Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Wolters Kluwer/Reed Elsevier Merger That Wasn't: An Insider's History

Since thirteen or fourteen years is an eternity in the world of business cycles, here is a bit of history for the young 'uns about an earlier merger/purchase. In 1998, at about the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair (early-mid October), Wolters Kluwer and Reed Elsevier announced a merger. This was pretty shocking news to our profession, and tons of ink were spilled on the subject. The merger eventually fell apart. The official story was that competition law considerations, particularly in Europe (Mario Monti was just taking charge of that particular EU bureaucracy, and as any of you who may be Microsoft shareholders know, he was tough tough tough), scuttled the merger. The informal chat was that the finances, especially given the volatility of the respective stock prices, could not be made to work. Your correspondent is unable to say with any authority how much truth there may have been to that.


The major impact that the merger announcement had on the U.S. legal publishing industry is that it sent Times Mirror, owner of Matthew Bender (where I worked at the time), into deliberations. Times Mirror was a publicly-held company largely controlled by the Chandler family, and the thinking went, "Even if this particular merger does not work, there will be others, and we shall sit here with one little legal publishing company, Matthew Bender, facing huge combines, and it will not survive." Thus it was that five months later the entire, and I mean entire, NY-based Matthew Bender workforce gathered in a movie theater on East 34th Street at 3:00 P.M. to hear the announcement that Times Mirror was seeking a buyer for Matthew Bender. We were held in the movie theater (closest to cops-and-robbers, or SEC enforcement, most of us ever got) until the stock market had closed for the day and the announcement had been made to the public.

The following months were a period of uncertainty but not much mystery. A year earlier, Times Mirror and Reed Elsevier had jointly acquired the Shepherd’s citation service from McGraw Hill through a product swap and partnership agreement, and had assigned operational responsibility to, respectively, Matthew Bender and Lexis-Nexis. The “conventional wisdom” had it that Reed Elsevier would be the only suitor for Matthew Bender, which would be folded into Lexis-Nexis. In this case, the conventional wisdom was just right, and it happened as predicted.

In the subsequent decade plus, the pace of consolidation has been frantic, especially compared to that pre-1998 era of tranquility. New providers and platforms are swallowed up as quickly as they show either profit or potential, and even established and very successful (e.g. BNA) entities are not immune. Thus as momentous as the Bender sale to Reed Elsevier was in 1999, it is by today’s measure pretty small potatoes. It also gives those of us who experienced it a new insight on the famous “you think it’s tough now, just wait” sentiment of Aeneas (Aeneid I.203): Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

Perhaps someday it will be pleasant to look back even on these times.

Contributed by Guest blogger: Chuck Lowry,  legal publishing industry veteran.
Chuck is currently in enterprise sales at Fastcase. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not his employer.

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