Dell Does Domination It's a terrible time to be selling computers--unless you're Michael Dell, who is slashing prices and stealing share from less efficient rivals. Is it "game over" in PCs?
By Andy Serwer Reporter Associate Julia Boorstin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Over the years I've spent a fair amount of time hanging out with Michael Dell, and what I noticed during my latest visit with him in Austin is how things have changed. Yes, he is still unflappable. And yes, he greets me in his new glossy offices with the same Stepford Wife-like grin he has always had. But he appears thinner now, as if he's lost baby fat. While he's still slow-moving, as if he's conserving energy, he now cuts to the quick in conversation. And when he zeroes in on the point he wants to make, when he reiterates why Dell Computer is in a better position than any other PC maker in the world, you realize that the 36-year-old has lost what was once one of his greatest advantages: No one underestimates him anymore.

Instead, Michael Dell looms over the PC landscape like a giant, casting a shadow over all his unfortunate competitors. This is a terrible time in a difficult business. PC sales were down for the first time last year. Dell's sales will be down, too, also for the first time. Yet even with that, even with recession, even with the threat of a Hewlett-Packard/Compaq Goliath, this is the only PC maker you can count on to grow and grow and grow. Almost single-handedly, Dell is forcing this industry to consolidate. Could this mean "game over" in the PC biz? Not even the ambitious CEO buys that. "Game over?" he looks back at me incredulously. "No way. We only have 14% global market share."

The Dellites may not admit to "game over" aspirations, but clearly they are thinking of a kind of domination never seen before among PC makers. "We think 40% market share is possible," says Dell's No. 2, Kevin Rollins. That's a remarkable goal; what's more remarkable is that it really is attainable. Don't look for Dell to hit that kind of number anytime soon. Rather, the company's growth will come from grinding out gains on several existing fronts, while shrewdly expanding into new target markets. But the growth will come--just ask Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who has watched Dell take great chunks out of the market for Windows servers, which are essentially high-powered PCs that can help manage Websites or data on corporate networks. "If you want to be in the PC business, you have to compete against Dell," says Ellison, "and that is very, very difficult."

The reason is simple: There's no better way to make, sell, and deliver PCs than the way Dell does it, and nobody executes that model better than Dell. By now most business people can recite the basic tenets of Dell's direct-sales model. Dell machines are made to order and delivered directly to the customer. There is no middleman. The customer gets the exact machine he wants cheaper than he can get it from the competition. The company gets paid by the customer weeks before it pays suppliers. Given all that, the company that famously started in Austin out of a University of Texas dorm room now dominates the northern side of this city the way giant steelworks once lorded over old mill towns. Dell has some 24 facilities in and near Austin and employs more than 18,000 local workers. Dell did over $30 billion in sales in 2000, ranking 48th on the FORTUNE 500, ahead of names like Walt Disney, Johnson & Johnson, and Du Pont. Michael is the richest man under 40 in the world, worth $16 billion.

Two facts show how well the Dell model is working, even in tough times: Dell is on track to earn over $1.7 billion in 2001, taking almost every single dollar of profit among makers of Windows-based PCs. (Intel and Microsoft, of course, earn good money too--but they extract profits from the PC makers.) And Dell is gaining market share. That's not true for any other major PC maker.

Quite the contrary. The others are going splat for the same reason that Dell is succeeding: commoditization. The desktop PC has become a commodity. That's great for consumers, who get standardized, easy-to-use, cheap PCs. But it's horrible for all but one manufacturer. As prices plummet, CEOs of most PC makers find it so hard to make a dime that they must justify to shareholders staying in the business at all. Commoditization relentlessly drives consolidation. And so it is no surprise when former highflying PC makers like AST crash. Or when IBM stops selling PCs in stores. Or when Gateway pulls back from selling overseas. Or when Micron shunts its PC business off to LBO artist Alec Gores. And the latest chapter of the consolidation story, of course, is the proposed HP/Compaq deal.

Commoditization has been going on in the industry for years. Dell, as master of the direct model, spent most of the 1990s operating in techno-Nirvana. The PC market was growing by 15%-plus per year, and the decade ended on a frenzied upswing as companies loaded up on new Y2K-ready machines. For its quarter ended January 2000, Dell did a record $6.8 billion in sales, up 31% from the previous year's quarter. In a sign of things to come, sales growth slowed later in 2000. Then the growth disappeared in 2001.

The economic slowdown was bad news for everyone, but Michael Dell and Kevin Rollins, who is increasingly his equal partner in running this business, made sure it was terrible news for Dell's competitors. In late 2000 they decided to slash prices. "It was advantageous for us, actually, because in periods of slow demand component prices drop, and, unlike our competition, we can pass those savings on immediately to customers," explains Rollins, a fine violinist who grew up in a hard-charging Utah family--his father was an engineering professor at Brigham Young--and came to Dell from the Bain consulting firm. Dell could make more money selling more computers at lower prices than it could selling fewer computers at higher prices. The low prices wreaked havoc on competitors. Compaq, HP, and Gateway all lost market share for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2001, while Dell's share of the U.S. market climbed 31%.

Of course Dell's price war made customers very happy. Sometimes you bump into one of them on an airplane. On a recent flight to Atlanta my neighbor was working on a Dell laptop. "Excuse me," I asked, "how do you like your Dell?" "Funny you should ask," he replied. Turns out he was Bob Perrett, the CEO of a company called Miltex, a dental- and surgical-supply firm in Bethpage, N.Y. Perrett came over to run Miltex two years ago as a dedicated IBM ThinkPad man. And he said as much to Frank Velardo, Miltex's head of IT. But Velardo was a Dell guy with an installed base of several dozen desktops and servers, and he persuaded his new boss to leaf through a Dell brochure. "We picked out a Dell Latitude," says Velardo. "The price was right. It's small, light, and fast. Then we got a large LCD monitor, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and docking stations--one for work and one for home--and he has been in love with it. And now that Miltex does more than $50,000 of business a year with Dell, we get our own dedicated rep." Back on the airplane, Perrett wants to me to hold his new baby. "Pick it up," he says. "It's great."

Success stories like Miltex were the exception for Dell in 2001. Sales to businesses were sluggish, and other markets propped up the company. "The government and education market had really good years," says Joe Marengi, co-head of Dell's Americas business, which produces about 70% of the company's sales. "To a large extent these businesses are driven by taxes, and 2001 was a tremendous year for tax collection." But government spending is almost certain to slow in 2002, which means that Dell is counting on business sales to pick up again. Michael Dell says the case for a second-half recovery is simple: "You've got 150 million computers that are over three years old, 45 million of which are in the large corporate-account sector in the United States of America, where Dell has about 40% market share. If we capture our 40% share of those 45 million, that alone would be 18 million units--which is what people expect us to do for the entire year."

Dell may be right, but some PC industry analysts think he's wrong. They argue that today's machines are so high-powered that companies are likely to put off their upgrades. In fact, as you look across the areas in which Dell has traditionally looked for growth, every single one poses a significant challenge. Some analysts, for instance, want to see great gains from Dell in overseas markets. "In the future, instead of 70% of revenue coming out of North America, you'll see that dip into the 50s or 60s because the U.S. market is not growing as fast as the foreign markets," says Lehman Brothers' Dan Niles. But Europe, the company's second-biggest market, has been problematic. Dell has made several missteps there over the years, so success is hardly a given.

Then there's the consumer PC business. For years, business and home PCs were essentially the same machines. That's changing now. "The consumer wants the PC to be a home entertainment/multimedia experience," Michael Dell wrote to me in a recent e-mail. "The product lines are totally different." He believes his company will win here too, especially given the weakness of Gateway, the leading direct seller of consumer PCs. This Christmas season, Dell saturated 86 television channels with its "Steven" commercials, which touted all the cool things consumers can do with Dell PCs. The CEO wants consumer PCs to account for 20% of sales--up from 15% now--but Dell's home PCs aren't yet known as superior consumer machines. When it comes to the home, Sony's Vaio and Apple's iMac are the creme de la creme, the machines with all the buzz.

Other companies, most notably IBM, have turned to services for growth. IBM sells a wide range of hardware, but its meat and potatoes now is business services--the company's army of consultants who advise customers on how to use and implement its technology. (Credit CEO Lou Gerstner for realizing that selling hardware wouldn't get him the margins he wanted, and for building up IBM's strengths in services.)

Competitors think services are Dell's great weakness. They say that Dell, which often partners with companies like EDS, doesn't have what it takes to truly serve large corporations. As an example, they point to the fact that Dell lost a big global account with Shell. Indeed, one of the key reasons supporters of the proposed HP/Compaq deal are pushing hard for the merger is that they think the combination would create a services business that could successfully compete with IBM and steal sales from Dell. Michael Dell dismisses the criticism. "Services is now a $3-billion-a-year business at Dell," he says. "In the large-account space it's becoming a critical factor in many bids. We don't, however, need to copy IBM. We can keep doing it our way and win." Dell Computer will have enough of a consulting business to satisfy large customers--and no more.

That's because Michael Dell believes he can get higher margins from any number of hardware businesses. He is actively pushing the company into a wide range of peripheral products. How does he decide which products fit the bill? A few criteria must be met: The product must be (1) PC-related, (2) sizable, (3) profitable, and (4) increasingly a commodity.

Two product lines that make the list are storage and switches, and Dell is pushing like mad into those businesses. (Hey, EMC and Cisco! Guess who's coming to dinner?) The company has talked a lot about those efforts over the past year or so, but only now are the products being rolled out to any significant degree. Kim Crawford, who has an engineering degree from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard and who also did a stint at Bain, is the head of Dell's switches business. Crawford pulls out a chart diagramming the product life-cycle of switches, those black boxes that connect computer networks. "Here," she says. "Here's where we want to be. The sweet spot." She's pointing at so-called Layer 2 switches, which are used by customers looking to link computers in small to medium-sized networks, and are selling like crazy. And with operating margins reaching up to 50%, switches are a perfect Dell target: more profitable than PCs, and yet sufficiently overpriced that Dell can come in on the low end and steal market share from the likes of 3Com and Cisco. "It won't be a cakewalk," Crawford admits, "but this is a $17 billion market, and we aim to get our fair share."

Dell has entrusted its storage business to Russ Holt, a 40-year-old Georgia Tech computer science grad by way of NCR. Holt has targeted the boxes that hold data for low-end and medium-powered servers. Five years ago Dell ranked sixth among makers of these non-Unix-based servers, and the conventional wisdom was that corporate IT folks would never put their networks at risk by running Dell's cheap machines. The conventional wisdom was wrong. In 2001, Dell soared past Compaq into the No. 1 spot in the U.S. "It's breathtaking what they are doing," marvels Oracle's Ellison. "Dell gained six points of market share in one year. I've never heard of that before." (Actually, Larry, it was seven.)

Holt's charge is simple: Reenact the success Dell has had with servers in the $30-billion-a-year storage market by persuading customers to change brands. In a sense that becomes easier every quarter, since the IT manager who was a tough sell for his first Dell server is an easier sell for his first piece of Dell storage. Endeavors like Holt's also entail going to war with former allies. Some competitors scoff at the idea that Dell will ever get a firm hold in storage, where it ranks just seventh now. But the company already has a $1.4 billion run rate in storage, its revenues are growing at 27%, and the business is ripe for a low-price alternative. Sure sounds like Windows servers a few years back....

While switches and storage make sense to the CEO, other hardware markets don't fit the plan. PDAs, for instance, are a nonstarter. (Interestingly, Dell and Steve Jobs see eye to eye on this one.) According to one Dell employee, Michael goes around dissing PDAs with a simple query: "Question: What is the biggest button on a PDA? Answer: The button that syncs it to your PC." Simply put, they aren't big enough or profitable enough for Dell. To wit: Palm just reported second-quarter revenues of $290 million, down from $522 million the previous year. As for the bottom line: It lost $36 million.

Those kinds of numbers just aren't interesting to Dell, especially when you consider his greatest worry: the stock. Yes, it was up some 50% in 2001, but over the past three years it's languished. Making matters worse, Dell shares are not cheap. On calendar 2001 earnings, it has a P/E of 42. On 2002 estimates, the P/E is still 37. For the stock to get back to its all-time high of $58, which it hit in March 2000, it would have to more than double, giving the company a market cap of $150 billion--a lofty perch occupied by the likes of Merck and SBC Communications. That's not implausible, but it sure is challenging, given that the company may not do $8.7 billion of sales in a quarter (as it did at the end of 2000) for years. Look long term, says the CEO: "Our stock went on the same wild ride as Nasdaq, but now we are faring very well. If we execute, the stock goes up bigtime over several years. I remain focused on where we want to be five to ten years from now, and beyond." Dell himself went out on the open market last September to buy tens of millions of shares. Of course, the stock then sold for under $20, not its current $28.

The CEO's confidence about Dell's long-term prospects hasn't done much to sway his Wall Street critics. Some naysayers whisper that the company is too aggressive with its accounting and makes suppliers hold back inventory at the end of a quarter to goose its numbers. Michael Dell doesn't completely disavow this: "I'm not going to suggest that there couldn't be incidents where we did things that could appear like that," he says, "but on a broad scale, no, that does not reflect our activities at all." The problem is that analysts question the big picture as much as the details. "We've been negative on Dell even though we think the business model is the best in the industry," says Lehman's Niles. "But that model doesn't matter at the end of the day, if the market you're serving is shrinking [for now]." If you buy into that kind of skepticism, you've got to question the value of Dell's ambitious long-term goals. "I believe 40% [market share] is a completely feasible number," says Morgan Stanley's Gillian Munson, and Niles concurs. But what does that really mean, assuming that the PC business is likely to be a slow-growth business with increasingly tight margins? Slow growth with low margins sounds a lot like a supermarket! Nonsense, counters Dell. "We have a multitude of opportunities," he says. "Market-share consolidation in PCs, servers, storage, services, software and peripherals, networking, financing, etc., and an advantaged business model. Net it all out [and] we should be able to grow much faster than most companies. Who of the large techs is better positioned to grow?"

No one, of course. And so Dell is hell-bent on growth, skeptics be damned. He won't say how much growth how fast, exactly, but here's how he expressed his ambition in a recent e-mail to me: "There are many different ways to look at it but we will grow. It's hard to beat our own 42% CAGR [compound annual growth rate] over the past six years. Comparing it to others Wal-Mart grew 29% CAGR in the six years up to $30 billion in revenues. In the six years after $30 billion, Wal-Mart grew 26%. Hope that helps."

Oh, it helped me, sure. If Dell can pull off something this audacious, he'll put a big hurt on competitors, of course, not to mention ratcheting up the pressure on Dell suppliers. Dell seems to be well on its way to becoming the Wal-Mart of the PC industry. With its huge and growing volume, it demands--and gets--more and more and more from companies that supply it with PC components. If Dell gets big enough, it could even put heat on Intel and Microsoft, which have never had to deal with a customer with this kind of potential clout. Executives at Microsoft deferred to CEO Steve Ballmer on this question, but he was unavailable for comment. Intel's Paul Otellini dismisses the notion that Dell could ever become as dominant as, say, Microsoft.

Otellini's probably right that Dell will never gain the kind of 90% market share in PCs that Microsoft enjoys in operating systems. That's a good thing for us, the PC consumers. The last thing we need is a company with anything approaching monopoly power in hardware. The very thought strikes Dell as odd. "But we keep lowering prices," he tells me, with a quizzical look, when I raise the subject. Can't argue with that. Once again, think of Wal-Mart. Dell could well keep growing to what we once thought was an impossible size, squeezing out competitors--some of which we will be sad to see go. But when was the last time you heard about Wal-Mart raising prices?

So sure, don't look for Dell to grow its revenues 40% a year anymore. This company is simply too big to guarantee that kind of growth. But there's no reason Dell can't begin to look like some sort of superbad blue chip. Which brings me to a final Wal-Mart analogy. For years and years Wal-Mart was a stock market superstar. Then, in 1992, WMT, which was then trading in the (split-adjusted) mid-teens, stalled. The company had various problems relating to operations and management, and some critics said its long run was over. For years these critics appeared to be correct. WMT never broke $20, even as the rest of the market was on the move. In the meantime though, after straightening out its problems, Wal-Mart just kept on doing what it had always done: growing and cutting costs. Finally, in 1997, the stock took off on another run. Today, WMT trades in the high 50s.

As with Wal-Mart, with Dell you get the feeling that it's not if this stock will take off again, but when.