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White Knight: A Savior in the World of Corporate Takeovers

Updated: Feb 19



In the fascinating realm of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), one can often find an intense battle for control of a company. For a company under the threat of a hostile takeover, the situation can be dire. Enter the "White Knight" – the company's potential savior from such a predicament.


What is a White Knight?


A White Knight is a friendly third-party company that makes a counter-bid to acquire a company that is facing a hostile takeover. The intention behind the White Knight's bid is typically to offer the target company's shareholders a better deal than what the hostile bidder is offering, thereby making the hostile bid less attractive.


Why Does a Company Need a White Knight?


When a company is being targeted for a hostile takeover, it may not always agree with the terms or the intentions behind the takeover. Reasons for resistance can range from differences in strategic vision to concerns about job losses or potential dismantling of the company. A White Knight can provide an alternative acquisition pathway that is more aligned with the target company's vision and values.


Examples


  • R.J. Reynolds and Nabisco vs. F. Ross Johnson (1988): This is a classic example, immortalized in the book and movie "Barbarians at the Gate." F. Ross Johnson, the CEO of RJR Nabisco, attempted a management-led leveraged buyout of the company. Concerned about the implications and potential undervaluation of the company, the board sought other bids. KKR (Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.), a major private equity firm, stepped in with a counter-bid and eventually won the bidding war. While KKR's role wasn't exactly that of a traditional White Knight (given the unique nature of a management-led buyout), it was in many ways a counter to Johnson's attempts.

  • Cadbury vs. Kraft (2009-2010): In 2009, Kraft Foods launched a hostile takeover bid for the British confectionery giant Cadbury. As the takeover battle intensified, there was speculation about potential White Knights that might come to Cadbury's rescue. Names like Hershey and Nestle were floated around. Although Cadbury sought alternatives to fend off Kraft's advances, no White Knight emerged with a concrete counter-offer. Ultimately, in early 2010, Cadbury shareholders approved a revised offer from Kraft, culminating in the acquisition.

  • Disney and Comcast vs. 21st Century Fox: In 2018, both Disney and Comcast were interested in acquiring assets from 21st Century Fox. Disney had initially made an agreement with Fox, but Comcast later made a higher, unsolicited bid. Disney subsequently increased its offer, acting in a manner reminiscent of a "White Knight," although the situation was not a classic hostile takeover scenario. In the end, Disney successfully acquired the majority of 21st Century Fox's assets.


The White Knight vs. Other Players in the M&A Game


In the world of mergers and acquisitions, there are several players, each with a unique role:


  • Black Knight: This is the hostile bidder. They make unsolicited bids to take over a company, often against the wishes of the target company's management.

  • White Squire: This is a friendly investor who buys a smaller stake in the target company to help fend off the Black Knight. Unlike the White Knight, they don't make a bid to acquire the company but provide support in other ways.

  • Gray Knight: This is a third-party company that makes a bid for the target company, regardless of whether the initial bid was hostile or friendly. Their intentions might be unclear, and they can either turn out to be another hostile bidder or a savior.


Benefits of a White Knight


  • Better Terms for Shareholders: The presence of a White Knight can lead to better terms for the shareholders of the target company. This could be in the form of a higher price per share or more favorable conditions.

  • Alignment with Company Vision: A White Knight is often more aligned with the strategic vision and values of the target company compared to a hostile bidder.

  • Job Preservation: Hostile takeovers can often lead to significant job losses. A White Knight can offer a more stable transition, preserving more jobs in the process.


Potential Drawbacks


  • Not Always the Best Financial Deal: Sometimes, the White Knight's offer might not be the most financially attractive on the table. The decision to go with a White Knight can be based on factors other than just money.

  • Integration Challenges: Even though the White Knight is a friendlier option, integrating two companies always comes with its set of challenges.


In the competitive arena of mergers and acquisitions, the White Knight plays a crucial role in ensuring that companies have a fighting chance against hostile bids. While their intervention is not always purely altruistic (they stand to gain from the acquisition, after all), their presence can often mean better outcomes for the target company's shareholders, employees, and stakeholders. Investors should be aware of the dynamics of these takeover defenses and the potential roles that various entities can play in the M&A landscape.

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