Laurence's legacy hangs over Rogers as Natale steps into top job
With its shares in all-time high territory, and highly regarded Joe Natale coming aboard as chief executive much earlier than expected, Rogers Communications is on a roll. But who got it there?
Natale will join Rogers (RCIb.TO) on April 19, the day after the company announces first-quarter results. Those results are expected to be strong – and if they are, it will be a reminder that the big mistakes committed by Natale’s predecessor had little to do with operating performance at Rogers. As BNN’s Jon Erlichman reported at the time, former CEO Guy Laurence was abruptly shown the door because he ran afoul of the Rogers family - despite his success in turning the company around.
Since Laurence’s departure last October, Rogers has posted two straight sets of impressive quarterly results. And expectations are set high for the first-quarter results set for April 18.
Here’s what to look for:
- New wireless subscribers: The line to look for is net postpaid wireless additions. Rogers has been knocking it out of the park on this line lately. The number was 93,000 in the fourth quarter – about 30,000 more than analysts expected. And it was 114,000 in the third quarter, its strongest figure since 2010. Can Rogers do it again? Anything close to 100,000 will confirm that Laurence did what he was supposed to do, and has set the table handsomely for Natale.
- Wireless EBITDA growth: It was doubly impressive that Rogers delivered growth on its wireless bottom line last time out. Adding new subscribers is great, but it costs money to bring them into the fold. Rogers clearly had costs under control, however, as EBITDA from the wireless business grew a respectable five per cent in the fourth quarter. Another strong number here would confirm the trend. Company-wide EDITDA is expected to be $1.15 billion – up four per cent over the previous year. If Rogers can top that expectation, it will be wireless EBITDA that drives the beat.
- No dividend increase: It’s a safe bet Rogers will wait until the new boss has settled in before resuming its path of dividend increases. It’s now been nine quarters since Rogers last raised its payout after surprising the street by not announcing the customary fourth-quarter earnings release dividend hike in January of 2016. (BCE has raised its dividend twice over that period. And the Telus dividend has gone up four times.) It won’t be long before the question is put to Natale and the board: When do dividend increases resume? And will Rogers catch up to its two big competitors?
- Forecast: Any changes to Rogers’ forecasts for this year – positive or negative – will come as a surprise to investors, since the company updated its outlook just three months ago. That view was warmly received by analysts. Rogers saw 2017 revenue growth of between three and five per cent – well ahead of street forecasts. No news will be good news when it comes to the outlook.
- The media segment: We won’t know until July whether five Canadian teams competing in the NHL playoffs made a material difference to Rogers. The company, of course, holds the Canadian broadcast and digital rights to NHL hockey and owns the Sportsnet stable of specialty TV channels, along with many other television, radio, digital and print assets. What we do know is that Rogers’ media results were soft enough in the fourth quarter to offset the better than expected EBITDA in wireless and cable. And we know from another large Canadian media player – Corus Entertainment – that the advertising market remains soft. Corus reported a four per cent drop in television advertising revenue (when the effects of Corus’s huge acquisition of media assets from Shaw Media are set aside) on April 6. Expect lots of questions about what the Canada-rich NHL playoffs will mean to the bottom line the next time Rogers reports. Also, Rogers is widely perceived to have overpaid for those rights. Will Natale touch that one?
- The Cable segment: In the era of cord-cutting, this business is often seen as a legacy business in decline. But keep in mind, this is also the segment where Rogers sells Internet service to Canadians – and there is no evidence of cord-cutting there. More customers are signing up for Rogers’ Internet service, and more of them are moving to higher-speed, heavier-use packages like the Ignite broadband offering. In the third-quarter results – reported the day after Rogers gave Guy Laurence his walking papers – Rogers reported its strongest subscriber-addition figure since 2011. Another strong quarter here may prompt some Rogers shareholders to wonder aloud why exactly the company bade farewell to Laurence in the first place.