By BEN WORTHEN
Michael Dell doesn't want to talk about personal computers anymore. As Dell Inc.'s chief executive works to turn around the once high-flying PC maker, he has bet on diversifying away from the company's best-known product.
The 46-year-old has been acquiring high-end technologies—such as storage and security systems—that Dell can sell to businesses to lessen its reliance on selling low-margin desktop and laptop computers.
Dell bought services provider Perot Systems Corp. for $3.9 billion in 2009. Last year, it lost a high-profile bidding war for 3PAR to rival Hewlett-Packard Co. but later scooped up another data-storage company, Compellent Technologies Inc., for $960 million.
After some shaky years, the Round Rock, Texas, company's results have improved recently. The company has stabilized its PC business. That said, it has made little headway in smartphones or with its Streak line of tablet computers. Dell shares are off about 35% since Mr. Dell returned as CEO in 2007.
Mr. Dell, who founded Dell out of his university dorm room in 1984, remains a believer: He spent $100 million in December to add to his already sizable stake in the company. He recently spoke with The Wall Street Journal about his strategy, his acquisition plans and his view of Apple Inc.'s iPad. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: You've been back as CEO for four years now. What has surprised you the most about the evolution of the tech industry in that time?
Mr. Dell: I'd say [the] rapid rise of the tablet. I didn't completely see that coming.
Tablets aren't really new, in the sense that the tablet PC idea's been around for a while. Obviously, more recent products have been much more successful.
What's interesting [is that] business users are not going to give up smartphones. Won't give up PCs. So now you have a PC, you have a smartphone and you have a tablet. Sounds pretty good. Industry growth.
What's also interesting is Apple's great success with the iPhone. Android comes along, even greater success. I think you'll see the same thing on tablets, with enormous numbers of Android tablets with Dell certainly playing a role in that as well.
WSJ: Do you think Android tablets will outpace iPads moving forward?
Mr. Dell: Not tomorrow. Not the next day. But again, if you look at 18 months ago, Android phones were like, "What is that?" And now there are more Android phones than iPhones. I don't see any reason why the same won't occur with Android tablets.
WSJ: In 2007, you made a big push in the consumer business and said it was going to be one of the pillars of the company. Would you still position that the same way?
Mr. Dell: Two-thirds of Dell's profit is not the PC. Of the one-third that is the PC, the vast majority of that is not consumer. I'm just level-setting what Dell is today, because I think a lot of people look at Dell and they go, "Oh, Dell is a consumer PC company." That's not really at all what Dell is today. Certainly we want to grow our consumer business and we want to grow it profitably.
Last quarter we had a modest profit in consumer. It looks like we'll be well-positioned to have a similar kind of modest profit this year. We're investing a lot in our products. But is the fundamental epicenter of the company going to change from enterprise solutions, services, data centers, storage, virtualization, security? No. But we want to participate in many markets. Consumer is one of them.
WSJ: What convinced you that enterprise was the direction to steer the company?
Mr. Dell: If anything changed it was understanding what Dell's actually doing. Look at all the companies Dell has acquired in the last four years. They're all focused in the new areas I've been talking about: storage, services, data center, security, virtualization, networking, software, enterprise.
WSJ: Should we expect more acquisitions along those lines?
Mr. Dell: Growth for Dell will be a combination of investing organically, inorganic acquisitions and partnerships. Certainly we became a $61 billion business primarily with organic growth. If you look at our profitability it's clearly been impacted by the successful acquisition and integration strategy. We tend toward what would generally be referred to as small-to-medium-size acquisitions. So we don't really see that changing.
WSJ: Would you ever consider spinning off the PC business?
Mr. Dell: I don't have any plans to do that.
WSJ: Dell is making a big push in cloud computing where you're not just up against your traditional competitors, but companies like Rackspace and Amazon.com. How do you anticipate that shaking out?
Mr. Dell: The companies you just mentioned are Dell customers. So we're helping them build the infrastructure that enables their cloud offerings. The kind of cloud offerings that we're providing are more secure and more dedicated to the needs of larger commercial organizations. They're not aimed at the start-ups or the consumer.
WSJ: Are companies like Amazon and Facebook—because of their enormous scale—gaining power to dictate terms and drive profits out of the server business?
Mr. Dell: It's not unlike how we would think of a flagship customer. Facebook will define a new requirement.
Well, it turns out that there are 10 more companies that want the very same thing. And then after that there are a hundred more companies that want the same thing. If they're right about what they've defined, it benefits us and many other customers.
WSJ: What's your opinion on the overall health of the economy right now?
Mr. Dell: I think the economy is cruising a bit. We're seeing healthy trends in emerging countries, in [small and medium business], in large enterprise. I think [the] public sector is a little more challenged with some of the budget issues. But there, again, it creates some opportunities, because when budgets are constrained, it causes people to look for ways to save money and many times that's using more IT.
Write to Ben Worthen at email@example.com