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Hedge Fund to FairPoint: Sell the Company to Maximize Shareholder Value

fairpoint greedAfter years of financial problems, union problems, and service problems, customers of FairPoint Communications in northern New England report the company has stabilized operations and has been gradually improving service. A hedge fund holding 7.5% of FairPoint agrees, and is now pressuring FairPoint’s board of directors to sell the company, allowing shareholders that bought FairPoint stock when it was nearly worthless to cash out at up to $23 a share.

That almost guarantees shareholders a huge profit while likely saddling whoever buys FairPoint with the same kind of sale-related debt that bankrupted FairPoint in 2009.

Maglan Capital’s David Tawil and Steven Azarbad communicated their displeasure to FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu in a letter earlier this summer that complains “shareholders have been extremely patient with the company’s operational turnaround and have suffered because the board has not been vigilant in protecting shareholder value.”

maglan“Not as patient as FairPoint’s own customers that spent several years of hell dealing with Verizon’s sale of its landlines in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine,” said FairPoint customer Sally Jackman, who lives in Maine. “It looks like the hedge funds want their pound of profits from another sale, exactly what FairPoint customers don’t need right now.”

Jackman endured three weeks of outages after FairPoint took over Verizon’s deteriorating landline networks in northern New England. The nearest cable company – Time Warner Cable, is almost 50 miles away, leaving Jackman with FairPoint DSL or no broadband service at all.

“Wall Street doesn’t care, they just want the money,” Jackman added. “They probably assume Frontier will pay a premium for FairPoint and then we can go through the kind of problems customers in Texas and Florida dealt with for over a month.”

The hedge fund managers argue that FairPoint “has made enormous strides” and notes “revenue is stabilizing and growth is coming.”

Maglan is well positioned to cash out with an enormous gain, having been an investor in FairPoint since the phone company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy almost six years ago. The fund held shares when their price dipped below $4. Now, assuming FairPoint will put shareholders first “in ways that other wireline telecom companies do,” investors like Maglan hope to see a sale at a share price of $23, a 75% premium.

“With the company’s labor challenges behind it and with it $700 million of long-term debt removed from FairPoint’s balance-sheet, the time has come for the company to be sold or to be merged into a peer,” the hedge fund managers write.

Tawil (L) and Azarbad (R)

Tawil (L) and Azarbad (R)

Maglan recommends the company be sold to Communications Sales & Leasing, a tax-sheltered Real Estate Investment Trust spun off from Windstream with no current experience running a residential service provider. CS&L primarily provides commercial fiber services for corporations, institutions, and cell phone towers. Shareholders would benefit and CS&L would benefit from diversification, argues Maglan. But the hedge fund has nothing to say about the sale’s impact on FairPoint customers.

Maglan also demanded that while FairPoint explored a sale of the company, it must turn its investments away from its network and operations and start “generating value for shareholders immediately.” Maglan wants FairPoint to turn spending towards a $40 million share repurchase program (to benefit shareholders with a boost in the stock price) and initiate a recurring shareholder dividend payout. To accomplish this, FairPoint will have to designate much of its $23 million of cash on hand and a hefty part of the $52 million of free cash flow anticipated in 2016 directly to shareholders. The company may even need to tap into its revolving credit line if financial results are worse than expected.

Tawil and Azarbad characterize their plan as “well within the range of comfort.”

“It is high-time that the company and the board turn its attention directly to shareholders and, specifically, unlocking shareholder value,” the hedge fund managers add. “We have been a very patient group.”

But perhaps not as patient as they thought. This week, Maglan demanded that FairPoint remove four of its board members — Dennis Austin, Michael Mahoney, David Treadwell and Wayne Wilson, demanding they “immediately tender their resignations” and warned Maglan would push for a special meeting if no action was taken. The reason? Tawil and Azarbad said they did not think the four were “critical to the board in any way.”

“Wall Street has been about as useful as cancer for those of us trying to communicate with the outside world up here,” Jackman said. “I hope all three states get copies of these temper tantrums, because if FairPoint does sell, maybe this time they won’t approve the deal. After all, even the Titanic only sank once.”

FairPoint’s ‘Moosepoop’: Abdicating Its Responsibilities One Customer at a Time

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint's deregulation logic "moosepoop."

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint’s deregulation logic “moosepoop.”

In 2007, Verizon Communications announced it was selling its landline telephone network in Northern New England to FairPoint Communications, a North Carolina-based independent telephone company. Now, nearly a decade (and one bankruptcy) later, FairPoint wants to back out of its commitments.

In 2015, FairPoint stepped up its push for deregulation, writing its own draft legislative bills that would gradually end its obligation to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” which guarantees phone service to any customer that wants it.

The company’s lobbyists produced the self-written LD 1302, introduced last year in Maine with the ironic name: “An Act To Increase Competition and Ensure a Robust Information and Telecommunications Market.” The bill is a gift to FairPoint, allowing it to abdicate responsibilities telephone companies have adhered to for over 100 years:

  • The bill removes the requirement that FairPoint maintain uninterrupted voice service during a power failure, either through battery backup or electric current;
  • Guarantees FairPoint not be required to offer provider of last resort service without its express consent, eliminating Universal Service requirements;
  • Eliminates a requirement FairPoint offer service in any area where another provider also claims coverage of at least 94% of households;
  • Eventually forbids the Public Utilities Commission from requiring contributions to the state Universal Service Fund and forbids the PUC from spending that money to subsidize rural telephone rates.

opinionSuch legislation strips consumers of any assumption they can get affordable, high quality landline service and would allow FairPoint to mothball significant segments of its network (and the customers that depend on it), telling the disconnected to use a cell phone provider instead.

FairPoint claims this is necessary to establish a more level playing ground to compete with other telecom service providers that do not have legacy obligations to fulfill. But that attitude represents “race to the bottom” thinking from a company that fully understood the implications of buying Verizon’s landline networks in a region where some customers were already dropping basic service in favor of their cell phones.

FairPoint apparently still saw value spending $2.4 billion on a network it now seems ready to partly abandon or dismantle. We suspect the “value” FairPoint saw was a comfortable duopoly in urban areas, a monopoly in most rural ones. When it botched the conversion from Verizon to itself, customers fled to the competition, dimming its prospects. The company soon declared bankruptcy reorganization, emerged from it, and is now seeking a legislative/regulatory bailout too. Regulators should say no.

fairpointLast week, even FairPoint’s CEO Paul Sunu appeared to undercut his company’s own arguments for the need of such legislation, just as the company renewed its efforts in Portland to get a new 2016 version of the deregulation bill through the Maine legislature.

“We’ve operated in and we have experience operating basically in duopolies for a long time,” Sunu told investors in last week’s quarterly results conference call. “Cable is a formidable competitor. Look, they offer a nice package and a bundle and they – in certain areas, they certainly have a speed advantage. So we recognize that and so our marketing team does a really good job of making sure that our packages are competitive and we can counter punch on a both aggregate and deconstructive pricing.”

“Our aim is not to be a low cost, per se,” Sununu added. “What we want to do is to make sure that people stay with us because we can provide a better service and a better experience and that’s really what we aim to do. And as a result, we think that we will be able to change the perception that people have of Fairpoint and our brand and be able to keep our customers with us longer.”

Paul H. Sunu

Paul H. Sunu

Of course customers may not have the option to stay if FairPoint gets its deregulation agenda through and are later left unilaterally disconnected. In fact, while Sunu argues FairPoint’s biggest marketing plus is that it can provide better service, its agenda seems to represent the opposite. AARP representatives argued seniors want and need reliable and affordable landline service. FairPoint’s proposal would eliminate assurances that such phone lines will still be there and work even when the power goes out.

At least this year, customers know if they are being targeted. FairPoint is proposing to immediately remove from “provider of last resort service” coverage in Maine from Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Sanford, Brunswick, Scarborough, Saco, Augusta, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Waterville, Kennebunk, Standish, Kittery, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Yarmouth, Bath, Freeport and Belfast.

At least 10,000 customers could be affected almost immediately if the bill passes. Customers in those areas would not lose service under the plan, but prices would no longer be set by state regulators and the company could deny new connection requests.

FairPoint argues that customers disappointed by the effects of deregulation can simply switch providers.

fairpoint failure“The market determines the service quality criteria of importance to customers and the service quality levels they find acceptable,” Sarah Davis, the company’s senior director of government affairs, wrote. “To the extent service quality is deficient from the perspective of consumers, the competitive marketplace imposes its own serious penalties.”

Except FairPoint’s own CEO recognizes that marketplace is usually a duopoly, limiting customer options and the penalties to FairPoint.

Those customers still allowed to stay customers may or may not get good service from FairPoint. Another company proposal would make it hard to measure reliability by limiting the authority of state regulators to track and oversee service complaints.

Company critic and customer Mike Kiernan calls FairPoint’s legislative push “moosepoop.”

“FairPoint has been, from the outset, well aware of the issues here in New England, since they had to demonstrate that they were capable of coping with the conditions – market and otherwise – in their takeover bid from Verizon,” Kiernan writes. “Yet now we see where they are crying poverty (a poverty that they brought on themselves) by taking on the state concession that they are trying desperately to get out from under, and as soon as possible.”

Vermont Public Radio reports FairPoint wants to get rid of service quality obligations it has consistently failed to meet as part of a broad push for deregulation. (2:23)

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Kiernan argues FairPoint should be replaced with a solution New Englanders have been familiar with for over 200 years – a public co-op. He points to Eastern Maine Electrical Co-Op as an example of a publicly owned utility that works for its customers, not as a “corporate cheerleader.”

Despite lobbying efforts that suggest FairPoint is unnecessarily burdened by the requirements it inherited when it bought Verizon’s operations, FairPoint reported a net profit of $90 million dollars in fiscal 2015.

FairPoint CEO Hints the Company is For Sale; Analysts Suspect Frontier Would Be the Logical Buyer

Phillip Dampier May 13, 2015 Audio, Competition, Consumer News, FairPoint, Frontier 2 Comments

fairpoint4Frontier Communications, just hours after passing its first hurdle  — from the Federal Trade Commission — to go ahead with its proposed $10.54 billion acquisition of Verizon’s wireline assets in California, Florida and Texas, is already being discussed as the most likely buyer of FairPoint Communications, which serves former Verizon customers in the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Wall Street is turning up the pressure on FairPoint to sell its money-losing operation to a larger company that could use economy of scale to rescue a business that has already declared bankruptcy once and lost over $136 million last year. FairPoint also recently settled an ongoing dispute with its unionized workforce which makes the company a more likely takeover target.

FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu put out the for-sale sign during last week’s first quarter earnings conference call, admitting to investors FairPoint is considering mergers and acquisitions as a seller or buyer as part of the company’s overall strategy.

Barry Sine, a telecom analyst with Drexel Hamilton, said the company’s 18,000 mile fiber optic network across the three states it serves is the crown jewel of FairPoint and would be a valuable addition to a larger phone company’s portfolio. FairPoint continues to rapidly lose residential customers as they switch to cellular phones, cable company phone service, or broadband-powered Voice over IP services like Ooma. But FairPoint is picking up customers in the commercial sector, including wireless carriers seeking cell tower backhaul connections, hospitals, and other institutions using FairPoint’s fiber network.

Frontier, headquartered in Stamford, Conn., already has substantial assets in the northeast, including AT&T’s former service area in Connecticut. Picking up northern New England would not be much of a challenge for a company already serving 28 states with more than 17,000 employees and could soon pick up millions of new customers in the south.

Vermont Public Radio reports troubled FairPoint Communications, which serves customers in northern New England originally serviced by Verizon, is likely up for sale and could be acquired by a company like Frontier Communications by 2017. (2:54)

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frontier frankWith Frontier’s attention currently occupied by its latest Verizon transaction, analysts do not expect to see a deal with FairPoint struck before 2017. That could allow Frontier’s rivals — CenturyLink and Windstream to approach FairPoint first. But neither of those two companies have recently been active acquiring new landline service areas.

Many of FairPoint’s largest shareholders purchased defaulted bonds when FairPoint went bankrupt, and hope to rack up a substantial return when FairPoint is sold to a larger company.

Frontier has a better record of working well with unionized workers than FairPoint, so it was no surprise the unions representing FairPoint workers are not upset with the news the company could be sold.

A spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Vermont told Vermont Public Radio the union is aware of speculation about a future sale of the company and would welcome the opportunity to be a partner with “a more successful business” than FairPoint.

Shareholders ‘Beating the Drums’ Demanding Quick Sale of FairPoint Communications… to Anyone

Phillip Dampier March 4, 2015 Consumer News, FairPoint, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

fairpointJust weeks after FairPoint Communications and union workers settled a prolonged strike involving more than 1,700 workers that began last October, shareholders are demanding the company sell itself and exit the business.

Investors are reacting negatively to today’s news that FairPoint’s quarterly losses accelerated during the 131-day strike to $136.3 million as the company spent an extra $73.6 million on temporary replacement workers and defending itself in strike-related negotiations.

Since FairPoint declared bankruptcy reorganization in 2011, the company has continued to post losses each year since, and those losses show no signs of ending. The company today abandoned issuing guidance on its future earnings for the rest of 2015, claiming it was uncertain of the impact of the strike on its future revenue.

They could ask customers like John Bouchard in Robbinston, Maine, who canceled after becoming fed up with FairPoint’s impotent customer service department, unable to resolve service problems during the strike.

Bouchard told the Associated Press after his FairPoint DSL service went out, he set up an installation appointment with the cable company and had to leave his home office and drive through a snowstorm to find Internet access while Time Warner Cable caught up with the demand for new service installations.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said.

fairpoint1_0FairPoint’s unionized workers returning to the job openly worried about the state of FairPoint’s network after a hard winter and how inexperienced temporary workers maintained the facilities while they were on strike.

Multiple press reports documented instances of shoddy repair work from the temporary workers, including some safety hazards.

“We have to win back the confidence of our customers,” said Adam Frederickson, a FairPoint worker in Nashua, N.H.

Barry Sine, an analyst who follows FairPoint for Drexel Hamilton, a New York-based brokerage, said he believes it will take 30 to 45 days for the company’s workforce to restore service quality to pre-strike levels. But by then, thousands of customers are likely to have switched providers.

North Carolina-based FairPoint disagreed that the problems were serious. “The FairPoint network performed exceptionally during the work stoppage and our well-trained and qualified contract workforce provided superb support of that network,” said company spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry.

Sine believes FairPoint would have been a prime target for acquisition earlier if it were not for its legacy workforce costs, which include benefits the company just successfully cut in the labor contract that ended the strike. With the strike now behind the company, investors believe now is the time FairPoint should sell itself to maximize shareholder value.

“Shareholders are beating the drums; they want to sell this company now,” said Sine. “The unions, there’s no love lost with this management team. The unions would like a new owner as well.”

for sale by ownerUnion leaders sense the company is already quietly getting the books in order for a sale.

Don Trementozzi, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 1400 in Portsmouth, N.H. told the AP the company seemed fixated on improving its books instead of focusing on customers.

“The brand has put a sour taste in the mouths of customers,” he said. “We’re going to go back to work and do everything we can to make this company profitable. But the brand, the name, suffered greatly in this. I don’t know if you can recover without a sale.”

In any sale, FairPoint executives and shareholders are likely to win the most. FairPoint workers, already challenged by significant benefit cuts, could face pressure from new owners to further reduce pay and benefits. FairPoint would likely sell for $25-30 a share, or around $780 million. But a buyer would also have to assume nearly a billion dollars in prior debt from a company that has never managed to post a quarterly profit since emerging from bankruptcy.

The most likely buyer would be Frontier Communications, already solidly established in the northeastern United States. But it may be too preoccupied with its recent $10 billion acquisition of Verizon landlines in Florida, California, and Texas to consider another acquisition. The next likely buyer would be Arkansas-based Windstream, followed by CenturyLink.

FairPoint’s president of Maine operations dismissed the speculation about FairPoint’s future, claiming it is focused on growing the business, not selling it.

“We have a responsibility to our customers, to our shareholders. We need to run the company as profitably as we can, to provide the best service that we can provide. That’s what we do,” he said. The union’s contention that FairPoint fought to cut worker benefits just to make itself attractive to buyers “is a stretch,” he said.

A FairPoint employee tells WFFF-TV in Burlington, Vt. how declining service may have finally forced FairPoint to the bargaining table with a proposal workers could accept.  (2:51)

Maine: Your Broadband Speeds and Availability Suck – 49th Out of 50 States

Maine's broadband speeds are among the worst in the country. (Graphic: Portland Press Herald)

Maine’s broadband speeds are among the worst in the country. (Graphic: Portland Press Herald)

If talking about broadband was the same as getting broadband, Maine would be saturated with High Speed Internet service. Despite years of blue ribbon task forces, studies, grants, and lawsuits, the state of broadband in Maine has never been worse, ranked 49th among 50 states for quality of service and availability. The only state below Maine is Montana.

Maine’s woeful broadband is the result of passive providers including Time Warner Cable and FairPoint Communications that find little incentive to expand service into Maine’s considerable rural back country. Even if they did offer service, Maine’s aging population hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for spending hours online, assuming they understood how to navigate the Internet in the first place.

So how do you convince Maine’s broadband providers to deliver more and better service? Throw money at them in the form of tax breaks and subsidies, suggests David Maxwell, program director of the ConnectME Authority. He believes that if providers are incentivized to wire the unwired by agreeing to cover some of the costs, they will do it.

But as the Portland Press Herald reports, eight rounds of ConnectME grant funding to providers that averaged $1 million each has not made much of an improvement in the state’s broadband standing.

Maine residents in cities and large towns can usually find broadband service from either Time Warner Cable or FairPoint Communications, which purchased the deteriorating copper wire network abandoned by Verizon Communications as it exited the landline business in northern New England. Cable broadband customers can buy speeds up to 50Mbps, but Time Warner’s presence in Maine is not widespread. The majority of customers still buy access from FairPoint, and DSL speeds in Maine are slow.

Gizmodo reports the majority of Maine counties serviced by FairPoint currently receive a maximum speed of 7.3-10.9Mbps, primarily over DSL. That is 40-60 percent slower than the national average. In nearby Boston, speeds average 21.8-25.5Mbps.

FairPoint has been reticent about upgrading its landline infrastructure, particularly in rural counties. Maxwell told the newspaper FairPoint and other providers can’t justify an investment in broadband with no possibility of a quick return. But the phone company has also been accused of reneging on commitments already made to improve Internet access.

The Maine Public Advocate’s Office sued FairPoint to speed up and broaden its efforts to expand broadband to at least 87 percent of customers no later than April.

Wayne Jortner, senior counsel, told the Portland newspaper FairPoint vigorously defended against the lawsuit, but ultimately lost.

“In fact, the litigation did cause us to go all the way to the Maine Supreme Court, and we won there again,” Jortner said. “Now they’re on track to pretty much do what they said they would do.”

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