For the first time, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has flexed its regulatory muscles by ordering the unwinding – during the course of its ongoing investigation – of a completed acquisition. In a demonstration of its willingness to use all of the tools at its disposal – regardless of deal size or complexity – the CMA ordered Tobii AB (Tobii) to reverse any integration that had taken place as a result of its completed acquisition of Smartbox Assistive Technology Limited and Sensory International Ltd (Smartbox).
Tobii announced its acquisition of Smartbox for £11 million in cash through a debt-financed deal in August 2018. Both are relatively small tech companies that provide specialist "augmentative and assistive communication" (AAC) for those with speech disabilities through hardware and software solutions, including eye-gaze cameras.
Following completion of the transaction, Tobii took various steps to integrate the Smartbox business, including entering into an agreement (Reseller Agreement) whereby Smartbox would act as reseller of Tobii products in the UK and Ireland, the discontinuation of certain Smartbox R&D projects, and the withdrawal of certain Smartbox products from the market.
In September 2018, the CMA opened an investigation into the completed transaction and subsequently found that it would lead to less choice, higher prices and reduced innovation for customers. The CMA gave the parties one week to submit undertakings to address these concerns, or the CMA would proceed to an in-depth, Phase 2 investigation.
Despite the parties offering various undertakings designed to alleviate the CMA's concerns, these were not deemed sufficient and, on February 8, 2019, the CMA referred the transaction for Phase 2 investigation, simultaneously imposing an interim order preventing preemptive action.
Following further investigation during the Phase 2 process, the CMA issued – for the first time – an unwinding order. The order requires the parties to reverse integration and restore the parties to the positions in which they would have been had the integration not taken place. The parties are required to fulfil any open orders pursuant to the Reseller Agreement, but terminate it once these are fulfilled. Moreover, the unwinding order requires Smartbox to supply certain products which had been discontinued. Smartbox is also required to reinstate all R&D projects, including investment and staff allocations, which were discontinued due to the acquisition.
In imposing the unwinding order, the CMA concluded that the integration actions taken by the parties might prejudice the Phase 2 reference or impede the taking of any action by the CMA to rectify competitive harm caused by the transaction.
The CMA is scheduled to make its final decision on the transaction by July 25, 2019.
The imposition of an order to unwind integration in a small tech deal could be seen as the CMA wielding a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the Tobii/Smartbox case reflects several of the CMA's priorities for 2019, including an increased focus on tech deals and the protection of vulnerable consumers.
The willingness of the CMA to use the full range of merger control tools at its disposal impacts not only tech deals, but deals in all industry sectors, regardless of size and complexity. Parties in completed transactions, which might affect competition in the UK, but which are not notified to the CMA, should consider carefully what steps to take in terms of integration, and whether and how those steps could be reversed if required to do so by a CMA unwinding order.
The CMA's approach in this case also highlights the perils of not notifying transactions prior to completion. While the UK merger control regime is voluntary in theory, the consequences of not notifying are such that, in practice, the regime requires parties to carry out a careful pre-transaction assessment of the impact on competition in the UK and the risk of the CMA's launching an investigation, instead of simply concluding that filing is not required because the UK regime is voluntary.
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