Economic pressures are set to accelerate convergence of telecoms and the Internet, affecting telecom services in unexpected ways in 2009, according to North American consultancy inCode. That’s good news for Vox Telecom CEO Douglas Reed, who has built a conglomerate that crossed the divide a while ago and is already maximising convergence. An entrepreneur at heart, Reed completed the first year of his BCom and followed this with a job on a North Sea oil rig. At the age of 22 he took over Sandton City Hardware, a career move that culminated with his appointment as MD of Mica Distributors. “I’ve always focused strongly on growth,” he says, referring to his early ability to grow retail stores by between 45% and 50% per year.
“My goal was to transform DataPro into a national Internet service provider. I took over a company that had no business plan in place. The first three years demanded 12-hour days, six days a week.” In 1998, DataPro launched Internet services aimed at small and medium businesses, and was the first company to offer cheap dial-up-based email. By the end of that year, monthly recurring revenue exceeded R183 000. DataPro had 257 business clients and 51 contract customers. In 2000, it was one of the first ISPs in the country to become cash positive. “This was a big thing for us,” says Reed. “Even when you have budgeted to lose money, it’s horrid.”
Control Instruments, an electronics company that dealt with aviation and vehicle tracking, decided it was time to sell DataPro. “We were not core to Control Instruments’ business, and it would have been pointless for us to remain within the group. This was Internet boom time and I wanted to grow the company.”
In 2005, DataPro branded its voice division as Vox Telecom. A number of significant acquisitions followed: WickIT, a regional Durban-based ISP; @lantic, a consumer-focused ISP; Pretoria-based corporate ISP Netralink; Definity Telecom, South Africa’s fourth largest LCR provider; Orion Telecom, the biggest LCR provider in the country and consumer ISPs MJVNET, XsiNet and Shisas. “Every acquisition has been a learning experience,” says Reed. “These transactions have a major impact on both the company being bought and the buyer. Each time we conclude a deal, both sides stop in their tracks for a few months, which costs us a lot of money. It’s vital to plan everything in great detail beforehand so that you minimise downtime. Rather take longer to conclude the deal and have the ability to hit the ground running. When we bought Storm Telecom, we did not have enough time to plan properly and it took four months to get the business going.”
Re-Writing the rules: The Vox Telepreneur Story
Reed is sanguine about the fact that all Vox Telecom’s products lose money for the first 12 to 18 months. “Six months before we listed, we went big on uncapped ADSL; we ran it at a loss, but today it accounts for 30% of our earnings. The reality of this business is that you launch innovative products that gain traction over time and then become hugely cash generative.”
That’s how Vox Telecom’s latest offering, Vox Telepreneur, came about. “I always had it at the back of my mind that telcos are particularly well suited to multi-level marketing – telecommunication is an annuity product and it’s basically a necessity,” says Reed.
Then he read Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant. “I realised we were on a hiding to nothing by selling what everybody else is selling. The book got me thinking about how we could differentiate and grow our market share by selling something different to different people.
Leverage, says Reed, is a particularly powerful method of harnessing entrepreneurial energy to achieve rapid market penetration. By adopting a referral-marketing strategy, Vox Telepreneur is able to achieve lower overheads and do something that no telco has done before – reinvest in its customers. Up to 57% of gross profit is redistributed to the communities that generate it, and up to 43% is redistributed to product-focused resellers such as small IT outlets and PBX vendors. Vox Telepreneur aims to grow its community to more than 300 000 customers by 2010, which will make it the largest reseller of telco services in South Africa.
Why the listing
Fearing that the company was going to be sold to the highest bidder, Reed and his team wanted to make sure that DataPro remained independent. The reverse listing sped up the move to autonomy.
Reverse listing defined
A reverse listing is a complex transaction that occurs when an unlisted company uses an already listed entity as a vehicle to bring its assets to market. Rather than starting from scratch, the unlisted company sells its assets into the existing listed company. You have to comply with all the same requirements as a totally new listing. The big benefits lie in timing and discussing and transacting with current owners. By using an existing listed entity you have the certainty that you are already listed and you start out with an existing shareholder base. Even with the need to meet the JSE’s requirements, the process does not take as long. The costs of the reverse listing route are similar to those involved in a new listing.
How DataPro did it
The company listed at a premium with Reed and his team buying back the business from BoE and listing it for double the amount the next day. “We were lucky because deregulation had been announced just three weeks before,” says Reed. “We only had to raise R36 million, but because it was a reverse listing, it was expensive and no cash went into the business. Had we not reverse listed, we could have pumped R30 million into the company.”
What was involved in the listing?
Aside from raising the cash, DataPro also had to prove that its expensive shares were priced correctly. The share price ran on sentiment and it ran high. “We had to rapidly grow the business into the rating it had received,” says Reed. “As a result, we had to do exceptionally well just to remain in the same position. That took an enormous amount of time and money. We made a few mistakes which cost us in the short-term, but we also did a lot of things right.”
The pros and cons of listing
“The biggest con is that listing makes the company very visible,” says Reed. “It also means that you are reliant on others, which is not great considering that the stock market is based on fear and greed.” Reed also points out that South Africans view a long-term investment as six months. “That means you have to grow the value of the shares like mad and build a telco at the same time,” he adds. “All the while you are told what your gross profit should be and what is wrong with your business model. Brokers use your price to earnings ration (stock price divided by per share earnings over the previous year), but you cannot be measured by PE only when you are building a business for the future.” On the positive side, Reed and his team would never have acquired the business back without the listing. “Being public property is unpleasant, but we had to do it.”