one thing that is clear is that cultural integration is one of the toughest aspects of bringing two companies together following a transaction. It is the largely unwritten reason for why many (and some will say most) mergers & acquisitions fail. This article about Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in last Sunday’s New York Times highlights a high-profile acquisition success story, in an industry where many M&A deals do not pan out as expected. The intriguing parts of the article had to do with some quotes from Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, and his philosophies on M&A transactions.

Bob has been on both sides of many deals, and has seen first-hand the time and attention that needs to go into cultural integration, and the consequences of not doing it right. Bob also recognizes that cultural integration is probably the largest predictor of whether an M&A transaction will be successful and meet its original goals.

“There is an assumption in the corporate world that you need to integrate swiftly,” Mr. Iger said. “My philosophy is exactly the opposite. You need to be respectful and patient.”

Key to the successful integration, analysts say, has been Mr. Iger’s decision to give incoming talent added duties. Instead of just buying Pixar and moving on, Mr. Iger understood what made the acquisition valuable, said Mr. Price, the author. “If you are acquiring expertise,” he said, “then dispatch your newly purchased experts into other parts of the company and let them stretch their muscles.”

The more deals I do, the more I am in Bob’s camp per the above quotes. It is in our capitalist nature to want to do things better and faster. However, mergers/acqusitions are largely about bring people of different (corporate) cultures together – and this is true more so in today’s knowledge-driven economy than ever before. We certainly want to do things better all of the time, but the speed at which we do it should not be a sole measure, especially when trying to integrate people. The concept of shared experiences, and creating / fostering ways for these to happen, is one of the best culture melding techniques available, and Bob suggests this in the above quotes regarding ‘stretching muscles across the company’. Some good things still do take time.

One last interesting quote from the article is below

“It took about a year before there was a collective letting down the guard,” he said. “Initially people were thinking, ‘Is something going to happen?’ ”

Even in the best of cases, such as the Disney/Pixar deal, the same dynamics of M&A apply – typically a constant and natural fear that something is about the change or be cut at any time, no matter how well things are going. It takes time even when things are going well to build up mutual trust and respect. The best deals happen when the mutual trust and respect exists, builds over time, and both parties work together over the right period of time, making key decisions along the way to implement the desired change.