Why smart executives fail…

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, Iridium, LightSquared, Operators, Spectrum, TerreStar at 9:32 am by timfarrar

This week’s Bloomberg article about LightSquared had an interesting assertion from Nathan Pettit, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business that “Falcone’s doubling down on LightSquared fits a pattern”:

“People of status and power have an illusory sense they can control more than they do,” said Pettit. “That leads to unrealistic optimism, increased risk-taking and decreased inhibitions.”

That brought back memories of the classic case study on Iridium’s 1999 bankruptcy, by Sydney Finkelstein, which was included in his book “Why Smart Executives Fail” (uniquely, Motorola actually features twice in the book, both for Iridium and for missing the transition to digital cellphones). I wonder if Mr. Falcone has ever read this book and case study, because the parallels with the LightSquared debacle are quite striking. In particular, the three forces that according to Finkelstein combined to create Iridium’s business failure were:

1. Escalating commitment among Motorola executives who pushed the project forward in spite of known and potentially fatal technology and market problems
2. For personal and professional reasons Iridium’s CEO was unwilling to cut losses and abandon the project
3. Iridium’s board was structured in a way that prevented it from performing its role of corporate governance

In the case of LightSquared/SkyTerra/Harbinger, it is pretty easy to identify exactly the same problems:

1. Escalating commitment by Falcone, who kept devoting an increasing proportion of Harbinger’s assets to SkyTerra/LightSquared (and other spectrum projects such as TerreStar), despite Falcone’s apparent awareness of the GPS interference problems and the lack of interest from wireless operators in buying this (or any other MSS) spectrum. Similar to Motorola, Falcone’s history was that similar bets (e.g. in subprime mortgages and iron ore) had paid off in the past and so just as with Motorola he has maintained his “arrogance” that “the investment thesis was dead-on“.

2. Unwillingness to cut losses, because Harbinger’s investment was in equity, which would all be wiped out if Falcone did not continue with the project, but the chance of a recovery could be preserved by raising additional senior debt from third parties (just as with Iridium, where the bondholders also got stuck with a 99% loss because in the end the assets were essentially worthless).

3. Lack of corporate governance, because Falcone was able to make whatever bets he wanted with Harbinger’s money, despite the fact that as another Bloomberg interviewee pointed out “There should have been constraints on risk and concentration of the investments”. In addition, SkyTerra’s board was focused solely on trying to raise money and then sell the company to someone else (Falcone) rather on whether they actually had a viable business at the end of the day, because they could never hope to fund a terrestrial network buildout themselves.

As I’ve pointed out before, it took nearly nine months after the Iridium bankruptcy filing in August 1999, before the investors actually realized that the assets were worthless (and considered de-orbiting the satellites), during which time even as smart an investor as Craig McCaw considered a multi-billion dollar commitment to rescue Iridium. Indeed in the end McCaw and others actually committed $1B+ to rescue the similar ICO project, much of which now looks to have been wasted after ICO’s jury verdict against Boeing was reversed last week. As we look to what will happen next, I’m therefore left wondering if history will once again repeat itself, with Icahn in the role of McCaw, and a decade long court case in the offing.

1 Comment »

  1. TMF Associates MSS blog » Decisions, decisions… said,

    April 23, 2012 at 8:27 am

    [...] as smart as Icahn is getting involved, there must be a good opportunity here. However, as we saw a decade ago with Craig McCaw’s interest in Iridium and ICO, which ultimately resulted in him taking a [...]

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