The culture shock of mergers

A lot of the literature you will read about ‘cultural fit’ seems far removed from the realities of company mergers and acquisitions. Managing change is often a case-by-case skill. By TOM McKASKILL.

By Tom McKaskill

Buy a business culture shock

It’s all about “fit”. Buying a business will involve more than just a financial transaction. How do you know what cultural problems you will have, and how will you cope successfully with them?


Every textbook and article on acquisitions will tell you just how important cultural fit is, but few help you understand just what that means and even less provide a pragmatic way of working out whether you are going to have a problem.

It seems that this material is written for academics, behavioural consultants or executives who already have significant experience with such projects. Rather unfortunate for the aspiring entrepreneur who is trying to make sense of it all.

I have my own cultural-fit scars from several acquisitions and divestments I was involved in. In the case of the businesses I acquired, I was keen to retain the acquired employees but it is very difficult to provide guarantees when you don’t know what the future will entail.

At the same time, I could see that the staff were coping with a massive change in their work environment. In one case we were acquiring a business from two retiring partners who had founded the business over 20 years earlier. In another case we were merging with a business where the structure of the business would have to be changed to avoid duplicate roles.

Little wonder the acquired employees were uncertain and stressed out.

In the business I sold, one went to a recently listed US business where we really knew little about the management. We found out very quickly, however, when our new CEO turned up and told us we were all incompetent and going about our business in entirely the wrong manner.

In the second case, we sold out to a global corporation who seemed to lose us for a few months after the acquisition as they went through several restructures.

From these experiences and from extensive reading of the literature, I can see that acquisitions quickly go off the rails when the acquirer fails to consider the impact on the individual, whether they are employed in the vendor or in the buyer.

The basic issue is one of stability. While business life is not without its risks, people become accustomed to their circumstances and find a balance between work and private endeavours, which they cope with. When this balance is upset through the possible and actual acquisition activities, they react by focusing on their own world and often react by resigning, neglecting their duties or aggressively working against the takeover. Even assurances of continued employment and no change is sometimes not sufficient to settle their fears.

Providing individual counselling, frequent communication, retaining staff and leaving the acquired business to continue as an independent entity can go a long way to stabilizing the transition to new ownership.

However, many acquisitions result in redundancies, mergers of departments and changes in direction. Major changes are anticipated to affect individuals more and thus much greater attention needs to be given to individual transitions.

When such change also involves a dramatic shift in the manner in which the business operates, especially in the manner in which people interact, make decisions, are rewarded or interact with customers and suppliers, significant numbers of acquired personnel can be expected to resign, be less productive or be disruptive.

It is, therefore, of little surprise that such acquisitions often end in failure. Smart buyers work hard to manage the changes involved or simply avoid taking on acquisitions where they can foresee such outcomes.


 Tom McKaskill is a successful global serial entrepreneur, educator and author who is a world acknowledged authority on exit strategies and the Richard Pratt Professor of Entrepreneurship, Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.



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