When César Alierta became chief executive officer of Madrid-based Telefónica in 2000, he made Latin American growth a priority. Quickly adding to his company’s presence in Argentina, Peru, and Brazil, Alierta started Telefónica operations in Mexico, going head-to-head with the wireless business of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s América Móvil. The Spanish operator’s price-cutting strategy didn’t please Slim, the world’s richest man, who feared América Móvil’s margins would be pressured, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Now Slim is returning the favor by expanding in Europe in a way that could mean headaches for Alierta.
América Móvil is bidding $3.4 billion for up to 28 percent of the former Dutch telecom monopoly Royal KPN. Among KPN’s assets are German mobile-phone carrier E-Plus, which vies for the country’s No. 3 spot with Telefónica’s O2, and the Simyo wireless brand, which competes with Telefónica in Madrid.
It’s not the first time the two Latin telecom tycoons have sparred on European shores. Slim last tried to acquire a major Western European operator in 2007 with an offer for a stake in Telecom Italia, before he was beaten by Alierta—a move meant to block Slim from getting a foothold in Europe, according to another person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified. That decision “turned out to be a disastrous investment for Telefónica,” says Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Robin Bienenstock. “Slim is buying an option to build incremental pressure and a growing headache for Alierta when it comes to a potential negotiation of KPN assets in Germany.”
Slim, who faces slowing subscriber growth in Latin America, is returning to Europe after the debt crisis has left the region’s phone assets at bargain prices. “There’s a lot of logic in consolidating Germany, for instance, into three players, with O2 or Vodafone buying KPN assets there,” says Bruno Lippens of Pictet Asset Management in Geneva. “In today’s market, Slim has more financial flexibility than Telefónica.”
Back in Latin America, there’s been little love lately between the América Móvil and Telefónica chieftains. Slim holds the upper hand in Mexico and Colombia, while Alierta rules Brazil and Chile. While the Spanish carrier boosted its share of Mexican mobile subscribers to 20 percent in 2009, it has since made little progress against América Móvil’s 70 percent position. Telefónica has blamed this in part on regulators, saying they need to restrict Slim’s dominance.
This year, Telefónica sued Slim’s company, claiming it pulled out of a 2010 agreement on fees paid between phone network operators. América Móvil says it’s only following Mexican regulations, and in turn says Telefónica is backing regulatory actions to reduce Slim’s 60 percent dominance in Colombia. In Brazil, the only Latin American economy larger than Mexico, Telefónica maintains its leading 30 percent market share while Slim struggles, slipping to No. 3 behind Telecom Italia’s TIM unit.
KPN says América Móvil’s offer of 8 euros ($10.27) a share in cash to increase its current 4.8 percent stake in the Dutch company “substantially undervalues” its worth. Nonetheless, Mexico City-based América Móvil says it expects to win approval from Dutch regulators and carry out the offer by early June.
After its New World expansion and its almost $10 billion buyout of Brazilian operator Vivo Participacoes in 2010, Telefónica is struggling to cut debt and revive its Spanish business as the debt crisis prompts consumers to cancel subscriptions or switch to discount services. Alierta announced 6,500 job cuts last year and in December cut a dividend forecast for the first time in a decade.
If completed, América Móvil’s alliance with KPN will pave the way for agreements such as roaming, marketing, and joint purchasing, Chief Financial Officer Carlos García-Moreno told analysts. And it could presage more expansion on the Continent. “It clearly would be a possibility to continue to look at Europe,” García-Moreno said, “but we cannot run before we walk.”