BT Dials Up Some Impressive Numbers. Where Next for the Shares?

This article has been adapted from Fool U.K., our sister site across the pond.

It's often said that elephants don't gallop but if that's true (and they can reach speeds of 24 mph apparently!) then no one seems to have told Ian Livingston, the CEO of BT (NYSE: BT  ) .

The man took the helm at the U.K.'s largest telecoms provider back in June 2008 and under his stewardship, the company has managed an incredibly impressive turnaround -- which has been reflected in the recent share price action.

From a relatively recent low of 70p in March 2009, the shares reached and stand at 200p at the time of writing -- on the NYSE, that's about $10 to its current price of close to $33. Shares are down today on final results for the year ended March 31.

Of course, none of this is any great shakes compared to the ludicrous highs the company's share price managed back in the tech boom when market rationale seemed "not applicable."

Bottom line focus
The boss' main focus has been on reducing costs and staff numbers. And he has been singularly successful in this endeavor. The company has made huge cuts in costs over recent years, shedding thousands of jobs along the way and cutting billions in costs to help it compete -- though in the last year, the cost-cutting focus was far less on staff than on other areas of the business.

It looks like it has been worth it -- though the staff who lost their jobs may disagree. BT saw an impressive increase in profits of over 70% at 1.7 billion pounds, and made 495 million pounds in the fourth quarter alone.

And this came on slightly lower revenues; 4% down at 20 billion pounds. But that's what the people who own the company really want to see -- a focus on the bottom line through responsible business. And that's what BT has delivered under Livingston.

The danger now is that he'll be tempted away by another "Premier League" company looking for someone to sort its overheads out and tighten things up a little.

Shareholders also want to see a decent dividend. This desire will be easier for the company to fulfill through its impressive free cash flow, which was ahead of expectations at 2.2 billion pounds.

What next?
BT says it will pay a final dividend 9% higher than last year's. The consequent 3.7% yield isn't the FTSE's best by any means, but it isn't half bad for such a monolith with simultaneous growth potential.

That potential comes mainly from its roll-out of BT's super-fast broadband service, which Livingston says is one of the most rapid in the world as over 80,000 premises a week sign up.

A near three-bagger from a FTSE high-yielding stalwart is an impressive performance indeed for anyone timing their purchase well. The question now is whether it's time to sell for those fortunate enough to be sitting on a big paper profit. This will all depend on your time horizons and reasons for holding of course.

BT is no deep value play. Discount the intangible assets and you're into negative territory. Net debt was 8.8 billion pounds at the year end; a reduction of 467 million pounds in the year after the company poured more than 1 billion pounds into its pension deficit.

But as a FTSE 100 essential stalwart of a share, its numbers and outlook look very impressive -- and the debt burden is a lot lighter than it was.

Given the prospective price-to-earnings ratio of under 10, a respectable yield, and the defensive nature of BT's business with some simultaneous potential for growth, I would be more inclined to buy on any significant weakness offered by the market's vagaries -- and then to hold for a long time -- than to sell into equally temporary strength.

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David doesn't own shares in any stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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