Quebecor Inc. boss Pierre Karl Péladeau is still smugly celebrating his successful campaign to stop archrival BCE Inc.'s purchase of Astral Media Inc. last month. The CRTC shared Mr. Péladeau's fears that, with Astral in the fold, BCE would dominate the market. But, like BCE, Quebecor is starting to bump up against the limits of growth in its home base, as its third-quarter results indicate.
Quebecor's financials reveal several businesses that are either in decline, or face limited long-term growth prospects. Under "declining," we have newspaper publisher Sun Media – which announced 500 job cuts Tuesday and contributed most of a $187-million goodwill writedown to Quebecor's books – as well as chains of video rental and music retail stores. Quebecor also owns TVA, Quebec's leading conventional TV broadcaster, whose growth is primarily coming from its cadre of growing, mostly Quebec-oriented specialty channels. Compared with specialty TV giants Astral, BCE and Corus, however, TVA is a mere bit player.
The heart of Quebecor is the Vidéotron cable company, for which Mr. Péladeau and the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec infamously overpaid 12 years ago. That business continues to carry the company, but a careful reading of the numbers show that three of Vidéotron's key growth drivers – digital cable, cable Internet and cable-based telephone service – are slowing considerably. Quebecor is approaching the limit of operating in a single province with just seven million people.
Subscriber counts in the three Vidéotron units grew 8.1 per cent, 4.8 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, in the past 12 months compared to the same period a year earlier, but growth rates for all three have dropped steadily since 2007. Its mobile-telephone customer base continues to grow strongly after two years in the market, but again, is limited to Quebec, where it faces intense competition from BCE and others.
Mr. Péladeau's strategy has been to buy more of his main operating company from the Caisse and to reap the rewards of continued growth in cable and telecom. But at some point in the not-too-distant future, that growth will no longer paper over the declines elsewhere.
Mr. Péladeau's overall record for value creation is disappointing (remember, printing giant Quebecor World went into creditor protection on his watch), but it's also disappointing to see his ambitions have shrunk so much, and seem to centre around shoring up his base in his small home market. He used to talk about breaking out of Quebec and becoming a big player in other markets, but his recent moves suggest otherwise: he's trying to bring an NHL team to Quebec City, has purchased a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Team, an e-book software developer (to offer digital content through his Quebec bookstores) and funded a Quebec mobile gaming company. All of these ventures will stuff more content into his channels in Quebec. Still, Mr. Péladeau's seemingly dormant ambition – to be a somebody away from home – used to sound like heady talk; now, it seems like an essential long-term strategic play to move his company forward.