Technology

Motorola's Market Share Mess


The company's lack of compelling new phones continues to depress market share, which threatens plans to spin off the handset division

Motorola's phones once held so much cachet that mammoth wireless carrier AT&T clamored for the exclusive right to sell the best-selling Razr. This year, AT&T (T) has taken only one new Motorola phone, the Z9 slider.

The company's falling star at AT&T, the largest U.S. mobile-phone carrier, underscores Motorola's persistent failure to release handsets that grab the attention of consumers and the service providers whose marketing is crucial to sales. It only reinforces concern over Motorola's ability to spin off the leaderless, money-losing handset division.

Once having commanded more than one-fifth of the global handset market, Motorola (MOT) likely ended the second quarter with 8.5% share, from 9.3% in the first quarter, according to Avian Securities. In June, Avian analysts surveyed 100 representatives of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel (S), and T-Mobile USA (DT) retail locations and found that Motorola phones no longer even make it onto the list of the top 10 best-selling handsets. Motorola's shelf space at the major carriers declined to 15% in June, from 18% in May, according to the survey. "They lost a lot of scale," says Avian's Matt Thornton.

Motorola's ability to gain share is being hampered as rivals including Apple (AAPL) and Research in Motion (RIMM) step up their attack on the market for smartphones, multifeatured handsets that deliver e-mail, productivity applications, and other advanced services. Motorola has yet to deliver AT&T an update to its smartphone, the Q, which debuted in 2007. In roughly the same time frame, Apple has delivered two versions of its popular iPhone.

BlackBerry maker RIM has released two new smartphones with AT&T this year alone. Samsung's recently released Instinct is another device grabbing buyers' attention. Some analysts see Motorola losing further share. Motorola may end up with as little as 6% global market share by yearend, Thornton estimates.

No Guarantee of Spin-Off Success

Greg Brown, who succeeded Ed Zander as Motorola CEO last year, has acknowledged that Motorola needs a fresh lineup of phones—and that the company was working diligently on getting new products to market. Still, Motorola lags competitors in doing just that. Motorola's few releases—such as the Z9 slider—have fallen relatively flat. "Motorola is taking aggressive steps to improve the performance of the mobile devices business," company spokeswoman Jennifer Weyrauch says in an e-mailed statement. "We are working more closely than ever with customers to tailor our innovative products to meet their needs. We're also sharpening our focus on product development to deliver the mobile experiences consumers desire."

Aggressive as those steps may be, they're doing little to assuage the concerns of investors such as Eric Jackson, who until recently held the stock in hopes that recent changes that handed a board seat to financier Carl Icahn would catalyze a turnaround. But Jackson dumped his holding a month ago, despite a 30% loss. "As an activist investor, you have to be ready to find out the situation is worse than you thought," says Jackson, founder of Ironfire Capital. "Then, you've got to be able to cut your losses."

Unable to stem its own mobile-phone losses, Motorola is believed to have tried to sell the handset division. When those efforts failed, it opted to spin it off. Now the spin-off plans are faltering as well, in part because the economic slump is eroding demand at Motorola's other businesses and weakening the company's financial standing, analysts say. "Any deterioration in [other divisions] will place additional pressure on profitability and cash flow with implications for the timing and viability of the planned spin-off of the handset business," Avian's Thornton wrote in a July 7 report.

On June 23, Piper Jaffray (PJC) analyst T. Michael Walkley cut Motorola shares to sell in part because he doubts the spin-off is likely any time soon. Motorola stock fell 18¢, or 2.5%, to 7.15 on July 9. The shares have declined 56% since the beginning of the year.

Even if Motorola succeeds in spinning off the money-losing business, public markets may not welcome it with open arms. "We never were confident the separation would generate more shareholder value," says Todd Rosenbluth, an analyst at Standard & Poor's, which, like BusinessWeek.com, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP). "The handset business has been supported by sales to cable customers and government contracts. A struggling business on its own may not be the best thing for investors."

Any Buyers?

So what's Motorola's Plan C? Weyrauch, the spokeswoman, says the company is "moving forward with our plans to create two independent, publicly traded companies." American Technology Research analyst Mark McKechnie says shuttering the business is now a real possibility.

Motorola could also revert to Plan A, some analysts say. "We think they are going to get acquired rather than be spun off successfully," says Richard Doherty, director of consultancy Envisioneering Group. In that case, Motorola would be lucky to fetch $500 million, says McKechnie, who as recently as a half-year ago valued the business at $8 billion. Since then, however, market share slides and continued share price declines have prompted him to revise his estimate. Another analyst, Richard Windsor of Nomura, believes Motorola may actually need to pay someone to take the handset division off its hands.

All of this presupposes Motorola can find a buyer in the first place, however. Private equity firms could be induced to buy the division on the cheap. Firms including Bain Capital are reportedly bidding for rival handset maker Huawei, and on July 1, AIG Investments (AIG) purchased UTStarcom's (UTSI) handset business for $240 million. "There are people who want to buy handset companies, and it might be a good time to sell," says David Chamberlain, an analyst at consultancy In-Stat.

Meantime, someone needs to run the business and Motorola may have a hard time finding that person. Sources who asked to remain anonymous tell BusinessWeek.com that at least two people, including an internal candidate and Todd Bradley, an executive vice-president at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), have declined the top job. Weyrauch declined to comment on the executive search. Rosenbluth sums up the concerns left on many people's minds: "We thought by now we'd have more details [on the restructuring and the new CEO], and the lack of details is disconcerting."


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