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Darker days forcing Vodafone CEO towards tower unit sale

telecoms radio towers

The doom and gloom outlook at Vodafone seems to be strangling the glint out of the eyes of designate CEO Nick Read, as the incoming boss ponders selling off the tower business.

According to the Financial Times, Read made comments at Goldman Sachs 27th Communacopia Conference in New York, seemingly reacting to a slump in Vodafone share price since the beginning of the year. With €31 billion debt and share price down roughly 35% through the last twelve months, something needs to change.

Competition in the Spanish and Italian markets and an exiting CEO are hardly going to inspire confidence in the business, though a gloomy trading update for the remainder of the year make things slightly more awkward. Pressure will soon start to mount up from investors, though the entry of activist investor group Elliott Management will almost certainly ramp up the background noise.

With 110,000 towers across Europe, 55,000 of which are directly controlled, there is an opportunity to relieve some of the pressure, with a sale expected to generate in the region of €12 billion. The Idea merger won’t have been cheap, India has been a recurring headache, though the takeover of Liberty Global’s German and eastern European operations will also weigh heavy on the spreadsheets. The scene is perfectly suited for vulture fund Elliott to cause chaos.

As an investor, Elliott scours the globe for businesses which is deems underperforming on the financial markets. The team rile up other investors, often attempting to force the hand of the current management team into asset disposals and other short-term strategies, to inflate share price. It’s a pump and dump strategy which has proved incredibly effective for one of the world’s most influential investment management firms.

What is worth noting is this is not an announcement. Read has reacted to questions and is simply blue-sky-thinking the strategy, though this might be a toe dipping exercise to soften the eventual reception. He has declared this would not be a traditional transaction, should it become more concrete, as any potential buyer would have to be “more open to different formulas”.

We wonder whether this is the most sensible actions from the CEO. There is no such thing as a bad idea, though this could be a notion for Elliott to sink its teeth into. Vodafone will not want to sell its tower unit, unless absolutely forced to, though this has simply offered Elliott some ammunition and credibility to throw back in the future. This is a firm which doesn’t need to be encouraged to charge towards short-term ambitions, though Read seems to be helping it out.


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