Avaya Wraps Deal for Nortel Enterprise Business, Prepares for Post-Merger Challenges

Now that Avaya has closed its acquisition of Nortel’s enterprise business, it must figure out how to meet new challenges as a bigger company with weightier expectations.

Owned by private-equity concerns Silver Lake and TPG capital, which bought the company for approximately $8.2-billion in 2007, Avaya now has paid $900-million for insolvent Nortel’s enterprise assets and $15 million for employee retention.

The pressure now will be on Avaya CEO Kevin Kennedy, a former Cisco executive who left to pursue his personal quest for a big chair after concluding that John Chambers wasn’t prepared to vacate his gilded throne. It will fall to Kennedy and his team to plot a course toward exit for the Nortel-engorged Avaya.

Kennedy might be on the clock, but he’s playing for time, too. In an interview with Reuters, he said an eventual exit for the company was contingent on external factors, mainly the global economy, as well as on his company’s strategy and execution.

The Avaya chief thinks the economy is recovering, but he said customers remain wary of making big investments and are targeting projects that provide near-term returns.

Said Kennedy:

“They speak as though there will be growth. But they are preparing for sometime during the calendar year for a setback. So they tend to be committing to projects that can be completed within six months rather than 12 to 24 months.

We believe that the economy will be some place between flat and up, cautiously up, I’d say. But we are also managing the company as though there could be a setback.”

Setback. He used that word twice in the two preceding paragraphs. A setback for the global economy would be a setback for Avaya’s customers, and that would represent a setback for Avaya and for its exit-seeking investors. (For those of you keeping score, I just used the word “seback” four times — five, if you include the reference in this parenthetical sentence — in this paragraph, thus trumping Kennedy in a competition in which he is an unwilling, unknowing participant.)

Kennedy prepared his company’s financial backers for a potentially long haul well before he spoke with Reuters last week, but it’s interesting that he is working so hard to temper expectations outside the Avaya boardroom.

Unwary industry observers, who are good at simple arithmetic but fail to take context into account, will add Nortel’s IP PBX market share to Avaya’s and conclude that the merged entity will have a combined 25 percent of the enterprise telephony space. They’ll excitedly point to that number and say that the Avaya-Nortel colossus will overwhelm Cisco, which holds about 16 percent of the market.

What they must remember, however, is that it won’t play out that way. Even though the Cisco of today doesn’t seem as invincible as the Cisco of yore, enterprise telephony and unified communications — the latter with its bandwidth-hogging video traffic — are areas where the computer-networking leader is unlikely to get lackadaisical.

More to the point, Avaya has to eliminate product overlaps with the Nortel portfolio. It also must deal with daunting channel-integration issues. A lot of customer confusion and uncertainty will result.

Taking all that into account, the keen industry watcher will realize that one plus one, in the case of post-merger market share, will not always equal three. Sometimes, as in this case, it doesn’t even equal two. When the dust settles about six to nine moths from now, Avaya will have done well to keep a market-share edge over Cisco.

Avaya has said it plans to sell and support all Nortel lines for 12 to 18 months. The company also said it will provide a migration plan for any products that it decides to phase out. With the Nortel brand not being part of the acquired bounty, future product releases from the Nortel side of the family will carry the Avaya name.

After closing its deal to acquire Nortel’s enterprises, Avaya now prepares for the heavy lifting.

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