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Dell Poaches IBM's Top M&A Exec

In a sign it plans to become more active in the mergers and acquisitions market, computer maker Dell has lured away IBM's top corporate buyout expert, InformationWeek has learned exclusively. In response, IBM has filed a lawsuit -- its third in recent months against a senior executive looking to jump ship -- in an effort to block the move.

Dell plans to name David L. Johnson senior VP for strategy. He is currently IBM's VP for corporate development and also is a member of Big Blue's elite Integration & Values team.

Dell has been relatively timid on the acquisition front despite its status as one of the world's largest tech vendors. The company has completed just 10 deals since 1999 -- the largest a $1.4 billion buyout of storage technology specialist EqualLogic.

By contrast, IBM announced or sealed 14 acquisitions in 2008 alone, including the $5 billion takeover of Canadian business software developer Cognos.

Johnson has overseen IBM's frenetic merger activity for the past nine years and is a 27-year veteran of the company.

Dell's plans to anoint Johnson as its top M&A planner likely signal a shift in strategy at Round Rock. The stock market's travails have pummeled valuations for a number once-high-flying IT players, and Dell may be looking to take advantage.

Recent consolidation in the tech market -- including Oracle's deal to acquire Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion and Hewlett-Packard's $13.9 billion capture of outsourcer EDS in 2008 may also be playing into CEO Michael Dell's thinking. He may be feeling isolated as an increasing number of competitors pair up.

Logical acquisition targets for Dell include IT services firms -- assuming the company wants to diversify--and developers that produce software capable of automating management tasks around Dell's desktop and data center products. A best-of-breed storage vendor -- such as EMC -- might also be a fit for Dell.

For IBM, Johnson's departure is inauspicious. With rivals consolidating, Big Blue itself may be looking to strike a bold deal to maintain a level playing field. Some pundits believe the company could be looking at German business software maker SAP. An acquisition of SAP would help IBM counter Oracle's plans to build, in CEO Larry Ellison's words, an "applications-to-disk" product portfolio that includes apps inherited from PeopleSoft and Sun's Sparc hardware.

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