Behind Alcatel-Lucent's Desperate Search for Cash

Ben Verwaayen, CEO of Alcatel-Lucent SA, during an interview in New York, on March 5, 2012. Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Alcatel-Lucent, the Paris-based telecom gear maker born of a 2006 transatlantic merger, has entered a desperate new phase in its struggle to stay afloat. As Bloomberg News reported on Dec. 4, it is in talks with Goldman Sachs and other banks to obtain at least €1 billion ($1.3 billion) in financing.

The deal would buy the company some time as it faces €2.3 billion in debt repayments over three years. It probably would have to sell off some major assets and pledge others, however—such as patents held by its venerable Bell Labs subsidiary—as collateral, the corporate equivalent of hocking the family jewels. “Alcatel-Lucent is now using more or less last-resort financing options,” says Alexander Peterc, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas in London.

It would be a humbling blow—yet it may already be too late for Alcatel-Lucent to repair its fundamental problem: It is simply too inefficient and starved for cash to compete successfully against rivals.

Its weakness was further underscored this week, when Chinese gear maker ZTE obtained a record $20 billion credit facility from China Development Bank. Already the world’s fifth-largest supplier of wireless equipment, ZTE is likely to surpass Alcatel within two years and move into third place worldwide behind China’s Huawei Technologies and Sweden’s Ericsson.

Chief Executive Ben Verwaayen, who took over in 2008, has struggled to get the company back on track through a series of job reductions and smaller asset sales. Even so, its costs are out of whack with competitors’. Even taking into account 5,500 job cuts announced in October, revenue per employee was €49,700 ($65,000), at least 14 percent less than those of rivals Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks, according to a Bloomberg News analysis.

To reach similar levels of productivity, Alcatel-Lucent would have to shed another 10,000 workers, about 15 percent of its workforce. Verwaayen said earlier this year that such drastic cuts were “out of the question” and the French government and labor unions would fiercely oppose them.

Meanwhile, Alcatel-Lucent is burning through an average €700 million euros in cash annually and had made a profit only one year out of the past six. On Dec. 4, its already junk-rated debt was downgraded further by Moody’s Investors Service, which said it didn’t believe the company could “materially” reduce its cash burn this year.

The financing plan being negotiated with banks would involve Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse providing a first tier of financing, with a second tier including Citigroup and possibly JPMorgan Chase and European banks such as Barclays, Bloomberg News reported. Collateral could include its patent portfolio, partly inherited from Bell Labs, which was part of Lucent Technologies at the time of the 2006 merger. Alcatel-Lucent is considering the sale of such assets as its undersea fiber-optic cable unit.

Some other gear makers are downsizing in the face of competition from China as well as weak sales in Europe. Finnish-German joint venture Nokia Siemens, for example, is cutting 23 percent of its ranks. Verwaayen told analysts last month that Alcatel-Lucent would “look at the reality of the market from a cost point of view, not assuming that Europe will come back next year.”

Cutting costs will be particularly challenging for Alcatel-Lucent, though, because it’s involved in so many businesses—a fact the company bragged about in the 2006 merger, when it said it had “the most comprehensive wireless, wireline, and services portfolio in the industry.”

With reporting by Marie Mawad, Adam Ewing, Matthew Campbell, and Beth Jinks

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