Bloomberg News

BlackBerry’s Money-Losing Hardware Unit May Force Breakup

August 21, 2013

BlackBerry Headed for Breakup Amid Phones Woes: Corporate Canada

The BlackBerry Q10 smartphone during a news conference for the product's India launch in New Delhi on June 6, 2013. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

BlackBerry Ltd.’s withering smartphone business means potential acquirers will pick over its more alluring assets, including software and patents, which together may be worth about $5 billion, roughly in line with the company’s current market value.

BlackBerry’s once-lucrative services business and hardware unit would have zero value in a breakup as phone losses erode fee-based revenue earned from each subscriber, according to Raymond James Ltd. If a buyer closed the hardware unit in favor of its own technology, it would cost about $800 million, said BMO Capital Markets. BlackBerry’s patents, software and a secure network are each worth more than $1 billion, BMO said, and the company has about $2.8 billion in cash.

The Waterloo, Ontario-based company appointed board members last week to analyze a sale or new partnerships to try to turn the company around. The value of the hardware unit may plummet further as customers shy from buying a device whose future is up in the air, leading acquirers to gravitate to BlackBerry’s other assets, Brian Huen, managing partner at Red Sky Capital Management, said by phone on Aug. 19.

“You’re effectively killing that business by saying ‘I’m up for sale,’” said Huen, whose Toronto-based firm manages about C$220 million ($212 million) in assets including BlackBerry shares. “Nobody is interested in buying the entire entity. I think they are now in the phase of saying, ‘We will do anything to maximize value, including breaking up the company.’”

Little Interest

Lisette Kwong, a spokeswoman for BlackBerry, declined to comment yesterday about a potential breakup and sale of the company’s parts.

BlackBerry hired JPMorgan Chase & Co and RBC Capital Markets 17 months ago to explore its strategic options as sales of the company’s once-iconic phones tumbled amid competition from Apple Inc (AAPL:US). and Samsung Electronics Co. Those bankers contacted possible bidders late last year and found little interest in buying the whole company, particularly from private-equity firms, said two people familiar with those discussions.

International Business Machines Corp., made an informal approach to buy BlackBerry’s enterprise-services business in 2012, two people told Bloomberg in August of that year. IBM, based in Armonk, New York, wasn’t interested in pursuing the whole company, the people said.

James Sciales, an IBM spokesman, declined to comment.

Android, Apple

The hardware business, which helped fuel net income of $3.4 billion in 2011, lagged behind as the industry shifted to touchscreen devices with a wide variety of applications available for download. BlackBerry’s share of the global smartphone market fell to 2.9 percent in the second quarter from 4.9 percent a year earlier, behind Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone platform, Apple Inc.’s iOS and Google Inc.’s market-leading Android, according to IDC, based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Speculation that the company might be taken private to be restructured or broken up out of the public spotlight accelerated after the Aug. 12 announcement, in which Prem Watsa, a Toronto-based businessman and BlackBerry’s largest shareholder, said he would step down from the board. The company didn’t mention going private as an option at the time.

BlackBerry fell 2.8 percent to $10.25 at the close in New York, cutting its market value to $5.37 billion. The shares have dropped 14 percent this year, leaving BlackBerry down more than 90 percent from its 2008 high.

Nuclear Plants

“We struggle to assign any value to the hardware business given the belief the most logical acquirer of BlackBerry would likely attempt to transition BlackBerry’s subscriber base to its own competing smartphone products or ecosystem,” Michael Walkley, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity Inc. in Minneapolis, said in an Aug. 12 note. He rates BlackBerry a sell.

In addition to its cash, BlackBerry has smartphone patents, an operating system that powers car-information systems and even nuclear power plants, and a network of secure servers that cater to millions of government and business users. The company had 72 million smartphone subscribers at the end of June.

Tim Long, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets in New York, puts the cost of shutting down BlackBerry’s hardware unit at about $800 million, or $1.50 a share. He rates BlackBerry a hold.

Nortel’s Fate?

The company’s cash reserves will be worth about $2.6 billion at the end of this fiscal year; its patents and other intellectual property might fetch $1 billion; the network would be worth $1.2 billion; and the software about $1.5 billion, Long said in an Aug. 13 note to clients. Subtracting the $800 million estimated cost of shutting down the handset businesses, that would give BlackBerry a sum-of-the-parts value of about $5.5 billion, or $10.50 a share.

Raymond James put the value of BlackBerry’s patents higher, as much as $1.6 billion. In an Aug. 12 note, Raymond James’s Steven Li said BlackBerry is probably worth about $4.5 billion, or $8.70 a share, if broken up. Toronto-based Li rates BlackBerry a hold.

A breakup scenario is more likely because few buyers want and are willing to pay for all of BlackBerry’s assets, even at the stock’s depressed (BBRY:US) valuation, Joe Compeau, an information-systems lecturer with Ivey Business School in London, Ontario, said by phone. That means it could be headed for the same fate as Nortel Networks Corp (NRTLQ:US). The company filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and sold its main assets in a series of auctions that fetched $7.8 billion for its creditors.

Cash Trove

“What happened with Nortel, where they just started selling bits of it, that could happen,” Compeau said. “There’s not that many players who can extract value from all those different parts.”

Unlike Nortel, BlackBerry has never issued debt and had $2.8 billion worth of cash and cash equivalents at the end of June, more than enough to ward off bankruptcy.

The company reported a loss last quarter and expects another loss this quarter, a sign the new phones do not have the traction with customers that Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins was counting on to drive a turnaround in BlackBerry’s fortunes. The company posted a $646 million loss in fiscal 2013, its first annual loss in a decade.

Sales of the new BlackBerry Z10 touch-screen phone missed analysts’ estimates by close to a million units last quarter. Investors will learn if the possibility of a company sale has scared off smartphone buyers on Sept. 27, when BlackBerry releases quarterly results.

Production Cut

Peter Misek, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. in New York, says that may already be happening. Monthly phone production was cut to 1 million units from 2 million units last month, and has since been cut by a further 10 percent, Misek said, citing supplier checks. He rates BlackBerry a buy.

“Leveraged buyout and acquisition headlines will cause enterprises to delay purchases until they have greater clarity on BlackBerry’s future as a company,” said in an Aug. 19 note.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hugo Miller in Toronto at hugomiller@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nick Turner at nturner7@bloomberg.net


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