Marconi: The incredible shrinking company that wants to stop being invisible

By Clayton Hirst
Friday 03 January 2014 02:33
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Finding a City analyst who covers Marconi has become about as easy as getting former go-go chief executive John Mayo to admit some responsibility for the company's demise.

The Square Mile has lost interest in the telecoms equipment maker. The company that commanded an army of eager followers in the halcyon days of the 2000 internet boom is now worth little more than toy maker Hornby. Most City scribblers could no longer give two hoots about Marconi.

It's an inglorious end to one of the most painful chapters in the company's 116-year history. But beneath all the huff and puff about the complex financial engineering on the company's accounts – which will enable it to wriggle out of £2.5bn of debts – is the untold story of Marconi's new business plan. This is now critical to its survival.

The tale of how John Mayo and chairman Lord Simpson turned a dull but cash-generating business into a high-risk loss-making telecoms company has become the stuff of legend.

Mike Parton, the new chief executive, has already shed 24,000 people from the business and is under no illusions that Marconi can ever compete in the telecoms big league against the likes of Cisco.

In fact, Marconi's new business plan is an exercise in thinking small. Its basic premise is that the telecoms market won't see any flickers of life until 2004. Assuming the market doesn't crumble any more (and that is a big assumption) then the company has got at least a couple of years left in it.

So Marconi is going back to basics. It no longer has aspirations to being a global player, furnishing large telecoms companies with all their equipment needs. Instead, it will concentrate on a few markets in which it already has a strong presence. On top of this, Marconi will place a couple of small bets on high-growth areas. With a research and development budget of around 10 per cent of its revenues, giving it perhaps £200m to £300m, it can afford to do so.

When Marconi is out of its two-year buffer zone, can it survive? The easy response to make is "no". Mr Parton – by all accounts a pragmatist – got it badly wrong last year when he predicted that the markets would recover in 2002. Why should we believe he's got it right this time? On first reading, the company's prediction that it could be making an operating profit of £199m by 2004 seems almost laughable, given its recent catalogue of mishaps and malaise.

Marconi does, however, make equipment that is bread and butter to the likes of BT and Deutsche Telekom. BT has remained silent on the matter of Marconi, but it has stuck with its beleaguered supplier through the bad times. BT's capital expenditure of £3bn will remain flat over the next year. It is understood, however, that the company is about to channel at least £1bn into a project to upgrade its wires, snappily known as the 21st Century Network. Tenders will go out next month, and Marconi is in a prime position to win a slice of this business.

But there are worrying signs that the ghosts of Mayo and Simpson still haunt Marconi's Bruton Street head office in London. Internally, the company is understood to be excited about the development of a product bizarrely named "BXR 48,000". Putting it simply, this allows companies and telecoms operators to switch between different types of network with ease.

Marconi believes this could become the next big thing. The problem is, so do its bigger rivals – Cisco and Alcatel, Lucent and Nortel.

As Per Lindberg, telecoms analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, puts it: "At the moment there is only a very small market for this technology. If I were them I would put the development of this in a dormant phase and concentrate on the core business."

If they don't, then Mr Lindberg's services as one of a limited number of analysts still covering the company may no longer be required.

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