(Corrects paragraph 9 to show competitor is Check Point Software Technologies, not Checkpoint Systems)
By Nicola Leske, Nadia Damouni and Soyoung Kim
NEW YORK, April 4 Antivirus and security software maker Symantec Corp, which recently fired its chief executive amid declining sales and fierce competition, is in the process of hiring banks to help advise on strategy and defend against possible activist investors, according to several people familiar with the matter.
The $14 billion company, known for its Norton antivirus software, has been interviewing top Wall Street banks in recent weeks including JPMorgan Chase & Co, Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Morgan Stanley, the people said on Friday.
JPMorgan, which helped Symantec in the past when the company was the target of potential activism, is expected to land a role as Symantec's financial adviser, although a mandate has yet to be finalized, the people said, asking not to be named because the discussions are not public.
Symantec has decided to hire a bank as it is worried that its recent turmoil including management shake-up could potentially attract activist investors, who buy shares in a company with the aim to effect change, the people said.
Some of the large activist funds have already started examining the company as a potential target, the people added.
A representative for Symantec declined to comment on specifics but said Symantec commonly hired financial advisors to help the company with the business. JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley declined to comment.
A number of household technology names, such as Apple Inc , Microsoft Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co and Yahoo Inc, have been targeted by activist investors in recent years, as the sector undergoes rapid change and old technology companies are sitting on large piles of cash.
Symantec is currently searching for a new CEO after it surprised the market on March 20 with the firing of Chief Executive Steve Bennett, who was on the job for less than two years.
Bennett had been brought in to turn around the faltering company in July 2012, but the board felt he was not moving quickly enough. Revenue continued to shrink amid fierce competition from smaller, more nimble rivals such as FireEye Inc , Palo Alto Networks Inc and Check Point Software Technologies, the people said.
Symantec's shares have lost 17.5 percent over the past 12 months compared with a 1.5 percent rise in the NASDAQ Composite Index. The stock dropped as much as 14 percent on March 21, the day after news of the CEO departure.
"We believe the recent price action of Symantec could attract the interest of activists who could nominate new board members, which could be supported by existing holders," RBC Capital Markets analyst Matthew Hedberg said in a research note on Thursday.
Activist investors had circled the company in the past.
In 2010, the company had been under pressure from investors including Ralph Whitworth's Relational Investors LLC, who pushed the software company to split its storage and security businesses, Reuters reported at that time.
Whitworth, who had a position in Symantec and met with company management to discuss strategy, decided not to launch a public campaign after stock prices rebounded later in 2010.
A recurring theme with Symantec among investors and analysts is whether the company should look at selling itself, or unlock value by separating its businesses.
Analysts have said that Symantec would benefit more from selling off assets within its consumer, storage and server businesses than looking to sell the whole company, which would be unlikely due to its size.
Based on a sum of the parts, Symantec could be worth $27 a share or $19 billion, RBC's Hedberg said. The shares are currently trading around $20 on the Nasdaq.
"Overall, we think Symantec would benefit from a focus on enterprise security and compliance where the company could differentiate through additional M&A," RBC's Hedberg said.
He added that while private equity could be an option, the company's current market and a control premium would make it a very large transaction and thus very unlikely. (Reporting By Nicola Leske, Nadia Damouni and Soyoung Kim in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski)