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Michael Dell on Carl Icahn, Hewlett Packard, and the Entrepreneurs He Most Admires

By Jon Fine | Small Business

The legendary Dell founder, a lengthy battle for his company now safely behind him, still isn't going on double-dates with Carl Icahn

Michael Dell successfully fended off activist investor Carl Icahn and, almost exactly one year ago, completed a $24 billion deal to take his company private. So what would he have done had he lost that battle, and gotten bounced from the company that bears his name?

"I probably would have taken a few months off, and started a new company," Dell told attendees at the Inc. 5000 conference today. Though, sadly, he refused entreaties from his onstage interviewer, Inc.'s editor-at-large Tom Foster, to divulge what kind of new company he would have launched.

Clearly, the entrepreneurial bug bit deep into Dell, who famously started his company--one of the signal American tech success stories from the 1980s, and one of the longest lasting--from his dorm room while still a freshman at the University of Texas. (He was also Inc.'s first Entrepreneur of the Year, in 1989.) A relaxed Dell, clad in an old-school tech exec uniform of a dark sport jacket and a white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, pronounced himself thrilled to be helming a private company once more.

"Twenty percent of my time is now freed up," he said--and that 20 percent encompassed his "most annoying tasks," devoted exclusively to the administrative and communications demands associated with heading a publicly traded company.

Also gone now is any reason to deal with his former antagonist Icahn. "I haven't had the occasion to speak with him" since taking the company private, Dell observed, adding a tart "nor do I have any desire to."

Dell took his company private, in the largest tech leveraged buyout to date, with financial backers Silver Lake Partners. He said, today, his company was "quite a bit" more profitable than it had been a year ago, without offering any specifics, and 60 percent of its business came from PCs. Despite some media reports at the time of the Dell buyout speculating that the company might get into mobile, Dell didn't sound interested in that.

Asked to respond to the criticism that Dell "missed the boat" on mobile, Dell shrugged. "Enormous sums are being lost" in that sector, he said. "Every three years, the leader of the mobile space has changed. I guess all those guys missed it, too."

He did see a potential upside for Dell in the announced upcoming breakup of Hewlett-Packard. "When you split a big company like that in half," he said, "it's a highly disruptive process. Therein lies the opportunity."

Presumably he also senses opportunity in the spate of recent corporate cyberattacks as well. His company's SecureWorks network safety unit, he said, has identified more than 1,100 organizations across the globe dedicated to breaching corporate networks, like those of JP Morgan Chase and Home Depot.

"The biggest banks only know what's hitting them. We see all the bad actors around the world," he said, adding most of those 1,100 organizations are not based in the U.S.

Asked which entrepreneurs he most admired, he cited Under Armour's Kevin Plank and the octogenarian casino magnate Sheldon Adelson--plus a new entrepreneur he'd recently encountered: an unidentified female reporter from an unidentified "national newspaper" who recently left to start her own company. (This description fits, among many others, Jessica Lessin, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now running the tech news site The Information.)

Given his mien of a midlife executive at ease, and the lengthy battle for his company now safely in his rear-view mirror, it's doubtful his response to a question from an audience member surprised anyone in that room.

"The answer is no," he said. "We have no plans to go public."

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