Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What's in the AlcaLu chalice?

Apart from the Franco-American culture clash poison with which Pat and Serge consummated their suicide pact, I'm not really sure. I have an awful lot of respect for Ben Verwaayen and the turnaround he achieved at BT, but that was a very different kettle of fish and chips. Yes, it was an overstretched, over-leveraged empire which had engaged in a lot of strange M&A and joint ventures with very strange put/call terms with partners. An aggressive 3G license acquisition strategy certainly didn't help the balance sheet - in fact BT's decline from net cash position to rescue rights issue and de-merger of O2 was nothing short of stunning, if only for the sheer velocity with which it occurred.

But, apart from all the crap, underlying the company was a (relatively) stable, cash-generative, regulated monopoly business in the UK, with smarter management and more customer inertia than many might have thought at the time, which gave it some sort of visibility on restructuring, repositioning and continuity. I wouldn't want to trivialize the turnaround of BT - it wasn't a lay-up - nor by any means would I judge it an unmitigated success (21C, Fusion, anyone?). But financially speaking, it's a historical fact, and one that Mr. Verwaayen can be proud of.

Then again, BT didn't have private, national champion competitors in its core market with presumably near-infinite financing sources. I hear through the grapevine that it is not uncommon for pricing in competitive situations to be 30% below the lowest bid from the usual suspects, with vendor financing well north of 100%. I think this is bound to be an intractable problem at AlcaLucatel. We may recall that three years ago, many commentators cited this as precisely the situation which ultimately ensured Marconi's demise, in the tender process for - wait for it, BT's 21C. I trust Mr. Verwaayen has a good appreciation of historical irony, but I don't envy his position.

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