The secret of success

Keeping an acquisition secret is hard work; leading a succesfull change is even harder



The announcement of an acquisition immediately puts the spotlight on the companies involved: it asks serious questions of their internal communications and employee engagement, their shareholder and investment relations, and their self-image and future prospects.

One company that can point to a recent success as an inspiration to others is Océ, the 133-year old Netherlands-based printer and copier company, who, towards the end of 2009, announced news of their acquisition by the Japanese multinational Canon. Recognising that speculation can have a tangible, financial affect on the company’s well-being, Océ adopted a stealth campaign that relied on a striking degree of secrecy in the build-up to the day it could share the news with its 21,000 employees.

How secret? Not even their director of communications, Nancy Aschman, was let in on the planning stage until a scant two weeks before the breaking news announcement on November 16, leaving a dauntingly short amount of time to plan and execute the communication strategy. “I’ve never had an experience like this before,” confides Ashman. “It was very, very secretive.”

Can you keep a secret?

Prior to this two-week countdown, the management board had approached only a small team of top managers, including senior vice president of marketing communications and corporate communications Jan Hol, the company’s legal advisors, and public relations agency Hill & Knowlton, before letting the inhouse corporate communications team in on the discussions. “The level of secrecy was so high, that we didn’t use any internal systems at all,” explains Aschman. That means working day and night outside normal company networks, using private secure mail, and meetings held offsite in closed rooms. Codenames were used, and documents in hard copy, to be destroyed at the end of every day. In addition to three members of the corporate communications team, about 15 external professionals were let in on the plan.

“When we knew which media tools we needed, we had to get audiovisual companies in, satellite connections set up, so we had to use freelancers, with the help of Hill & Knowlton.” For all involved in the inner circle, a non-disclosure agreement was drawn up, swearing the group to secrecy and highlighting the consequences of leakages. I asked Aschman on the strain of juggling this burden of secrecy: “It was very inspiring, but also at the same time very stressful”, she admits. As an illustration, she offers an example of some unexpected obstacles: “On the day before the announcement was made I was looking for cables to connect technical systems – I couldn’t even inform the technical staff in the company’s locations. So, on the night before, I found myself on my knees, trying to find cables to connect all kinds of monitors, because I couldn’t inform anybody!”

Mixed media

The announcement itself was at 07:00, November 16. A mixture of both traditional and new media was used to make sure that the press announcements were disclosed at exactly the same time: video screens at the entries of office buildings and factories carried a message from Rokus van Iperen, Océ’s CEO, and satellite television covered press conferences in Tokyo and Amsterdam, which were also carried on the intranet. And to further the cloak-and-dagger element of this campaign, journalists were woken exactly five minutes after the announcement, and a selected few found taxis at their doorstep waiting to whisk them to the conference (or, in some cases, to private jets). Nancy Aschman credits this idea with generating positive excitement amongst the media: “They were inspired by it, particularly some regional journalists, because they just don’t expect this kind of thing.”

Honest and up-front

But the big day was only the beginning, a prelude to the hard work of managing the actual preparations for the integration of the two companies, and keeping employees onside in an uncertain time. As Aschman explains, “You can’t keep people in the dark after a big announcement like that, so you have to keep people updated about what is going on, you have to be clear and consistent in the messaging. Because everybody of course instantly thinks ‘What about me?’ and ‘What’s in it for me?’”. 

Town hall meetings by the CEO were held on the second and third day after the news broke, as well as meetings by the managing directors in the operating companies. Employees were invited to share their feelings about this life-changing development using social media tools on the internal network (such as Océ TV and a twitter messaging system called Yammer) while a bi-monthly newsletter kept them informed of important updates.

While Océ’s employee communications during this process was candid, it did emphasise the good fit between Canon and Océ, as Aschman explains: “We sell to a very high-end, niche market: we sell printers to the printing industry and architects, and the graphical and advertising industry, high-tech machines. If you look at Canon, they have very large-volume machines selling in very different markets, so everyone knew that the fit with Canon was excellent. And also we don’t have many overlaps in our markets: we were very clear about that.”

The balance between the two messages – confident about the process, open about the uncertainty – was integral. “It’s one of the reasons that our employees are so positive about what happened”, affirms Aschman. “I guess because we were so transparent and honest about what was going to happen, everybody realised that, of course, you can not tell what is going to happen in a year from now, because there will be changes that we can not foresee at the moment. But by being very consistent and positive, most people in the company knew that Canon was a good fit as a company in our industry and our consistent messaging strengthened this positive feeling about the combination.” 

Looking forward

The results of an employee survey conducted a week after the announcement were generally positive, and helped lay the basis for future communications, and media coverage was similarly approving. In the meantime all kind of initiatives started to join forces and start cross selling. A “Canon Camp” was established, to prepare sales people to sell Canon products, and communications made sure that everyone - from customers, financial analysts and employees to people living in neighbourhoods around the facilities – continued to receive messages that were consistent but tailor-made to their own interests and understanding.

Aschman evaluates the company’s current position with enthusiasm: “Together we are now the biggest in our industry. Of course it means that things will change and people will face new challenges, but there’s a whole new world opening up for us, suddenly we’ve become part of this very big company offering many opportunities for people.” And as for the high-pressure, clandestine planning? “I think everybody was relieved that it went so well and that we were able to achieve the success that we aimed for. In my experience as a corporate communications professional, I wouldn’t have missed such a project on such a dimension for the world.”