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Cellnex CEO quits in the wake of strategy overhaul

Silhouette, telecommunication towers with TV antennas, satellite dish in sunset

Cellnex chief executive Tobias Martinez is not keen on leading the company through its conservative organic growth phase and as such has tendered his resignation.

Martinez spearheaded the Spain-based infrastructure specialist through its spin-off from Abertis Group eight years ago and a subsequent aggressive M&A strategy that has seen it acquire passive infrastructure sites all over Europe and significantly increase its valuation. But when it closed its most recent purchase at the back end of last year – the final tranche of its €10 billion mega-deal to acquire CK Hutchison’s portfolio of 30,000 sites across half a dozen markets – Cellnex announced it was putting its wallet away and focusing on its balance sheet. And that’s clearly not where Martinez wants to be.

“The current economic and financial context demands that we open a new chapter in Cellnex’ story,” he said in a statement accompanying his resignation announcement. “A new stage based on maximizing organic growth, consolidating the industrial project in the countries where we operate today and focusing on balance sheet management to achieve the goal of ‘investment grade’. All these factors have led me to weigh up the need for this stage of the Cellnex evolution to be led by a person with a time horizon that extends beyond December 2024, at which time my contract ends.”

To be clear, there is no hint here that Martinez disagrees with Cellnex’s new strategy. Indeed, the various statements shared by the company paint him as a valued and long-standing servant. And with good reason.

Martinez has been with Abertis Group since 2000 and was in charge of its telecom assets when they were split out and floated, under the new Cellnex Telecom name, in 2015. The IPO happened at €14 per share, less than half of the stock’s current value, although it’s worth noting that the price has taken a fairly big hit over the past year or so, falling from more than €60 in August 2021 to around the €32 mark today. However, at the time of the IPO the company’s market capitalisation stood at €3.2 billion, and has since risen to €23 billion, Cellnex said, which represents an average annual shareholder return of 18 percent. Those are solid figures by anyone’s standards.

But perhaps the strongest indicator of Cellnex’s development under Martinez’s leadership is the way he delivered on its goals. In October 2014 Abertis published a three-year strategic plan, including its aims for its soon-to-be separated telecoms business. At the time the unit had 8,000 towers in the broadcasting and telecoms sectors, incidentally.

“The IPO of the terrestrial telecoms business will enhance its financing flexibility and increase its visibility, at a time when the market is hungry for telecoms infrastructure projects, Moreover, it will allow the unit to raise new funds in the future to finance its growth and international expansion, in a market where there are currently many opportunities, particularly in the European mobile telephone towers segment,” Abertis said…while polishing its crystal ball, perhaps.

“This IPO will enable the terrestrial telecoms business to continue the growth we have seen over recent years, enhancing its position to take advantage of opportunities in the telecoms infrastructure market, and adding value to its international potential as a neutral operator,” added Francisco Reynés, then CEO of Abertis.

The business certainly did that. Aside from a string of infrastructure acquisitions that took its portfolio of towers to almost 105,000 – that’s operational sites as of the end of September, plus a further 21,000 in the pipeline – Cellnex Telecom has set itself up as a key player in the growing neutral host business. Earlier this week it announced it had signed up its first telco customer, Three UK, on the London-to-Brighton railway route, having inked a 25-year deal with Network Work to provide connectivity on the line a couple of years ago. And that’s just one example of many.

Cellnex Telecom is a very different company to the one Martinez joined more than two decades ago and to the one he has led since it relaunched in its current incarnation. And much of that has to be down to him. Martinez officially departs on June 1st .Cellnex said it has begun the process to find a successor – those will be big shoes to fill.

 

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