Shares of Sprint slid almost 5% on news that the company is replacing CFO Tarek Robbiati with French telecom executive Michel Combes. Combes has a history of taking on challenging assignments at troubled companies, so some investors may see his appointment as confirmation that Sprint is struggling to service its $35 billion debt load while investing in its network.
Combes is no stranger to leverage, having served most recently as CEO of debt-laden Altice, a European cable operator. Like Sprint, Altice has been losing market share, and late last year Combes stepped aside so that founder Patrick Drehi could take over. Combes’ new role at Sprint suggests that he remains close to Altice, because Sprint and Altice USA are partners.
Altice USA went public last summer, and CEO Dexter Goei said the company wants to use its stock as a currency to finance acquisitions. Sprint has been looking for a deal, most recently with T-Mobile US, but so far nothing has worked out.
Will Combes look at mergers and acquisitions for Sprint in his new role? His history suggests that he might. Five years ago he was hired to turn around Alcatel-Lucent and within two years had negotiated the sale of the company to Nokia.
Sprint’s current market value stands at $22 billion, the same valuation investors gave Altice USA this summer when it went public. But those shares have declined in the months since then, and Altice USA is now worth less than $16 billion.
Even at the time of the IPO, Goei acknowledged that Altice USA is too small to buy a U.S. wireless carrier. Nonetheless, the appointment of an Altice alum as Sprint’s new CFO suggests a deepening relationship between Altice and Sprint.
The nature of that relationship will depend upon SoftBank, the Japanese carrier that owns 84% of Sprint. SoftBank has reportedly tried unsuccessfully to merge Sprint with cable operator Charter Communications in the past.
Analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson does not see a Sprint/Altice USA merger as a likely scenario. Nathanson recently cut his price target for Sprint to $2.00 a share, after the collapse of the Sprint/T-Mobile US merger talks.