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‘Culture of arrogance’ felled telecom giant Nortel, study finds

Nortel Networks

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

The collapse of telecommunications giant Nortel Networks Corp. was caused by "a culture of arrogance and even hubris" that led to numerous management errors and weakened the firm's ability to adapt to changing customer needs in a fast-paced industry, according to a new in-depth analysis of the company's final decade of operations.

A University of Ottawa team of professors, led by lead researcher Jonathan Calof, released a detailed analysis Monday of Nortel's failure, outlining a litany of complex factors that caused Nortel's collapse in 2009, when the firm filed for bankruptcy protection and was disbanded.

The report is based on three years of research and dozens of interviews with former employees, executives and top customers to try to understand what went wrong at the company. The project was launched after former chief executive officer Jean Monty approached the research team and offered to contribute to the financing of the project.

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The study concludes that Nortel lacked the internal "resilience" to cope with a changing external marketplace, and missed key opportunities between 2002 and 2006 to retrench as it struggled to survive. In the end, customers said they could not stick with Nortel as a "black cloud" formed over the company, raising doubts about its long-term future.

Prof. Calof said in a release Monday that the findings are "more than a Nortel story" and present broader lessons about preventing further failures of large companies in Canada.

"It's our hope that this research will aid in educating tomorrow's leaders," he said.

The report says Nortel in its early days was a model of deep technological expertise through its Bell Northern Research (BNR) laboratories and its strong connection to customers, enabling the company to maintain a "first-mover" advantage in many markets. At its peak in 2000, Nortel was Canada's largest public company, accounting for a third for the value of the S&P/TSX composite index, and employed more than 93,000 people worldwide.

But the authors concluded that Nortel's growing dominance in its markets in the 1990s "led to a culture of arrogance and even hubris combined with lax financial discipline. Nortel's rigid culture played a defining role in the company's inability to react to industry changes."

While Nortel doubled its revenue between 1997 and 2000 through a spree of expensive acquisitions – and tripled its share price in the same period – the company lost focus on profitability and was in a "precarious position" when the market for technology companies crashed in 2001, the report says. The report says its acquisition spree was a "complete departure" from Nortel's established skills base and from its tradition of developing its own products.

"This approach proved to be a failure because ill-chosen and poorly integrated acquisitions defocused and overcomplicated the organization," it concludes. "The company's high cost structure and lack of financial discipline eventually led to financial ratios that were among the worst in the industry."

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The company also made a series of poor product-related decisions in the same period, including deepening its focus on the declining market for land-line technology and in the increasingly competitive optical market, while missing opportunities in the exploding wireless technology market, where it once had an early lead.

The researchers also concluded that Nortel made operational mistakes, including dismantling the centralized research and development platform from BNR "that was culturally and structurally optimized to create, innovate and develop telecommunications products using co-operative teams."

From the era of John Roth's leadership as CEO in the late 1990s onward, "it was felt by many R&D staff that management rarely listened to the engineers and that, when they did, they did not appear to understand."

In the same era, Nortel gave more power to individual business teams, "which resulted in increased internal politics and fruitless competition."

The report also says Nortel could have solved its problems in 2002 by retrenching and selling business units, but missed the opportunity, and again missed an opportunity in 2005 and 2006 to sell units and retrench in key business sectors.

"As difficult as it is to consciously reduce the size of a business by selling units, this study concludes that, in the case of Nortel, this option may have been the best and only alternative."

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About the Author
Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More

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