Emerson Electric makes a significant offer to acquire NI, which is fighting back.
Acquisitions in the test business are nothing new. Having covered the industry starting in 1992, I’ve seen many test-equipment companies swallow others. Some have familiar names &mdash think Keithley — while others such as Strawberry Tree were not so well known.
Could NI be next?
On January 13, 2023, NI announced a “Rights Plan” designed to make it harder for any single person or company to gain control by gobbling up NI stock. The plan would, after one year, let shareholders other than those owning too much buy additional shares at a 50% discount. From the looks if it, the intent is to ward off a hostile takeover. That hasn’t stopped Emerson Electric, which on January 16 offered to pay $53/share, even going so far as to create a website for the announcement.
NI, the rebranded company still legally known as National Instruments, has made its share of acquisitions over the years. Measurement Computing, Hyperception, HiQ, NH Research, Optimal+, Diligent, and AWR come to mind. Some years ago, there were rumors that Agilent Technologies would acquire NI. I never believed that because founder and CEO Dr. James Truchard was still running the company. From the looks of things, current management still holds a belief that NI should remain independent.
Over the years, NI has built a customer base so loyal that it borders on religious. LabVIEW, its flagship product, has its own ecosystem where engineers actively share code, instrument drivers, programming tips, and system troubleshooting help. Indeed, users in 1991 started their own email group called Info-LabVIEW. The group has gone inactive, having been replaced by user forums hosted at NI.com and social media. LinkedIn alone hosts dozens of LabVIEW groups encompassing thousands of members. Faithful LabVIEW users have written dozens of books in several languages on how to use the graphical programming language.
Numerous companies tried competing with LabVIEW’s graphical programming language. Products such as WaveTest are long gone, either acquired by NI or forced out of the business by NI’s lawyers making patent claims.
As an editor, I’ve worked with NI since 1992. My very first press briefing covered the launch of LabVIEW 2.5 for Windows (3.1 at the time). When Microsoft released a new Windows versions (95, 98, NT, XP, 2000 and so on), NI was the first company I’d contact to ask for an article giving engineers insight into how the new version would affect their jobs.
Then there was NI Week, an annual event now called NI Connect where the faithful gather in Austin to see what, as the NI Week 95 T-shirt said, was “To see what NI competitors would copy next.” For the last several years except for COVID, NI Week/NI Connect has taken place during May. Prior, it took place first in July, then in August. Austin is far more comfortable in May.
NI’s third and current CEO, Eric Starkoff, took over the company just as COVID was taking over the world. Since then, the company’s longtime “The software is the instrument” tag line became “Engineer ambitiously.” Under Starkloff company has shifted its focus towards selling automated test systems aimed at specific industries such as semiconductor and automotive. That’s as opposed to simply selling measurement instruments such as boards and modules. NI had developed a network of third-party system integrators to build custom automated test systems. By going into the systems business, NI competes with some of those third-party integrators.
Even as NI has grown into a global company, it still has a spirit that the founders instilled in their employees. Somehow, I can’t see that spirit surviving after an acquisition.
What’s your take on a possible acquisition of NI? Would you still buy its products for new test systems? Why or why not?