WorldCom Now Bernie-Free

WorldCom's world without Bernie Ebbers might improve, but, with the company's operating problems and massive debt, investors should continue to be wary.

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By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)
April 30, 2002

In last week's Rule Maker column, I discussed some of the problems facing WorldCom (Nasdaq: WCOM), which has lost some 80% of its value since the beginning of the year. Key among them was the fact that CEO Bernie Ebbers had shown a great deal of adroitness in assembling a company, but none whatsoever in running one.

Well, in the four intervening market days. WorldCom dropped another 40%, as its earnings came into light, its debt rating came under review, and the overarching tenor of the company seemed to be not so much about operations but avoiding the Grim Reaper. Sources inside the company have called the environment "grim," and Ebbers' penchant for taking care of his senior executives seemed to have finally come back to bite him. When the company was growing by leaps and bounds, shareholders had no problem with the big compensation packages being reaped by insiders. Throw a little market uncertainty into the mix and what was once perceived as a competitive advantage now becomes the proverbial albatross. Insiders saw their options wither up and die and outsiders were no longer willing to put up with big salaries for underperformance.

Yahtzee.

And so, with nearly the same speed that he stormed onto the national scene -- transforming tiny Long Distance Discount Service into a world telecommunications powerhouse through acquisitions and sheer bodaciousness -- Ebbers' profile has collapsed. In an environment in which every constituency has lost faith in his leadership, Ebbers tendered his resignation this morning. Former UUNet chief and current Vice Chairman of the Board John Sidgmore is taking his place. Sidgmore has maintained the veneer of operational competence, which he will now have to prove in an environment where telecommunications and data service revenues are flat. Sidgmore's comments this morning belied confidence about the future of WorldCom. Sidgmore told The Wall Street Journal in an interview, "In the reasonable, foreseeable future, we don't see any scenario under which we are going to run out of cash or go into bankruptcy."

Sidgmore's task is formidable. WorldCom is, by many accounts, a mess. It is saddled with $30 billion plus in debts, with nearly $1.3 billion of that coming due for repayment in 2003 alone. Further, Sidgmore will have to reverse the exodus of talent from the company, but do so in a way that does not a) put the company at more financial risk, or b) further tick off already hard put-upon shareholders. And finally, WorldCom is going to have to reverse recent failures to grow its market share or its revenue base in data services, in a market environment of utter despair.

One bright spot for the company, believe it or not, is MCI (Nasdaq: MCIT), its voice-services component, which trades as a separate tracking stock. MCI just launched a new flat-priced local and long-distance service called "the Neighborhood," to solid reviews. Since the Neighborhood offers both local and long distance services, MCI's base service revenues per customer will increase over its solely long-distance customers.

Investors need to recognize this: The only thing that has changed at WorldCom right now is that Bernie Ebbers is gone. That is a big thing and, at the same time, it's not. The same anemic board that stood by as WorldCom burned shareholder value by the truckload is still in place. The same executive staff is in place, with the exception of the former king. And Bernie Ebbers doesn't take either the operating problems or the massive debt load with him. In other words, it is still a long, unsure road for WorldCom, but Sidgmore's leadership could be reason to hope.

Fool on!

Please refer to Bill Mann's profile for a complete list of his holdings. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

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