Thayer Capital Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity investment firm, has acquired Sunburst Technology, a division of Houghton Mifflin Co. and a leading supplier of software to schools in the United States and Canada.
Sunburst develops and sells educational software for the K-8 market, including such well-known brands as Tenth Planet, HyperStudio, and Type to Learn. The company’s software division is one of three branches; the other two are educational reseller Educational Resources and Sunburst Health and Guidance, which produces videos and printed supplements for educators.
“With the growth in education spending at all levels of government and the greater emphasis on technology in the classroom, we see this as an excellent business opportunity, buying top brands in a very stable industry with strong growth prospects,” said Chris Temple, managing director for Thayer Capital Partners. Jim McVety, a senior analyst for educational market research firm Eduventures Inc., called the move “an interesting transaction” for all parties involved.
Although Houghton said it made the move to get back to its core business, McVety said the company’s decision was puzzling. He said it’s not clear why the publishing giant would choose to divest a highly profitable company with proven experience in such critical areas as reading, math, health, and science.
McVety attributed the sale to Houghton’s own impending sale. Last month, eSchool News reported that French media conglomerate Vivendi Universalwhich owns Houghton Mifflinwas looking to unload the company in an effort to shed expenses.
In light of its pending sale, McVety said the publisher probably is looking for ways to secure its own place in the market. “Houghton is struggling to define its future,” he said, adding that the move proves Houghton wants to concentrate its efforts on publishing and assessment.
Thayer, which McVety said has been shopping for a stake in the education market since the mid-90s, finally found a viable entry point in Sunburst. “This is a bold, intelligent step for Thayer,” McVety said. According to him, the company is strong, profitable, and has a good sales model.
McVety said Thayer was “intrigued” by the deal because it gives the firmwhich traditionally has been focused on manufacturing businessesaccess to “a positive growth market.”
Though executives at Thayer said they are excited about the opportunity to grow the business, there is some question as to whether an investment firm with no prior experience can succeed in an admittedly complex education marketplace.
McVety said Thayer has tried to safeguard itself against such uncertainties by bringing in corporate managers who have proven track records and are considered experts in the field. Sunburst’s new Chief Executive Officer John Crowley, for instance, is former president of Educational Resources. Thayer will use long-time veteran Crowley not only to grow its investment, but also to deflect claims of inexperience and reassure customers that Sunburst’s services are in confident hands, McVety said.
“I think the team is falling in line quickly,” he said. “But the market will need some time to adjust to this.”
McVety said it’s “much too soon yet” to speculate about what this sale might mean for Sunburst’s school customers in the long term. But the first 100 days of the venture should be an indicator of future success, he said.