The firm insists that an influential VC's 38% stake won't compromise its objectivity
Two weeks ago, 700 CIOs and thousands of other technology professionals attended a six-day strategy fest in Orlando, Fla., to hear Gartner analysts talk about everything from application integration to business-process "fusion." The IT research and advisory firm can draw such a large and influential crowd because of its track record for providing top-notch analysis of IT trends and helping companies develop successful business-technology plans. Would their respect for Gartner's advice change if they knew the firm is indirectly owned by dozens of big-money investors who control some of the same companies Gartner evaluates?
That scenario was not an issue as recently as a few weeks ago. But in a debt-to-stock conversion that took place in early October, Silver Lake Partners, a Silicon Valley private equity-investment firm, gained 49.4 million shares of Gartner stock, or about 38% of outstanding shares. Two principals of Silver Lake, Glenn Hutchins and David Roux, already were on Gartner's 10-member board of directors.
Silver Lake invests large stakes--in the range of $50 million to $400 million--in only a few companies, betting it can realize big returns through financial engineering and a hands-on approach. The firm's general partners include Roger McNamee, a co-founder who gained fortune and fame as an investor, and Ed Zander, who joined Silver Lake after 15 years as a top executive with Sun Microsystems.
But it's the individuals who invest in Silver Lake, called limited partners, who might be of most interest to Gartner clients. According to Silver Lake, they include more than 150 "leading technology executives from the top technology firms." Some of the names you might recognize: Michael Dell, Larry Ellison, and Bill Gates.
No one has suggested that Gartner's output has been tainted in any way by the indirect connection between the industry heavyweights that invest in Silver Lake and the market advice Gartner's analysts and consultants provide. But Gartner's customers want to know that the connection exists and how the company deals with it.
"That's definitely relevant to us," says Onker Basu, a VP in the information-services division of National City Corp., a bank holding company with $100 billion worth of assets that's a Gartner client. Basu didn't know of the relationship between Silver Lake and Gartner but says he'll pay closer attention. "We have an interest in knowing what could potentially influence Gartner's output."
Gartner is the dominant provider of business-technology research, with clients spending $85,000 to $95,000 on average. In a 2001 survey, InformationWeek Research found almost nine of 10 companies surveyed used Gartner as an information source.
Investors and board members have "no influence, input, or connection whatsoever to the research process," Gartner CEO Fleisher says.
Photo by Calvin Knight, courtesy Gartner
Freight company Menlo Worldwide Forwarding is a Gartner client, and managing director of IT Ron Berger was unaware of Silver Lake's large stake. Berger says he'll reserve judgment on Gartner until he learns more but makes it clear the company's objectivity counts for a lot. "The value of a company like [Gartner] is its impartiality," he says.
Gartner officials don't go out of their way to talk about the Silver Lake ownership. The advisory firm disclosed on Oct. 8 that its $300 million debt to Silver Lake was converted into shares, but the subject didn't come up less than two weeks later at its Symposium conference. Gartner CEO Michael Fleisher says that's largely because no one's interested. "I meet with hundreds of clients," Fleisher explains. "I've never had a client ask about Silver Lake."
Customers need not worry about Gartner's objectivity, Fleisher says. Investors and board members have "no influence, input, or connection whatsoever to the research process," he says. "There's no dialogue between board members and analysts, no communications path, no reviewing of research by board members." To ensure the integrity of its advice, Gartner also uses peer review to encourage researchers to comment on one another's work.
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