Last week Australian energy company AGL withdrew its A$3 billion takeover offer for Vocus. This came only two weeks after Swedish private equity firm EQT halted its $3.3 billion transaction.
In the last two years, four potential buyers have looked, then decided not to buy the Vocus Group.
In 2017 private equity firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Affinity Equity Partners both withdrew bids. In each case, the deal floundered at the due diligence stage.
It’s been a bruising experience for an already damaged Vocus. When AGL walked away from this week’s deal Vocus shares lost a third of their value.
On the surface, the bad news apparent during due diligence means there’s something bad in the financials that Vocus hasn’t disclosed to shareholders. It’s something that well-funded companies are not able to spot before bidding.
Reports in Australian media say that bidders walk away from Vocus because the plan to turn around the business is more complex than it appears from outside the company. There is something in this, but it is probably not the whole story.
Vocus is the result of a number of telecommunications industry mergers. It is a rare example of classic industry consolidation.
Along the way, Vocus acquired other companies. At times it has struggled to integrate the parts. That’s not uncommon in the telco sector.
Vodafone New Zealand acquired a number of businesses. Years later it has still not completely integrated the various back-end systems. Customer enquiries can mean service agents need to reference several screens to answer simple questions.
This Balkanisation is how large companies made up of smaller concerns often operate.
So long as there is plenty of forward momentum those tricky integration issues can be kicked down the road. Over time they can either be fixed or, for one reason or another, they simply stop being a problem.
The big Vocus problem
That’s a problem for Vocus, but it isn’t the big one. Far more serious is that Vocus’ Australian consumer business is losing money.
In part that’s because Australia’s NBN model has flattened the market to the point where it’s hard to turn a buck selling broadband. There’s no clear path to profitability.
AGL looked like a good buyer because it’s a power company. Combining power and broadband sales is a tried and tested strategy. If the AGL bean counters looking at Vocus’ books realised that could turn things around, the problem is worse than most of us thought.
Even though Vocus is, to some degree, a special case, it isn’t that out of line with the rest of the telecommunications industry.
No quick path to profit
All of which says bad things about the state of retail telecommunications. The private equity investors have looked and seen there is no quick path to profit.
More patient, longer-term investors like AGL, who have access to the magic formula of adding power sales to a broadband subscription don’t think it looks viable either.
If you work in the sector you might want to worry about that.