Aimee Davison is showing off her latest work of art, a mouldy pile of paper that makes a pointed message. In the middle of her kitchen sits “Yellow Page Mountain,” assembled from 191 unwanted Yellow Pages directories that she gathered from the streets of Montreal in a seven-hour period.
It’s the second such work she’s made. About a year ago, Davison and a friend collected more than 500 Yellow Pages volumes. They rented a U-Haul, unloaded the pile in front of Yellow Media Inc.’s headquarters, and filmed it for YouTube. Minor Internet fame ensued.
“I got such a strong response the first time, but the problem’s still there,” Davison says. “There are so many out there that people aren’t using, just littering the streets. It’s a waste.”
If Yellow Media is as doomed as this fall’s plummet in its share price suggests—the stock that once hit $17 was trading at 17 cents in early October—then there’s no better metaphor for its fate than the mould growing on products it simply cannot give away.
The evidence is peppered around the streets of Montreal, just across the river from the headquarters of Yellow Media, the publisher of the Yellow Pages and Canpages directories across Canada. As Davison points out on a neighbourhood tour, moist and blackening Yellow Pages are everywhere—on stoops and in doorways and apartment hallways, or kicked halfway under patios.
Yellow Media CEO Marc Tellier would like nothing better than to distance his brand from this image of decay. While he spent years boasting that his advertising books were as healthy a business as ever in the online age, now he bemoans the fact that people aren’t aware Yellow makes more than the Pages. “One of our communication challenges is that people ubiquitously recognize our walking fingers trademark, and it’s almost automatic that they think of the print,” Tellier says.
Yellow Media’s stock lost more than 97% of its value between the start of the year and early October; many observers believe it is headed to zero. The company’s debt (and there’s plenty of it) has been downgraded to junk status. The banks that lent to Yellow Media have begun to demand their money back. In September, the company fired its chief financial officer.
It’s evident to anyone not living in a cave that Yellow Pages could not dominate the age of Google as it dominated the age of the rotary phone. But is this sudden about-face regarding the value of a long-profitable company really rational? And whether it’s rational or not, why did the Yellow rebellion—which may not be over—come to a head so quickly?
The Yellow Pages brand has been in consumers’ homes ever since the books included instructions on how to use a telephone, and “Corsets” and “Snuff” were among the category headings. Small and medium-sized businesses in particular have seen a spot in the books as a must. And for good reason: There was, in fact, no other handy way for consumers to find local suppliers of goods and services. The Yellow Pages became so fat with ads that in 1961, after 52 years in print, then-publisher Bell Canada had to split the Toronto book in two because it had grown to an unwieldy 1,800 pages.
When Marc Tellier took over the business in 2002, it was still under Bell ownership. He had every reason to be confident about the future. The 33-year-old had quickly climbed the corporate ranks at Bell, and had been named one of Canada’s “Top 40 Under 40” young achievers. That he is the son of Paul Tellier, lionized in corporate circles for his successful privatization of CN, can’t have hurt. But the younger Tellier enjoyed glittering press in his own right, adding further lustre to the family name.
At the time, businesses that enjoyed a steady, almost utility-like income, without the burden of major capital and technological expenses, were deemed ripe for conversion into income trusts. If profit didn’t need to be plowed back into the business, it could be paid out to investors as distributions.
With Tellier at the helm of the division, Bell sold Yellow Pages to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board in 2002 in a $3-billion deal. An income trust IPO followed in 2003. Investors were hungry to hold units in the newly christened Yellow Pages Group, and the IPO became the richest ever for an income trust. The company rewarded unitholders with a rich distribution that was hiked as earnings rose.