Sales of network equipment are down in key markets such as China, South Korea, Russia and a number of other European countries. Strong sales in North America, despite the ongoing (and expected) slump in CDMA equipment sales, saved the division from even greater declines. That decline in overall network equipment revenues, in turn, is putting pressure on the vendor's gross margin level, which dipped to 30.4 percent in the quarter, down from 35 percent a year ago. The company's operating margin is also much lower than a year ago, as the table below shows, though it did improve on the previous quarter.
Investors were spooked by those margins, as Ericsson's share price dipped by 4.2 percent to SEK57.95 by late morning on the Stockholm exchange.
In total, Ericsson reported third-quarter revenues of SEK54.6 billion ($8.13 billion), down 2 percent from a year ago, and a net profit of SEK2.2 billion ($328 million).
Table 1: Ericsson Q3 2012 Key Financials
|In billions of Swedish kronor||Q3 2011||Q3 2012||Y/Y change||Q2 2012||Q/Q change|
|Gross margin||35.0%||30.4%||Decrease of 4.6 percentage points||32.0%||Decrease of 1.6 percentage points|
|Operating margin excluding joint ventures and sale of Sony Ericsson||11.3%||6.7%||Decrease of 4.6 percentage points||5.9%||Increase of 0.8 percentage points|
But CEO Hans Vestberg and CFO Jan Frykhammar, while recognizing that the numbers are of concern and profitability levels are "not satisfactory," are consistent in their explanation of what is happening with Ericsson's business.
As they have said previously and repeated today during the morning webcast press conference, the company made a strategic decision to take on board large network rollout and transformation projects that, in the case of the largest contracts, involve thousands of staff and contractors and generate low margin sales. (See Ericsson Sets Q2 Benchmark and Ericsson Retrenches in Q1.)
Those sorts of projects are still dominating Ericsson's business and will continue to do so in the near future. But the combined scale and longer-term potential of these projects is exciting Vestberg: "In my time at Ericsson I have never seen so many big projects ... the number is unprecedented," said the CEO. "I believe this is the right strategy," he added.
That's because Vestberg believes that higher-margin business, in the form of capacity and software sales, will follow once the network coverage and transformation projects are completed. And while the CEO and CFO are reluctant to pin down when the tide will turn, it seems that the shift away from low-margin projects should start in the coming months and then accelerate during 2013, so there will be a big spotlight on the execution of Ericsson's strategy next year.
In the meantime, the company is still the world's biggest mobile networks vendor, is still generating a profit and is investing in areas it regards as key for the future, such as OSS and BSS capabilities and edge routing (for service delivery and backhaul). It's also planting its flag in the software-defined networking (SDN) ground. (See Ericsson CTO: Let's Redefine SDN, The Lowdown on Service Provider SDN and Ericsson Buys More OSS Smarts .)
Ericsson is as much a Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT) company as a network infrastructure company these days. (See The SPIT Manifesto 2.0.)
There's a great deal of detail in the company's third-quarter report, which you can read in full here. Here are a few points of interest that caught our eye:
— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading