Fiorina, Lucent, and Lucidity

Fiorina 1 Nevada Republican Party Chair, Michael McDonald, was pleased to post that Carly Fiorina won the National Federation of Republican Women’s straw poll at their convention in Phoenix, AZ last month. [NVGOP]  Gathering 27% to the Hair-Do’s 20% – if that’s to be called a ‘win’ in the sorting of the occupants in the GOP 2016 Clown Car.  There’s another way to sort the candidates, especially those who claim that business acumen is an automatic qualifier for political office. 

Those pundits who have labeled Fiorina “Snarly Failure-ina” are usually referring to her unfortunate tenure – and subsequent Golden Parachuted Escape therefrom – at Hewlett Packard.  However, it’s instructive to go back a bit and start with AT&T.

Twenty years ago AT&T began the process of selling off one of its core assets, the equipment manufacturing division, including Bell Labs the originator of the transistor and a ‘preeminent research outfit.’  The idea was that as a separate entity the equipment division could compete with AT&T competitors and sell its products to flashy outfits like Sprint, Winstar, and PathNet telecom networks.   Fiorina’s star ascended as the head of the group selling gear to “service provider networks.” [Fortune]

The Big Deal in which AT&T spun off Lucent was not without some chickens which would come home to roost later.  There were several clues at the time which projected problems: (1) Lucent was valued at $15 billion at the time of the IPO, but a $21 billion value had been bruited about only a week earlier; (2) its major competitors were Siemens (Germany), Alcatel (France), and Motorola. (3) AT&T loaded the company with $3.8 billion in debt; (4) there were restructuring costs tied to planned major layoffs and Lucent reported a loss of $867 million for 1995 on revenue of $21.4 billion, down from a profit of $482 million and revenue of $19.7 billion for the year before. [LATimes]  And then there was this warning:

Lucent also faces a maturing U.S. market for telecommunications switches. It is making an aggressive push into faster-growing markets in Asia and elsewhere, but it faces tough competition from companies like Alcatel that have long had a powerful international presence. [LATimes]

A bit of history is in order:

“At that time, telecommunications equipment companies had entered a period of unprecedented — and as it would later emerge, unsustainable — growth. Congress had passed a law making it easier for new companies to compete with local phone companies, which had long been de facto monopolies. Households and businesses first connecting to the new-fangled Internet added phone lines and equipment and services, creating a gold rush to build up new network capacity around the world.” [Recode]

For “gold rush” read “financing” for the Qwests and WorldComs and other providers  which had laid far more fiber optic cable and installed way too much capacity, well beyond the needs of the potential customers.  What to do in the service of selling telecommunication switches in a “mature” market – one which was at least saturated if not in the flood zone?

Fiorina administered the practice of “vendor financing” to keep revenues up. There’s nothing necessarily nefarious about this – it was a standard business practice in which Lucent required suppliers to arrange or provide “long term financing for them as a condition to obtaining or bidding on infrastructure projects.” [recode]  When the deals were good, such as the $2.3 billion extended to Sprint, they were very good. But then… there were others of much more questionable obligations. 

It was reported in October 1998 that Lucent and WinStar entered into a $2 billion five year “network pact.” That $2 billion from Lucent was supposed to allow WinStar to expand on an international basis. [IntNews]  The deal didn’t last any five years, it only lasted until WinStar declared bankruptcy in 2001, and sued Lucent for $10 billion claiming that the firm broke its vendor financing agreement. [CompW]  By the time WinStar went under, Fiorina was ensconced at Hewlett-Packard.  WinStar wasn’t the only disaster.

There was also PathNet, a vendor financing deal which made even less sense.  PathNet at least had the sense to notice that first tier cities were all but awash in telecommunications equipment in 1999, so they were going to focus on second and third tier cities for their networks. To this end they secured $2.1 billion from Lucent in vendor financing in February 1999.  [FOonline]  This amount to a company which reported less than $2 million in annual revenue. [recode]  Even using the most generous estimates the company had barely $100 million in equity; it was juggling $385 million in junk bonds at 12.25% interest, and the added $440 million in loans from Lucent only served to jack up the company’s leverage to 8:1. Even higher as they drew more of the loan? [Fortune]

Fiorina has pushed back on the notion she was happy with these short term, dubious deals, however, there’s another side: Lucent at one point predicted annual growth of 17%-22% annually. (1997) [Fortune]  Now, what’s not for Wall Street to love about a 17% annual growth rate? Fiorina may not have been over the moon about the vendor financing deals, but she was determined to rack up big sales. [Fortune]  PathNet filed for bankruptcy in April 2001.

An SEC filing just after Fiorina left Lucent revealed a $7 billion in loan commitments to customers, Lucent dispensing some $1.6 billion. [Fortune]  Why would this be important?  For starters, think Bubble. What the highly questionable home mortgages were to the Housing Bubble, those vendor loans were to the Tech Bubble.  At one point Lucent shares dropped to >$1, and in 2006 the company merged with Alcatel. [Fortune]

So, what do we know?  Fiorina’s tenure at AT&T/Lucent wasn’t much more than that of the Super-Saleswoman who predicted high growth rates and revenues based on vendor financing deals, deals which collapsed as the saturated market finally emerged from behind the curtain of financial manipulation. This isn’t business vision, it isn’t even lucidity – it is merely chasing a fast buck.

References and Recommended Reading:  Linda Rosencrance, “Winstar files for bankruptcy, sues Lucent for $10 billion, Computerworld, April 18, 2001. Staff Report, “AT&T Spinoff Lucent Makes Historic IPO,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1996. Scott Woolley, “Carly Fiorina’s troubling telecom past,” Fortune, October 15, 2010. Arik Hesseldahl, “Time to revisit Carly Fiorina’s business record before HP?…” Recode, August 30, 2015.  Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, “Why I still think Fiorina was a terrible CEO,” Politico, September 20, 2015.  Glenn Kessler, “Carly Fiorina’s misleading claims about her business record, Washington Post, May 8, 2015.  Andrew Ross Sorkin, “The influence of Fiorina at Lucent, in hindsight,” New York Times, September 21, 2015. Julie Bort, “Yale Professor on Carly Fiorina’s business record: She destroyed half the wealth of her investors yet still earned almost $100 million,” Business Insider, September 16, 2015.

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