Saturday, April 18, 2009

Conference Call with Peter Blackmore

I had a conference call with Barry Hutton and CEO Peter Blackmore this last Wednesday, April 15 at 12 noon (Pacific time). I appreciate them accomodating me at that time since I do have a day job. There was initial hesitancy on Barry's part to schedule the conference call since the quarter has closed and they were on the quiet period. I assured Barry that my intent was not to discuss the current quarter but just to go through topics related in 2008 and general issues. During these calls, its hard to stick to one topic (since they are all inter-related), get information that is not material, and yet useful. The call lasted 45 minutes. Here are the questions/comments that I had and Peter's response.

During previous meetings that we've had (March 2008, June 2008 Shareholder meeting) and conference calls, the company has constantly reiterated that their core business was doing well (bookings doing well), developing countries which were their target markets were either not affected or less affected, PAS declines and eventual shutdown were built in, and they were looking to ramp revenues by several hundred million, so what prompted the cutbacks at the end of the year and the revenue shortfall? Entering 2008, the estimate was for non-PCD revenues of $1.1 billion and it came in at $700m.

The perceived revenue shortfall in core revenues (not including PCD/internal) was around $100m (from the $700m+ to $600m). Bookings are doing well but certain revenue such as the India broadband contracts were not recognized in 2008 and won't even be recognized until end of 2009 at the earliest. Over two hundred million of revenue from Phase I & II have not been recognized. The cutbacks were part of the overall plan of getting more focus on the core IP businesses, general world recession at the end of 2008, and a new model of moving back to China.

Cash from those projects are being collected, right? Why not move earlier and move entirely to China? Also, why go into 2009 with a budget of losing $150m? (note: some of the questions might not be in order and Q&A is ongoing for 45 minutes and I didn't want to get bogged down on any single topic)

Cash is being collected from the India contract. It is "debatable" on whether to move entirely back to China but it was prudent to do so at this time for better cost control. Towards the end of the year, they were trying also to wind down some Chicago assets and it was a tough environment so decisions had to be made to consolidate or move stuff to China. The losses in 2009 are street estimates and they have only given estimates for Q1. (note: Cash flow could also be better than street P&L estimates would indicate due to the unrecognized revenue from the India broadband and another $10m in July from PCD - I forgot to ask more information on the potentially $50m more in payment due at the end of 2010).

Peter had mentioned he was on the job for 20 months, so I asked how he felt the turnaround plan was going and at what stage was he in that plan?

Peter mentioned he felt he had made the right moves towards the overall goal of streamlining the business into the core IP technologies and he reiterated the goal of getting to profitability. With hindsight, he says they could have done some things differently but gave examples such as selling the PCD and indicated they were fortunate at completing the deal when they did. They had cut a lot of costs out, sold non-core assets, improved the supply chain/sales/marketing, etc.

I commented it seems like for the last 4 years or so, the company has had one plan. Wait for non-PAS revenues to ramp and when it doesn't, the company does its annual cut backs.

Peter mentioned he can only comment on his 20 month term that they are working and executing (see above) to get to profitability and it takes a lot of work to do what they have done. He reiterated understanding the share price is so low ("its not even trading at cash") and the need to get to profitability. He says he is not waiting around for the next few quarters but actively taking more steps and will discuss it in a few weeks (I took that to mean in the next earnings call).

Leadership - Who is really in charge of the company? Is this turnaround plan your plan? Hong Lu is still very active in China and drawing CEO type pay.

Peter mentioned he knows where I am going with this since he read the blog or that people mentioned it to him. He understands having two "high priced executives". He mentioned that he is in control. The China executives all report to him. He is there once a month. Hong Lu is involved with PAS and is consulting because he was there during the transition from Wu and can speak Mandarin to the executives/customers. Ultimately, he (Peter) is in charge and lays out the plan but of course subject to board approval.

How is his relation to the board? I mentioned to him that I have followed a lot of other companies and whenever you have company and share price performance like in UTs case, there are major changes made. It also seems like the board is non-existant. How can they decide on a strategic option when they felt the stock was underpriced at $7 and not at $1.

Peter mentioned the board is very active and meets often. Again, he's been there for 20 months and can't comment previously but they are implementing his plan. He mentioned the stock is very low and that strategic options are discussed and they are open to it. He brought up the buyback and again reiterated they are not for a buyback because that is short term and they are trying to get to profitability, which is the best way to increase the stock price.

I mentioned that a buyback would show confidence and gave the underperformance of their stock even in the recent market rally. I forgot to mention that buying back stock at prices less than tangible book value is a very good investment in itself. Anyway, I think everyone agrees they need to improve operational performance and that the stock price at these levels is unacceptable.

I brought up Ying Wu asking is the difference between Wu and Lu too great that Wu could not be placed on the board?

Blackmore mentioned he did not think that would work out due to the falling out that happened years ago.

Switching gears, I mentioned that IPTV is the company's future. How is their competitive situation? ZTE recently got $15b in financing and both ZTE/Huawei seems to be catching up to them.

Huawei doesn't really have a competitive product and is trying to give it away. UT has spent significant R&D money and has continued to improve its system architecture. It has the most scalable and best system even when compared to Alcatel-Lucent/Microsoft, ZTE, others. Peter mentioned that ZTEs system actually failed during the Beijing olympics but was not publicized. In India, it is a "clean sweep" even though others are trying to get in. "Its not like UT has favored nation status or anything like that". UT still has the most market share in China. Peter mentioned that there will be a PR on mobile iptv tomorrow (Thursday) and that Markwell is about to go live (Seems that should have gone live way back since the initial Markwell PR in December 2007). Peter emphasized their penetration into cable, mobile iptv, digital signage/advertising, etc. Later in the conversation, Peter is still waiting for that "tipping point" and characterized that as "gold" when it happens. (damn, I hate when they get you excited :-)

I also asked if ZTE/Huawei were trying to copy their system (edge router, etc) and regarding their patents in iptv.

Peter mentioned that ZTE/Huawei could reverse engineer their system if they wanted to but are not so its a different system. They have good patent protection.

Even though I am not a techy, I asked about PDSN, GEPON, and overall markets in China (note: The Packet Data Serving Node, or PDSN, is a component of a CDMA2000 mobile network . It acts as the connection point between the Radio Access and IP networks. This component is responsible for managing PPP sessions between the mobile provider's core IP network and the mobile station).

Peter mentioned UT got 40% of the recent PDSN tender (as was already mentioned in the Q4 call). Competition came from Starent and Cisco. The market is not in the hundreds of millions but good wins for UT. Nothing new in GEPON but said they are behind in GEPON in China because Wu did not want to sell broadband in China before (publicly, this is one of reasons we've heard before about the disagreements between the founders). Peter mentioned that in other places like India, UT is ahead but did not do well initially with the Phase I broadband contract but doing better now.

I asked ,besides shareholders call them constantly, what keeps him up at night? After a brief laughter, I followed up what are his major concerns going forward?

Peter mentioned that as the company gets more focused, leaner, and smaller, he is worried about scale. That is why they are working with the NECs of the world to take on part of the load.

I ended the Q&A by saying I have been a believer since meeting him in November 2007 and for the most part his strategic moves have been what shareholders want. Revenue ramp has not come in and wished him and all of us the best.

Peter mentioned he truly appreciates the support and understands the share price is very low and they are working diligently to get to profitability.

Peter is very articulate, humble, and has a quiet confidence. I have often commented to other shareholders that say they are going to talk to him that they WILL feel good after talking to him. At the end of the day, its about performance but we shareholders do have to feel confident about the CEO leading the company. We still have to roll the dice but if I'm wrong about Peter and the company's prospects, atleast I feel that I've done what I can to get the best possible information for myself and other shareholders.

I want to thank all shareholders that have sent letters/emails to the management/board. Even when the stock was at $3 or $5, it is an uphill battle. I do feel that management spending 45 minutes with "us" is overall positive.