Saturday, May 29, 2010

Conference Call with Peter Blackmore

I had a 45-minute conference call late Thursday with UTStarcom CEO Peter Blackmore. Peter was back from China this week in time for the US holidays and set to travel to India after the break.

Here are the topics we discussed and relevant information provided.

Building Lease - The company formally closed the building sale and started the lease this week. I asked Peter if the lease would be accounted for as regular OPEX or some other one time charge on another line item. The lease would be part of the OPEX and included within the $25m/quarter or lower quarterly expense target.

Restructuring - I talked with Peter with regards to the still very high OPEX reported in Q1 (about $10m in R&D and $30m in SG&A). Peter mentioned they are still on track to bring this to less than $25m by Q3. I was skeptical about this and asked Peter how they can bring this down by then. Peter reiterated the 300 people that left in Q1, the additional people leaving in Q2 and the outsourcing transition that were all mentioned previously. He added that the new Newnet deal would basically remove their direct involvement/expenses for North/Latin America (including personnel and facility leases).

India Security issue (short term) - I asked Peter what the current situation in India and how has it affected business there (aside from BSNL phase III) and to comment on the Bharti iptv deal they said they had for Q1. Peter mentioned that the security issue did not apply to iptv and that the Chinese President was meeting with Indian officials in the near term and he could provide more updates in a couple of weeks as he is going to India right after the Memorial day break. Peter added that this security issue affects everybody (even non-Chinese companies) and that it was mainly directed at Huawei/ZTE. He said UT has very good local people on the ground and that they were well-connected.

India Security issue (long term) - I pointed out that ZTE/Huawei were planning to manufacture in India and potentially spinoff or list in the Indian stock exchange. Does UT have a longer term solution or developing one? Peter mentioned they are well aware of the manufacturing issue and the need for technology transfer and that they are looking at long term solutions.

Beijing E-town investment - I asked Peter how the move in headquarters affected their facility in Hangzhou, UTs commitment of $2.3B in revenue over 5 years (how doable), benefits to UT, etc. Peter mentioned that they currently have 100 people in Beijing and that it will only impact those people. The R&D people will stay in the Hangzhou facility. The $2.3B was arrived at by Yellowstone capital and Peter mentioned the length of time allowed them to ramp up to it. He said IF iptv ramps up, then it is "easy" to accomplish. The move to Beijing as a headquarters is strategic in that all the regulatory agencies are in Beijing (SARFT for ex.) and would have a "halo" effect in their operations all over China.

Company Financial Model - I asked Peter about the company's seemingly endeless restructuring and missed financial metrics they have set. I also asked Peter that once he leaves and becomes a shareholder, what metrics would he use to measure the company's performance. Peter mentioned interestingly that bookings would be important. I quickly reminded Peter they themselves haven't been giving any bookings information. I think he realized his ironic response and mentioned that due to the company's transformation they were not able to provide the numbers but to keep pushing the new management for bookings and that they should be able to provide it. I discussed other metrics such as iptv subscribers and he said they should provide more information on this in the future. I asked if they would be forever in the mode of missing targets and restructuring and he said it would be up to the new management to decide that in the future but as of now, there are no plans for further restructuring. That the company (due to revenue recognition of 6 to 9 months) was focused on bookings to drive revenue for 2011. I asked about the value of iptv/TN contracts trying to get more color on what it would take to achieve $350m in yearly revenue. How many large contracts do they need to go along with the smaller ones. No value of contracts given but it would probably take 2 large ones and that the most likely ones are BSNL phase III and Softbank TN.

TN - I asked about TN with regards to China Telecom/Unicom. Peter mentioned that China Telecom is evaluating their equipment and Unicom was well behind. Bharti is also a major potential but Softbank is the most likely major customer right now. He added that Softbank and China Mobile were the most progessive of the operators looking at the latest technology. Peter also highlighted their "enterprise" wins with utilities/etc, smaller current deals with BSNL, and Softbank. I asked Peter if they needed additional financing to land a major Softbank deal and he said no, that their cash position (specially after the building funds) now allowed them to do deals they could not before.

IPTV - I asked what metrics/data he could give that shows his confidence in iptv in general. No specific data except that STB demand for all providers have been very good. In India, I asked what the situation with each of their customers. Peter felt confident about their positions with each customer in India and that each one is expanding but pales to China in current demand. There is no new contracts under the new service type model yet but there were additional cable iptv wins since his last announcement. Peter could only point to the STB demand, the overall iptv growth projections, and government focus on promoting iptv. How big will the cable iptv market be? Are they going to be getting large contracts (like BSNL phase III or Softbank TN)? No, it will be similar to the telco iptv in establishing beachheads and growing from there.

Philippine Business - Just a random question from me since this was a large (over $10m in Q1) source of revenue. Peter mentioned that they don't have long term contracts but are constantly gaining business as PLDT (MSAN product) expands since they are the incumbent. I think this is really the key to other product/customer situations like TN with Softbank, BSNL broadband, China/India iptv, etc.

Confidence in the business/company - I suggested to Peter that shareholders were getting less confident (via the lowered stock price) and asked how he felt about the business/company in general. Peter mentioned that he was still very confident about the company prospects.

Comments: I think this was the most guarded Peter has been regarding our conversations, careful to not be overly optimistic and give out any data not material/public (which is understandable). I did not directly ask Peter about the closing of the Beijing investment group as I felt through the conversation it was a foregone conclussion that just takes time (as the Building closing showed). I would neither characterize that as positive or negative in the short term because there are very valid arguments for those wanting the company to operate as a successful ongoing concern and those that want the company sold due to the company's poor operating results and potential to continue the poor performance. So, for better or worse, I believe the deal is 99% going through. As for the BSNL Phase III, I believe that will also be done eventually but the current (short/long term) uncertainty in India is not good for the stock. The stock at these levels continue to project virtually little to no value to the business and trades way below cash as the company fails to provide any confidence to the market. While the market has been shaky as well, the company trading way below cash shows a very negative bias towards the company's prospects.

I continue to like the stock valuation from a long term view but as I mentioned in the Q1 posting, the company's weak bookings, late restructuring, market's shakiness and now negative bias towards small caps/Chinese stocks will keep UT down but better prospects in the 2nd half of the year should coincide with much better stock performance.

Have a good Memorial Day weekend to everyone.

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