Will Kroll Ontrack Survive or Open the Market to Newer, Better and Less Expensive Solutions?

Earlier this week, Marsh & McLennan (M&M) announced the sale of Kroll, its computer forensics division which last year generated $678 million in revenue. Kroll is being acquired by Altegrity, an investigative services company which is owned by Providence Equity. Financed by Apollo Investment Services and Goldman Sachs, the acquisition price is $1.13 billion.

The shear size of the acquisition is news in and of itself as it lends credence to the potential of the eDiscovery, Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) and associated computer forensic markets. However, I am more interested in what it means to the technology side of the industry and how it will effect buying behavior within the Global 2000.

In a June 8th, 2010 blog post titled, “What’s Next for Kroll Ontrack,” Aafre Hilay from Clearwell explores whether Kroll should fix or sell Ontrack. And, more importantly, describes how early technology players in any industry normally ends up being a burden to their owners and eventually fade into the sunset. Thereby, enabling the next generation of technology platform to emerge and takeover the market.

“Just as Yahoo was an internet pioneer in the 1990s, Kroll Ontrack was the pioneer of electronic discovery services. Like all pioneers, as the first to market, Kroll had to build everything itself. So Kroll Ontrack invested not only in recruiting and training its staff of skilled consultants, the company also developed its own suite of e-discovery tools and software. It offered this integrated package of services and software to the market and, justifiably, charged a price premium. But as the industry matured, it disaggregated with more savvy customers and new companies focused on specific parts of the value chain. Customers became better educated and more confident making decisions, diminishing the value of Kroll’s “we-are-the-safe-choice” value proposition. These customers today have many more options for e-discovery than was the case in years gone by, primarily because of a generation of e-discovery software companies, such as Clearwell, Guidance, Exterro, and kCura/Relativity, which offer capabilities like collection, ECA (Early Case Assessment), litigation hold management, and linear review. These have been widely adopted by Kroll Ontrack’s competitors, negating Kroll’s technological advantage. Even worse, because Kroll Ontrack’s competitors do not need to invest in R&D, they have a substantially lower cost structure. As a result, they have undercut Kroll Ontrack on price, which has halted its growth and squeezed its margins,” states Mr. Hilay.

I believe, as I stated in a recent blog post titled, The Era of the Megalith in College Football and eDiscovery, “…with today’s agile development methodologies and rapidly evolving open source technology stacks, it is becoming more and more difficult for the Megalith development teams to compete long term. And at some point, your code base becomes so large and integrated in such strange ways that no one actually even knows how it works. I guess at that point you sell your maintenance stream to CA or IBM and go home.”

I suspect that Kroll Ontrack and the other early entrants into this market are at that point where the Clearwells and KCuras and Exterros of the world just have too much of an advantage and therefore my answer to Mr. Hilay’s question is that Altegrity needs to sell Ontrack before it drags them under.

The full text of Mr. Hilay’s post is as follows:

Yesterday, Marsh & McLennan (M&M) announced the sale of Kroll, its investigative services division which last year generated $678 million in revenue. Kroll is being acquired by Altegrity, another investigative services company which is owned by Providence Equity. The acquisition price is $1.13 billion, below the $1.3 billion M&M was rumored to be asking, and the deal is financed by Apollo Investment Services and Goldman Sachs.

There are many aspects to this transaction, but I want to focus on just one: what does this mean for Kroll Ontrack, Kroll’s largest division with $250 million in revenue and a staggering 1,500 employees, making it by far the world’s largest e-discovery service provider?

To answer this question, I will first outline the strategic challenge facing Kroll Ontrack, before outlining two alternative strategies its new owners may adopt for addressing it.

Strategic Challenge: Kroll Ontrack Is The “Yahoo! Of E-Discovery”
Just as Yahoo was an internet pioneer in the 1990s, Kroll Ontrack was the pioneer of electronic discovery services. Like all pioneers, as the first to market, Kroll had to build everything itself. So Kroll Ontrack invested not only in recruiting and training its staff of skilled consultants, the company also developed its own suite of e-discovery tools and software. It offered this integrated package of services and software to the market and, justifiably, charged a price premium.

But as the industry matured, it disaggregated with more savvy customers and new companies focused on specific parts of the value chain. Customers became better educated and more confident making decisions, diminishing the value of Kroll’s “we-are-the-safe-choice” value proposition. These customers today have many more options for e-discovery than was the case in years gone by, primarily because of a generation of e-discovery software companies, such as Clearwell, Guidance, Exterro, and kCura/Relativity, which offer capabilities like collection, ECA (Early Case Assessment), litigation hold management, and linear review. These have been widely adopted by Kroll Ontrack’s competitors, negating Kroll’s technological advantage. Even worse, because Kroll Ontrack’s competitors do not need to invest in R&D, they have a substantially lower cost structure. As a result, they have undercut Kroll Ontrack on price, which has halted its growth and squeezed its margins.

In a directly analogous way, Yahoo! has seen its broad internet service to consumers eroded by a host of more focused competitors such as Google, Facebook, and Skype. Consumers today are much more familiar with the internet, and feel comfortable making separate choices for search, social networking, and messaging, without the need for an umbrella brand. That has left Yahoo! without a reason for being: even today, its CEO struggles to answer the fundamental question “what is Yahoo!?”

Solution: Sell It Or Fix It
As Kroll Ontrack’s new owner, Altegrity has a simple choice. It could sell Kroll Ontrack, making the strategic challenge someone else’s problem; or Altegrity could fix it, by adopting a fundamentally different strategy.

Let’s consider each in turn:

Sell It: Most sensible people would find it funny to think about selling something right after you bought it. But in this case, it could make a lot of sense. Altegrity is a leading provider of investigative services, not e-discovery, making the “non-Ontrack” part of Kroll’s business a much better fit. So why not sell Kroll Ontrack, pay down debt, and focus on the services business which it understands? This would be especially attractive if, as Vivian Tero at IDC suggests, there are willing buyers such as ECM or storage software companies which like Kroll Ontrack but do not want the services business.

Fix It: Mike Cherkasky, Altegrity’s CEO, is a former head of Kroll, and so is perhaps uniquely well placed to bring about a change in direction. To do so, he must decide what Kroll Ontrack wants to be. If its goal is to be the leading e-discovery service provider, then it should kill its internal software development efforts and focus on providing customers the absolute best service using industry leading tools. If it wants to be an e-discovery software company, which would be a much harder transition, then it needs to exit the services business and make its technology available every litigation support company.

Either way, it will take time and a lot of painful decisions for Kroll Ontrack to recover its momentum. But if any encouragement is needed, the Altegrity and the Kroll Ontrack teams need only look at what’s happening to Fios, another of the industry’s early pioneers. So far, Fios has refused to decide what it wants to be, abandoning its internal review platform for Relativity but keeping its proprietary processing software. The result? It’s had three different CEOs in the past 12 months, and competitors continue to steal market share.

About Charles Skamser
Charles Skamser is an internationally recognized technology sales, marketing and product management leader with over 25 years of experience in Information Governance, eDiscovery, Machine Learning, Computer Assisted Analytics, Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics, IT Automation and ITOA. Charles is the founder and Senior Analyst for eDiscovery Solutions Group, a global provider of information management consulting, market intelligence and advisory services specializing in information governance, eDiscovery, Big Data analytics and cloud computing solutions. Previously, Charles served in various executive roles with disruptive technology start ups and well known industry technology providers. Charles is a prolific author and a regular speaker on the technology that the Global 2000 require to manage the accelerating increase in Electronically Stored Information (ESI). Charles holds a BA in Political Science and Economics from Macalester College.