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A customer surveys the offerings at a Wind Mobile store in Toronto. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)
A customer surveys the offerings at a Wind Mobile store in Toronto. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)

TELECOM

Wind Mobile on block in new wireless shakeup Add to ...

Canada’s largest new wireless company, Wind Mobile, is being put up for sale by its Amsterdam-based parent company VimpelCom Ltd., sources say.

UBS AG is said to be working for VimpelCom on the sale, said a source. Another person close to the situation said Wind CEO Anthony Lacavera’s holding company, AAL Corp., is teaming up with Egyptian billionaire and telecom magnate Naguib Sawiris’s investment firm Accelero Capital to consider a bid, for which they had already secured additional financing.

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Separately, Dvai Ghose, head of research at Canaccord Genuity, also said VimpelCom had begun a sale process, citing “several sources” in a note to clients.

On Thursday, VimpelCom spokesperson Bobby Leach said: “It is the opinion of an independent analyst and therefore does not represent any official views or statements of, or by, VimpelCom Group.”

VimpelCom, which owns Wind’s parent company, Orascom Telecom, must wait for regulatory approval of a deal that would allow it to gain control of the company from Mr. Lacavera before it can complete any sale. Once that deal, announced in January, is approved, Mr. Lacavera has said he plans to resign as Wind’s chief executive officer. He did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Wind, which launched in late 2009, was the first and strongest of several new wireless upstarts to attempt to gain a foothold in Canada’s wireless industry, which is dominated by three big players: Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc.’s Bell Mobility and Telus Corp. The federal government set aside wireless licences in 2008 for new challengers in order to inject more competition into Canada’s wireless industry. But even before the new entrants launched service, industry observers expected the companies to sell out to larger players, given the industry’s history of consolidation and the heavily discounted prices offered by the new entrants.

Although Orascom Telecom Holding SAE – Wind’s original financial backer, which Mr. Sawiris has built into a global giant as CEO – is now controlled by VimpelCom, Mr. Sawiris is said to be interested in regaining a stake in Wind and potentially consolidating the company with other Canadian new entrants down the road. He previously ceded his interest because the Canadian operations were part of a package deal that also included his company’s other international assets.

Still, a renewed partnership between Mr. Sawiris and Mr. Lacavera suggests that the Egyptian billionaire has radically changed his opinion of investing in Canada. In late 2011, Mr. Sawiris said he regretted “totally” his decision to invest here, adding “if they would give me my money back, minus 10 per cent, I would take it any day.”

Rival entrant Mobilicity is also said to be mulling a bid for Wind.

“While a potential VimpelCom sale of its ownership of Wind Mobile Canada would come as no surprise, given Wind’s challenges in Canada and VimpelCom’s focus on free cash flow, debt de-leveraging and emerging markets, we were surprised to hear that a formal sale process is under way with initial bids due tomorrow,” Mr. Ghose told clients on Thursday.

Initial bids for Wind are said to value the company between $500-million to $1-billion.

Earlier this month, VimpelCom’s chief executive officer, Jo Olav Lunder, said his company was weighing its options for Canada, noting it could ultimately choose to exit the country; do an “in-market merger” to consolidate with another Canadian carrier; or continue to grow organically.

“We will test the different options available,” Mr. Lunder said during the company’s last quarterly call.

Last fall, Orascom Telecom (which is majority-owned by VimpelCom) announced that it would restructure a loan to Globalive and forgive roughly $450-million worth of interest in an effort to clean up the company’s balance sheet. At the same time, it announced a proposal to take majority control of Globalive by converting its non-voting shares into voting shares.

Then in January, Orascom announced it was buying out Wind founder Anthony Lacavera to take advantage of new foreign investment rules that allow for 100-per-cent foreign ownership of small telecom companies. Those moves have largely been interpreted as precursors to an eventual sale of the Canadian company.

In that regard, sources have said that VimpelCom has held early-stage talks with a variety of strategic buyers, including Rogers, which declined to comment about rumours of a Wind sale.

Striking a similar deal for Wind’s assets, however, could face potential obstacles. First, a prohibition on incumbents buying new-entrant spectrum does not expire until next year. Second, Industry Canada recently announced that it is reviewing its policy on transfers of wireless licences, which could make it tougher for incumbents to acquire spectrum from smaller carriers. And third, whichever company purchases Wind would have to assume the principal balance left on Orascom’s loan to Globalive, which is about $770-million (U.S.).

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