With Coriant the most recent example, private equity investments look set to play an increasing role in the telecom sector.

Carolyn Mathas

April 22, 2014

6 Min Read
What's the Magic of Private Equity?

Long gone are the (good ol'?) days when tech companies appeared to advance their product/service concept from a cocktail napkin-based business plan to Wall Street without skipping a beat.

We can all rattle off dozens of companies that went public prematurely. Today, however, unless you're the hottest, customer-laden social-media outfit with more than a reasonable expectation of success, an IPO is probably not in your future anytime soon.

Financing alternatives currently run the gamut, from bringing on partners with very deep pockets to taking on yet another round of late-stage VC investment. The newer kid on the block that might start to appear more often, though, is the private equity (PE) deal.

As the term suggests, private equity involves the purchase and management of an equity stake on behalf of investors. Instead of public shares as a result of an IPO, however, institutional investors including pension funds, high net worth individuals, and insurance companies, for example, put money into a fund created by a private equity company. The fund uses this money, adding debt if necessary, and the experience and knowledge of its team to invest in companies, or build corporate entities.

What's key to these investments is that PE firms aim to create long-term value, rather than turn a quick buck. They typically purchase a whole company, rather than a percentage of it, and provide the company the one element that most other types of investment lack -- time.

Light Reading is not alone in believing that the optical networking sector is on the uptick -- PE firm Marlin Equity Partners , which has more than $2.6 billion of capital under management and a track record of more than 70 acquisitions, clearly is of the same mind. It has spent the past 18 months or so building Coriant , a global supplier of optical transport, OTN switching, and software-defined service control and management solutions, through a series of strategic acquisitions based around the optical unit of Nokia Networks (NSN) and the subsequent purchase of Tellabs. (See Coriant Launches Dynamic Optical Cloud and Qualcomm Buys HP Mobile Patents.)

Here's how Coriant was built by Marlin:

Today, Coriant operates worldwide in more than 48 countries and is headquartered in Munich, Germany, with R&D centers in Asia-Pacific, Germany, Portugal, and the US, as well as a production center in Berlin.

The vendor, which competes with the likes of Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , Infinera Corp. (Nasdaq: INFN), and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) for transport equipment deals with Tier 1 carriers, is determined to stand out from the crowd by focusing on innovation.

According to Coriant's CEO, Pat DiPietro, "Innovation will continue to be critical to the optical components and optical systems market sectors. This has never been as true as it is today. We believe the rapid pace of innovation in end-user devices, applications and services is driving the need for equal or even greater innovation at the optical layer of the network. As the foundation for end-to-end connectivity for today's high-bandwidth applications, the optical network requires constant innovation in speed, reach and flexibility. This is not only about hardware-based innovation, but also software."

When asked about how he thought components innovation will be funded, DiPietro explained: "The concurrent demand for high-bandwidth mobile, video and cloud-based services and applications is creating a more robust ecosystem in the optical components market than we've seen for some time. We're seeing a lot of cutting-edge innovation coming from smaller startups backed by traditional venture capital investment models. We believe this line of funding will continue to fuel innovation in the sector."

DiPietro also said that publicly funded companies would continue to contribute to the sourcing options for end-to-end system suppliers such as Coriant. "That said," added DiPietro, "we believe private equity can be a viable funding alternative. What is critical, however, is for private equity firms to have not only the requisite capital resources, but also the patience for longer-term investing. After all, the long-term growth opportunity in the optical sector is tied to continuous innovation, as well as the competitive advantage that comes from taking innovation from lab prototypes to commercial adoption. This requires taking a long-term approach to investment and making a sustained commitment to R&D that enhances the long-term value of a company's customer offerings."

DiPietro points to the uniqueness of Marlin Equity Partners in that the company benefits from a business model that leverages deep in-house technical expertise, extensive industry experience, and an understanding of the innovation and R&D necessary to build Tier 1 optical networks. "We believe this model is required for private equity to be successful in this space," added DiPietro.

Coriant isn't the only example of private equity involvement in the global communications networking sector, of course. In the Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT) sector, Thoma Bravo has made a string of acquisitions to build a portfolio that includes expertise in network management, analytics, security, and testing, while Chinese SPIT giant AsiaInfo Inc. (Nasdaq: ASIA) is now under PE ownership. (See AsiaInfo-Linkage Goes Private, Private Equity Firm to Buy Empirix, PE Firm Takes Control of InfoVista and Blue Coat Merger Approved.)

In addition, Genband Inc. is now part of the One Equity Partners (OEP) portfolio. (See What's Next for Genband?)

And only recently, PE firms have been lining up to bid for the telecom infrastructure business of Spanish utility firm Gas Natural, while a group of private equity players, including Providence Equity Partners, CCMP Capital Advisors, Quadrangle Capital and Thomas H. Lee, have struck a €7.2 billion ($10 billion) deal to sell Spanish cable operator ONO to Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD). (See ONO Says Yes to Vodafone.)

Private equity financing isn't new in telecom, but it's starting to become a more likely option, whether to cobble together smaller entities into one gigantic competitor, as has happened with Coriant, or to resurrect a less-than-stellar player that has good bones but performs in an underwhelming fashion.

Expect PE to be seen more often and more effectively, giving more time to its charges to transition, grow and contend than rivals under pressure from investors with near-term returns in mind.

— Carolyn Mathas, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Carolyn Mathas

A site editor for UBM's EDN and EE Times, Mathas covers LED, Sensors, Wireless Networking and Industrial Control technologies. She also writes for Hearst Publishing's Electronic Products. Previously, she was a Sr. Editor and West Coast Correspondent for PennWell's Lightwave Magazine and CleanRooms Magazine, respectively. Mathas holds an MBA from New York Institute of Technology and a BS in Marketing from University of Phoenix. In addition to editorial, her past life experience includes Director of Marketing for Securealink and Micrium, Inc., providing PR services to such companies as Philips Semiconductors, Altera, Boulder Creek Engineering, and ghost writing for Lucent Technologies. 

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