Qwest's Notebaert: It Can Be Fixed
Notebaert’s optimism on this morning’s call may have prompted the continuing climb in share prices today. Qwest’s new CEO not only insisted that he has faith in the telecom industry, but also said that he thinks Qwest will survive its current financial woes.
Following the news yesterday, the company’s shares rose more than 20 percent, trading at $4.99 at closing. And today, following a conference call in which Notebaert indicated that his taking over as CEO was just the beginning of the changes at the company, Qwest’s shares jumped an additional 2.8 percent, closing at $5.14 today.
"[Notebaert] ensures a quicker return to credibility for Qwest," says James E. Ott, an analyst with Hibernia Southcoast Capital, pointing out that such issues as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation into the company’s accounting practices are linked closely to former CEO Nacchio. "[With him gone] it gives them a clean slate."
Most of Notebaert's comments amounted to cheerleading, with only a few business details discussed. It was clear his goal was primarily to calm nerves by assuring investors that the industry and company would recover.
"When I look at the industry, the human need to communicate is not slowing down," he said, pointing out that he himself has a T1 line into his home. "I can’t imagine going back to modem... I think we have a tremendous opportunity."
When he was asked how quickly he hoped Qwest would reach breakeven on its balance sheet, he answered, "Breakeven isn’t good enough... We’re going to move very expeditiously on this."
So what changes does Qwest have in store? In the wake of Nacchio’s official resignation on Sunday (see Qwest: Ciao Nacchio?), Notebaert wouldn’t go into details about more high-level management changes at the company. However, while he said that any such speculation would be premature, he certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of changes. "In every job I’ve gone into, there’ve been changes," he said, pointing out that both resignations and dismissals from management positions are not uncommon.
Frank Popoff, a Qwest board member and chairman of the compensation committee, who was also on this morning's call, insisted that Nacchio and the board together had reached the decision that it was time for him to leave, and that the timing had nothing to do with such events as the attempted sale of the company's yellow pages directory business. "The board and Joe reached a common decision that it was time for change," he said.
Loaded down with approximately $27 billion in debt, Qwest desperately needs the more than $8 billion it expects to get from the directory sale (see Qwest Posts Loss, Preps Asset Sales). On the call, Notebaert, who was a 30-year veteran of Ameritech before he joined Tellabs, said that the company was still in discussions with parties interested in the entire business, but that the directory unit would probably be sold in two separate transactions. This would help the company avoid any potential regulatory problems and, more importantly, accelerate the sales process.
"The process takes time," he said, pointing out that reaching a mutually agreed timeline with one or two potential buyers was his main concern.
Notebaert also stated that he and other top executives at the company would start assessing Qwest's assets outside of the U.S. in the first half of next week, and that he anticipated some modifications. He wouldn't give any further details.
In the U.S., Qwest’s new CEO indicated that the company might shift its focus more towards consumers and small and medium-sized businesses, but insisted that it wouldn’t forget about its large corporate customers either. "That is something that we would never put at risk," he said.
Speculation has it that Notebaert has been brought in to prepare all or parts of Qwest for sale, but the new boss didn't say anything to that affect. Some investors had been hoping the company would soon sell off its unprofitable long distance service and concentrate on the stable, USWest part of the business; they were probably disappointed today when Notebaert declined to distinguish between the two parts at all.
"I look at Qwest as a whole," he said. "To me that merger was two years ago… There’s only one Qwest."
— Eugénie Larson, Reporter, Light Reading