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Carriers need a dose of ‘buyer beware’

Nov 10, 20033 mins
AT&TMergers and AcquisitionsNetworking

The long-anticipated court approval of MCI’s emergence from bankruptcy came through on Oct. 31, leaving the company leaner, meaner and 85% lower in debt.

At almost the same time, BellSouth publicly spurned AT&T, ending years of takeover talks featuring more on-again off-again drama than J. Lo and Ben. The irreconcilable difference reportedly was a disagreement over AT&T’s valuation, which BellSouth considered too high. Reports have it that BellSouth and other RBOCs (Verizon and SBC, in particular) are considering acquiring the newly spiffed-up MCI, presumably at more palatable valuations.

I’m not a huge fan of major telco mergers. More to the point, though, I think the folks who assess the value of telecom providers for Wall Street have their heads on backward.

Before I set about backing that up, full disclosure: I have close personal relationships with present and former employees at the aforementioned companies. And I have the greatest respect for their integrity and professionalism. So I’m not slanted toward one side or the other. But the facts are clear.

Start with MCI. The current company has almost nothing in common with its early-’90s namesake (which was a terrific firm). From an infrastructure perspective, the current MCI is a hodgepodge of entirely un-integrated networks, billing and operations support systems that continue to result in lousy customer satisfaction and higher-than-desired operational costs. Its business processes have never been effective (remember, I’m talking about the WorldCom-era MCI, not the lean, mean MCI of years back). And much of its former senior management team is under indictment.

Sure, it’s got great branding, a shiny new group of executives and a virtually debt-free balance sheet. But folks, this is a company that has never functioned effectively in its current form. Any purchaser who plans to open this particular can of worms better pay close attention to the concept of “caveat emptor.”

Now look at AT&T. Yes, the company came embarrassingly late to the Internet party, and former CEO Michael Armstrong publicly failed to execute on its most ambitious strategic decisions. And AT&T has suffered from some of the worst leadership in corporate history (remember the phone-book sales guy that was briefly anointed CEO?). But the company is sitting on a gold mine of assets: blue-chip customers, a world-class collection of intellectual property in its research labs, and a decades-long track record of delivering value to customers and shareholders.

Bottom line: If we’re talking valuations, AT&T should be ranked as the stronger of the two. But it’s a bad idea for either company to be involved in a merger right now. What AT&T needs is for someone like former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner to step up to show some outstanding leadership and leverage AT&T’s assets to the fullest. And what MCI needs is time for CEO Michael Capellas and his crew to establish a new track record and demonstrate that the new company is a viable entity.