How Apple does M&A: Small and quiet, with no bankers

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AAPLApple CEO Tim CookSpencer Platt | Getty Images

In February, Apple CEO Tim Cook told shareholders that the company had bought about 100 companies in the past six years. That works out to the iPhone maker buying a company every three to four weeks.

The statistic gives the impression of a dealmaking machine. But only a handful of those deals have been big splashy transactions like the $3 billion deal for headphone maker Beats Music in 2014. The vast majority have been for significantly smaller firms without a major public profile.

While big tech rivals routinely strike multi-billion dollar deals, Apple has followed a different strategy. It’s refined the “acquihire,” or strategic purchase of a small company primarily for its staff.

People who have joined Apple through an acquisition and participated in the acquisition process told CNBC that Apple’s acquisition strategy focuses on getting talented technical staff from smaller companies, often valuing those companies in terms of the number of engineers working there, and quickly and quietly integrating them into teams at Apple.

Apple has used acquihires to speed expansion in fields where it needs technical talent or it sees a specific technology that could set it apart from its rivals. While the acquihire is a common technique among big tech companies, Apple’s near-exclusive focus on smaller transactions sets it apart.

“We have seen companies such as Google, Facebook, Intel and Amazon going for many billion-dollar deals,” said Nicklas Nilsson, analyst at GlobalData, a firm that tracks M&A transactions. “Apple is buying more smaller startups while others spend more on established players.”

Cook said in an interview with CNBC in 2019 that the company’s approach is to identify where the company has technical challenges and then to buy companies that address them. One example was the acquisition of AuthenTec in 2012, which led to the iPhone’s fingerprint scanner. “We bought a company that accelerated Touch ID at a point,” Cook said.

Other past acquisitions have become features in Apple products. In 2017, Apple bought an iPhone app for power users called Workflow, which is the basis for Shortcuts app. In 2018, it bought Texture, which reemerged