Private equity targets telecoms

Steve Rosenbush
19 Apr 2007

Hello, buyouts‾ Telecom companies, once regarded as ill-suited to leveraged buyouts, are beginning to attract more attention from private equity firms.

Buyouts of telecom companies have been rare. Carlyle Group bought Hawaiian Telecom for $1.65 billion in 2005, in a deal led by former Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard. But the acquisition only underscored why telecom can be so treacherous. State regulators put debt limits on the deal, limiting the return for Carlyle (see, 8/17/06, 'Trouble in Carlyle's Paradise'). The combination of tight government regulation and high capital costs have tended to scare off private equity buyers.

But now the situation is beginning to change. The regulatory climate isn't nearly as tough as it was a few years ago, although it's still an issue. Broadband and wireless opportunities provide promises of growth, offsetting the decline of the traditional telecom businesses. And the telecom meltdown of 2000 has faded into a distant memory. 'Cash-rich private equity firms must find a place to invest their money, so they are willing to accept more risk in markets such as telecom,' says Phillip Phan, professor of management at the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (see, 3/28/07, 'Prospecting for Private Equity Targets').

Buyout pressures to the north

The result is that there could be a flurry of telecom buyouts over the next year. Potential targets include the troubled wireless company Sprint (S), the regional wireless operator Alltel (AT), and the undersized Qwest Communications (Q). There's even the possibility of an acquisition of BCE (BCE), the parent company of Bell Canada, in what could be the largest buyout ever, at $45 billion including debt.

'Globally, I think you will see more LBOs in telecom because of restructurings,' says Phan. 'In the U.S., you will see them because of opportunities for consolidation.' The latest evidence of that shifting view is that a Canadian pension fund may push for a buyout of BCE. The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan has had preliminary talks about a $26 billion buyout of BCE, The New York Times reported on Apr. 9.

The $92.5 billion pension fund declined to comment on the report. But Deborah Allan, an Ontario Teachers spokeswoman, said the fund is exploring its options with respect to BCE. Ontario is BCE's largest shareholder, owning 5.3% of the company, worth $1.35 billion. The shares, about 1% of the Ontario fund's assets under management, closed on Apr. 12 at $30.73, up recently on the takeover speculation but down from more than $100 back in 2000. 'We're not happy with what the share price has done over the last few years,' says Allan. 'We have to keep our options open. I can't comment on what these options may be because I don't yet know what they are.'

A different kind of fund

The fund denied an earlier report that it was considering teaming up with the private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in a potential bid.

Ontario Teachers is unusual among pension fund because it makes its own private equity investments. Most pension funds function as limited partners, taking minority stakes in deals led by specialized private equity buyout firms. Teachers Private Capital, which the pension plan established in 1990, is a private equity fund in its own right, though.

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