10 M&A deals that transformed industries and defined the decade


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  • The decade started off cold, but the 2010s produced some of the frothiest years for mergers and acquisitions in history. 
  • Business Insider spoke with M&A bankers, lawyers, and academics to determine 10 of the most significant deals of the decade. 
  • While some of the largest deals of the 2010s appear on this list, this is not a list of the largest deals of the 2010s — we considered and included deals of all sizes and from a variety of industries. 
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With the economy in the dumps and gun-shy corporate boards hoarding cash following the financial crisis, mergers and acquisitions were ice-cold at the start of this decade. 

But in the ensuing years, a 10-year bull market unfolded, economic fortunes rebounded, corporate execs brimmed with confidence, and dealmakers got their mojo back. The latter half of the 2010s has produced some of the frothiest years for global M&A in history, with each of the last five years generating more than $3 trillion in global announced deal volume, according to Bloomberg data. 

Along the way, different trends helped propel dealmaking. In the early 2010s, corporate inversions to save on taxes were the rage — up until the US government put the kibosh on such deals in 2014. Activist investors have grown in prominence and influence, kicking up dust and maneuvering for deals across the world. 

And the rise of tech giants throughout the decade, and the influence of technology across industries, has spurred waves of transactions from companies willing to pay up to gain an edge or, in some cases, stave off their own obsolescence. 

Business Insider spoke with M&A bankers, lawyers, and academics to determine 10 of the most significant deals of the decade. 

While some of the largest deals of the 2010s appear on this list, this is not a list of the largest deals of the 2010s.

Some acquisitions that may have seemed small and inconsequential at the time have grown weighty in retrospect, like Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram for a mere $1 billion. Or, in the case of Amazon’s $13.7 billion deal for Whole Foods, the very nature of an unexpected buyer threatened to upend an entire industry and put management teams across America on notice that the same could happen to them. 

For this project, we reviewed and included deals from a variety of industries, though we didn’t consider deals that have not closed or received regulatory approval. 

Here are 10 of the most significant mergers and acquisitions of the decade that made history, transformed industries, and made a lasting impression in the world of dealmaking. 

2011: Gilead acquires Pharmasett — $11 billion

What price tag do you put on a pill that can cure a disease that afflicts millions around the world?

That’s one of the questions Gilead Pharmaceuticals had to reckon with after stumbling upon a knockout hepatitis C drug — a query that eventually dominated the industry, prompting a national conversation as well as scrutiny from lawmakers. 

But before that, ironically, Gilead was dogged by another question: Why did you pay so much for a tiny, unproven drug company? Initially, Wall Street was not thrilled with the $11 billion buyout of budding hep C developer Pharmasett. 

“For Gilead to give up effectively one-third of their value for an unproven asset still subject to significant ongoing clinical risk seems remarkable,” Geoffrey Porges, then an analyst at Sanford Bernstein, wrote in a note reacting to the deal. 

But Gilead realized it had a winner on its hands in Sovaldi — an oral regimen for hep C with limited side effects that had dramatic cure rates that approached 95%. So then came the question of price. Gilead settled on charging about $1,000 per pill, or an eye-popping $84,000 for a full course of treatment. 

That choice helped Gilead’s line of hep C treatments become one of the most successful drug launches of all time. Sovaldi was nearly the best-selling drug on earth the first year of its launch in 2014, and, along with follow-on release Harvoni, produced nearly $45 billion in revenues in three years.  

While that pleased investors, it drew the ire of patients, insurers, and government officials, sparking a broader debate around drug pricing. A Senate investigation concluded in 2015 that the Gilead put profits ahead of patients in pricing its hep C cure. 

2012: Facebook acquires Instagram — $1 billion

The year is 2012. Facebook is still a private company but also by now a household name, having been immortalized by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake in “The Social Network.” The ascendant juggernaut is still years away from uniting a divided country in scorn, piling up scandals, and making a case for the “vampire squid” crown of the 2010s. 

Back in 2012, Facebook still considered Twitter a threat. With that in mind, the company doubled the offer Twitter made for an upstart photo-sharing platform, paying Kevin Systrom and company $1 billion for Instagram at a time when the buzzword “unicorn” hadn’t yet been coined.

It became one of the most lucrative and consequential tech acquisitions of the decade. But if Facebook had any inkling, they didn’t tip their hand, casually referring to Instagram as “fun, popular photo-sharing app for mobile devices” in the press release announcing the acquisition.

While Facebook has since been tarnished with ugly press, Instagram has eclipsed its cultural currency — its cross-generational allure and approval rating stands out among social media — and is the propulsive force behind the company’s astonishing financial success. It has a billion users and is expected to produce more than $14 billion in revenue in 2019, according to Wall Street projections. 

Yet in the ensuing years, amid wider concerns about the extent of the social network’s influence over society, the deal has taken on a new light, drawing criticism and attracting belated regulatory scrutiny for giving Facebook an anticompetitive advantage. 

But in the process we learned that a billion dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? $600 billion — and a strong antitrust legal defense. 

2013: Michael Dell takes Dell private — $25 billion

Billionaire Michael Dell’s gambit to take his personal computer business private in 2013 became one of the most acrimonious deals of the decade, with several long-reverberating impacts. 

After 25 years under the gaze of Wall Street investors — Dell listed publicly in 1988 when its founder was just 23 years old — the PC company had grown stale and was losing ground to more innovative competitors.

To properly reinvigorate the firm and pivot toward enterprise solutions, including a build-out of its private cloud business, Michael Dell felt he needed to liberate the company from the shackles of quarterly earnings pressures.

It wouldn’t be easy. Dell dug into his personal fortune and partnered with private-equity shop Silver Lake and a group of lenders to raise nearly $20 billion — other buyout shops including KKR, TPG, and Blackstone kicked the tires but declined to get involved, according to Forbes. 

But some shareholders felt Dell was capitalizing on the beaten-down stock price to carve out a sweetheart deal for himself. Not long after the proposed buyout was announced, Carl Icahn amassed a $1 billion stake and hit the airwaves, sent tweets, and issued open letters to decry the transaction and push for the CEO’s ouster. 

After months of fighting, Dell and Silver Lake won out over Icahn, completing at the time the largest post-financial crisis leveraged buyout. That retreat into the safety of private ownership paved the way for Dell’s overhaul, as well as the largest tech deal of all time: Dell’s $67 billion merger in 2015 with IT giant EMC.

Another byproduct of the deal: A closely watched, precedent-setting ruling in 2016, in which a Delaware court decided Dell had shortchanged shareholders, ordering the company to pay an additional $37 million.

Six years after the saga began, Dell is now back on the public markets, listing on the NYSE a year ago. Michael Dell now has a fortune of more than $30 billion, roughly double what he was worth in 2013 when he took his company private, according to Forbes. 

2014: Actavis buys Allergan — $66 billion

Like Dell’s take-private bid, the $66 billion Actavis-Allergan tie-up was another feisty deal involving an ill-tempered activist that held broader implications. 

A couple years before an accounting scandal blew up Valeant Pharmaceuticals — which has since rebranded under the name Bausch Health — the merger-happy drugmaker and Pershing Square Capital billionaire founder Bill Ackman partnered up to make a hostile run at Allergan, the company behind Botox. Valeant had tried and failed to buy Actavis, manufacturer of women’s health and skin drugs, in 2013. 

Allergan rebuffed the $50 billion overture, leading to increasingly testy exchanges over several months. That included a move to shake up the board and claims by Valeant and Ackman that Allergan made false statements to regulators  as well as a lawsuit by Allergan alleging its foes engaged in insider trading during their hostile bid. 

But then Actavis, whose CEO Brent Saunders had been quietly sweet-talking Allergan CEO David Pyott behind the scenes, emerged from the wings with a far larger bid, causing Valeant and Ackman to finally admit defeat. 

Actavis-Allergan wasn’t just one of the largest pharma deals in a decade rife with industry consolidation, it also represented the culmination and power of the tax-inversion craze that swept across pharmaceuticals in the first half of the 2010s. 

In 2013, Actavis bought a small, Irish drug company, reaping significant tax benefits and setting off a wave of copycat deals (Valeant had actually inverted back in 2010 with a Canadian company). Regulators eventually cracked down on the practice in late 2014, but not before Actavis capitalized on the financial flexibility to buy Forest Laboratories for $25 billion and subsequently orchestrate the Allergan merger. 

2015: Dow Chemical merges with Dow DuPont — $130 billion

In 2015, Dow and DuPont each existed as separate, publicly traded heavyweight chemical companies. Today, they also exist as separate, publicly traded heavyweight chemical companies.

In between, they briefly joined together in a $130 billion merger —  the second-largest in history — combining two brands founded in the 1800s into a giant with $90 billion in revenues and dozens of business lines, ranging from specialty chemicals and agriculture to performance plastics and industrial biosciences. 

This was the plan from the get-go: Combine the two conglomerates, shake up all ingredients, and pour them into three separate, more appetizing tumblers for investors to sip on. 

Alas, merger mixology is more fraught than cocktail mixology, and this would’ve been one of the most complicated transactions in corporate history even before it attracted unprecedented attention from activist investors with their own thoughts on the proper recipe. 

Both Dow and DuPont were sparring with hedge funds prior to their tie-up. Trian Management started lobbying for a DuPont breakup in 2013, ultimately losing a narrow proxy battle for board seats in early 2015. Third Point began pressing Dow for changes in early 2014, winning a board reconfiguration later that year. 

After DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman retired in October 2015, the two companies opened merger discussions, and by December they announced a deal that hoped to reap $3 billion from cuts.

If the companies thought that would rid them of their meddlesome investors, they were mistaken. As the intricate post-merger carve up unfolded, the number of activists doubled to four. 

By 2017, Glenview Management, Jana Partners, Third Point, and Trian were all criticising the DowDuPont breakup, lobbying for more fat trimming from the component parts. 

The dust has only just begun to settle this year. By June of 2019, DowDuPont had split into three publicly traded entities: Dow, focused on commodity chemicals for silicone, plastics, and paint; DuPont, a manufacturer of specialty chemicals for cars, adhesives, and various consumer goods; and Corteva, a new brand geared toward agricultural products. 

2015: Kraft merges with Heinz — $45 billion

Bigger is not always better. The $45 billion merger of Kraft with Heinz in 2015 was notable for its size — it created one of the world’s largest food and packaged goods conglomerates, with $28 billion in revenues — but unfortunately moreso for how poorly it has turned out. 

This deal shows the limits of a merger built on a cut-to-the-bone calculus, and a reminder that the Oracle of Omaha is human. 

In the early 2010s, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian buyout shop 3G Capital had formed a dealmaking tandem that orchestrated several blockbuster takeovers with strong returns through a fairly straightforward strategy: Acquire a large but bloated brand, cut the fat and find efficiencies, and then expand its reach. Rinse and repeat. 

In 2013, the partners spent $23 billion to buy ketchup king Heinz, and the following year they teamed up to merge Burger King with Canadian coffee and doughnut chain Tim Horton for around $10 billion. 

Then came Kraft-Heinz, a deal that anticipated $1.5 billion in annual cost savings, much of that coming from cuts to the global workforce, which numbered more than 46,000. Just as with the Heinz acquisition, which resulted in hundreds of layoffs, some 2,500 jobs were slashed soon after Kraft-Heinz closed, with thousands more to follow — as well as a deep reduction in R&D spending.

The limits of this strategy began to surface two years later when Buffett and 3G once again tried to roll-up their conglomerate into an even larger deal, with The Kraft Heinz Company bidding $143 billion for consumer goods giant Unilever. Unilever, a company with a radically different culture and philosophy than Buffett and 3G, rebuffed the proposed acquisition from the smaller suitor. 

Very little has gone right for Kraft Heinz since: Slumping sales, a $15 billion write-down to its Kraft and Oscar Mayer brands, an SEC investigation into accounting flaws that prompted the firm to restate years of financial reports, and a stock price that has declined 27% over the course of 2019 and nearly 60% since the merger.  

“The longer-term effects of cost-cutting have caught up to Kraft Heinz,” said Harbir Singh, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, adding that investors are more skeptical now of global megadeals that hinge on draconian cuts that could hamper growth. 

Buffett acknowledged the uncharacteristic miss. 

“I was wrong in a couple of ways about Kraft Heinz,” Buffett told CNBC in an interview earlier this year. “We overpaid for Kraft.”

2016: AT&T buys Time Warner — $85 billion

As US consumers have shifted away from television sets and cable subscriptions toward mobile devices and streaming content, media and telecom companies have scrambled to keep pace. 

AT&T, amid a price war with other wireless operators, looked to gain leverage, growth, and a content trove through which to win over modern consumers via an $85 billion bid for media giant Time Warner, the film studio and television broadcaster that owns movie franchises like “Harry Potter” and “The Fast and the Furious” as well as assets like HBO and CNN.

The deal provoked a ripple of follow-on acquisitions from competitors, with Disney buying 21st Century Fox for $71 billion in 2017, Comcast purchasing British satellite company Sky for $39 billion in 2018, and CBS linking back up with Viacom just this summer. 

These blockbuster media-telecom tie-ups are reminiscent of a wave of media consolidation in the early aughts, including the $165 billion AOL-Time Warner merger in 2000 — the largest of all time, and generally considered among the worst.

A key difference that makes the math smarter this time around: Executives know a lot more about their customers.

“Given the greater availability of data on subscribers, there’s a better understanding of the underlying subscriber value of these platforms and what the consumer is truly willing to pay for this content on these specific platforms,” Vito Sperduto, global cohead of M&A at RBC, told Business Insider. “And so I feel better about these combinations.”

None of these recent mergers have faced a more arduous path to completion than AT&T-Time Warner, which over a nearly three-year saga withstood a full-frontal antitrust assault from regulators — who argued competition would dwindle and customers would get short shrift — as well as the disapproving glare of President Donald Trump and his voluminous Twitter habits. 

While the Department of Justice asserted no influence from the White House in its lawsuit to block the merger, the president nonetheless trashed the deal, publicly voicing his virulent disdain for CNN and lobbying against the tie-up. 

In February, the DOJ lost its appeal against the merger, ending the legal challenge and clearing the way for AT&T-Time Warner.

That hasn’t stopped the abuse from Trump, who this summer called for a boycott of AT&T.

Tweet Embed:
I believe that if people stopped using or subscribing to @ATT, they would be forced to make big changes at @CNN, which is dying in the ratings anyway. It is so unfair with such bad, Fake News! Why wouldn’t they act. When the World watches @CNN, it gets a false picture of USA. Sad!


2017: Amazon acquires Whole Foods — $13.7 billion

Few deals sent more tremors, both immediate and far-reaching, through the markets and corporate boardrooms than Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of upscale organic grocery chain Whole Foods. 

Almost immediately after Amazon swooped in to buy Whole Foods — which was battling a slumping stock price as well as an activist campaign from Jana Partners —  grocery giants including Kroger, Target, and Walmart saw billions shaved off their market values as investors tried to comprehend the amount of disruption a competitor with Amazon’s brute strength and tech savvy could wreak upon the industry. 

While it was the Everything Store’s largest ever acquisition, $13.7 billion represented a drop in the bucket for Amazon, which spent roughly twice that amount just in research and development in 2018, according to public filings.

Still, Amazon does not spend frivolously, and it didn’t spend billions simply for access to the modest margins from selling produce and granola to well-heeled hippies. The company not only got immediate access to premium real estate locations to further bolster its logistics empire, but also a new source of on-the-ground data and analytics to complement its digital analysis of customer shopping trends and preferences. 

The impact wasn’t limited to the grocery business. Even well-established industry stalwarts began to confront the possibility that supercorporations like Amazon could wake up on a given day and upend their industry, shooting some urgency into corporate boards and providing stark evidence that maintaining the status quo was a risky bet.

That contributed to a flurry of other megadeals in the second-half of 2017 and beyond. 

2017: Disney acquires 21st Century Fox — $71 billion

At more than $70 billion, Disney’s buyout of 21st Century Fox may be the nearly 100-year-old firm’s most towering, but it’s the culmination of a vision that began more than a decade earlier and is bearing fruit at the end of the 2010s, as evidenced by the torrent of “Baby Yoda” memes taking over the internet.

The transformation of Netflix from Blockbuster pest with a mail-in DVD service to $150 billion film studio and media platform signaled the rise of the streaming wars. Disney’s acquisition of Fox, which survived a $65 billion counterbid from Comcast, signaled its intention not just to do battle with Netflix — as well as Amazon Prime, HBO, and Apple — but to marshal the necessary resources to vanquish the competition. 

Disney, which is trading at all-time highs with a market cap in excess of $260 billion, may be the early favorite, in part thanks to the Fox deal, which supplies its nascent Disney Plus platform a bulging library of movies and television properties, like “The Simpsons,” “Deadpool,” and “X-Men.”

But any success enjoyed by the newly launched Disney Plus may be just as attributable to a series of smaller, shrewd acquisitions that set the stage for the Fox deal. In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion. Three years later, it grabbed the Marvel universe for $4 billion, followed by Lucasfilm for another $4 billion in 2012.

While each of these transactions has resulted in smash box-office and merchandising hits — as well as hours of valuable content IP — that success wasn’t a foregone conclusion, according to Singh, the Wharton professor.

“You see the building blocks that helped transform Disney,” Singh told Business Insider. “These are risky transactions. This is what I find fascinating.”

Those deals presaged the Fox acquisition, which isn’t without risk itself — the company assumed more than $19 billion in debt to complete it. But Disney may now be better armed than any other media giant to duke it out for streaming subscribers. 

2019: Occidental acquires Anadarko — $38 billion

There’s a reason massive deals are rarely interrupted by an outside bidder: The initial acquirer is already paying a premium, so it’s expensive. Moreover, the first mover has advantages and, all else being equal, their offer is given preference. 

So, when Chevron, the $150 billion in revenue oil behemoth, agreed in April to pay $33 billion for Anadarko Petroleum, it seemed that was that — especially since a $1 billion breakup fee was at stake. 

But Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub had long prized Anadarko, a company of roughly the same size whose fortunes have gushed right alongside the West Texas oil boom. She’d been eyeing up a deal for a couple years, and had been texting and calling with Anadarko CEO Al Walker to hammer out a bid in the days preceding Chevron’s offer. 

Occidental moved quickly to derail the bid from Chevron, coming over the top with a $38 billion offer, an 18% premium and one of the largest hostile counter-bids in history. 

However, with far less financial firepower and the Anadarko board more favorable to Chevron, Occidental was still an underdog, and investors expected a counterbid. 

But over the course of a weekend, Hollub flew to Nebraska to secure a strategic edge: A $10 billion cash infusion from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which agreed to buy preferred Occidental shares to help finance the transaction.

This allowed Occidental to increase the cash portion of its offer to nearly 80% — the rest coming in stock — compared with a bid from Chevron comprised of just 25% cash.

“We needed money that would be highly certain,” Mark Shafir, who helped orchestrate the deal for Occidental as global cohead of M&A at Citigroup, told Business Insider.

“Where are you going to find $10 billion in a weekend?” he added, in reference to Buffett. “He’s arguably the only source in the world you can do that with.”

Rather than engage in a bidding war and potentially overpay, in early May Chevron elected to walk away. But it didn’t leave empty handed, pocketing the $1 billion breakup fee for its efforts.

Occidental got its prize, but whether the price it paid proves too steep remains to be seen: After the deal closed in August, with Occidental stock taking a dive, Carl Icahn bemoaned the deal as “one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”