Monday, November 21, 2005

AT&T: Meet the New Firm, Same as the Old Firm

I read the Wall Street Journal’s page one piece this morning about Ed Whitacre’s new strategy for the “old” Southwestern Bell Corp, now reborn as the “new” AT&T. To be honest, it left me with a very eerie feeling of déjà vu. Yes, Yogi, déjà vu “all over again.”

You see, I worked for the “old” AT&T. The one prior to the spinoff and deregulatory shuffles of the mid-late 1980s. Sadly, Whitacre’s vision is just about exactly the same one that Charlie Brown, AT&T’s then-CEO, had more than twenty years ago. Once again, smaller, nimbler, more experienced competitors have already staked out turf and begun operating in the areas that the new AT&T is still planning to conquer.

It is inexplicably bizarre that one corporate name should be retrieved to brand yet another headlong lunge into a new, complex technological battle of precisely the same type that destroyed its first incarnation. When I arrived at AT&T in 1979, it was rapidly girding for a deregulated operating environment. And immenses riches were planned to flow into the corporate coffers from dominating voice, data, text and video communications. We had nascent private quasi-internet projects, like ACS, as well as new multi-media digital processing products. What we didn’t have was credibility in designing and marketing the new products and services, much less sufficient customer behavior information to drive their design and integration.

I don’t see much difference this time around. Once again, the guys with the AT&T logo are claiming that they will swamp existing competitors with multimedia services, delivered in unrivaled volumes and combinations, and with technological superiority. Forgive me for being cynical, but I not only saw this movie already- I was actually cast in it. Believe me, when you are inside a behemoth like this, bent on implementing its market-conquering view, no amount of realistic advice will change anything.

Can one firm, one corporate name, endure a second trip to the ash heap of corporate history? Maybe, like large killer hurricanes, corporate names from spectacular disasters should be retired, never to be used again. I think the “old” AT&T deserves at least that much respect.

GM: The Agony Continues

Amazingly, this morning’s announcements by Rick Waggoner, CEO of General Motors, all focused on cost reductions and/or layoffs. Not a word about its salient challenge- getting customers to buy more GM products at prices which cover all costs, including a return to capital.

The original research which drives my large-cap equity portfolio strategy has shown that turnarounds such as this one are fraught with risk, and, thus, rarely return a company to a path of consistently-superior total returns. Even if expense levels are cut, the ability to regain healthy revenue growth rates seems to be a very rare phenomenon. In short, shareholders will continue to wish they had simply bought the S&P500 index for the long term, rather than continue to hold GM stock.

I knew for sure that GM is still in trouble when Waggoner attributed this newly-announced initiative to “our smartest people.” Translation: ‘Look out! The best minds who have assisted me in bungling the management of this former market-leader over the past few years have conspired to bring you another page from the same book.’

Don’t hold your breath for the return to health of this industrial wreck. At best, Waggoner will perhaps engineer a merger of equally-unhealthy auto makers before GM runs out of time and money.