Moroccan-born billionaire Patrick Drahi is suddenly on everyone’s radar screen: His Luxembourg-based telecom company, Altice, just agreed to buy 70% of Suddenlink in a deal that values the No. 7 cable operator at $9.1 billion including debt — and Bloomberg says he’s in early talks to buy Time Warner Cable. If successful, Drahi could rival Liberty Media’s John Malone in his clout over cable and broadband.
TWC shares are up about 3% in pre-market trading, potentially leading them to an all-time high. Altice, which trades in Amsterdam, is up 12%.
If approved by U.S. regulators, the Suddenlink deal would give Altice 1.5 million cable customers mostly in Texas, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona. It would be the first foothold here for a telecom company with major outposts in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Israel, and the French Caribbean.
Suddenlink generated $900 million in cash flow (EBITDA) last year on revenues of $2.3 billion. It made headlines in the U.S. recently with its decision to drop Viacom’s channels which it said were too expensive relative to the ratings they delivered.
Altice plans to pay for the deal with $6.7 billion in new and existing Suddenlink debt, a $500 million vendor loan, and $1.2 billion of its cash. It hopes to make the transaction pay off by boosting sales of bundled services (video, broadband, and phone), reducing churn, and developing business services.
The purchase “opens an attractive industrial and strategic avenue for Altice in the U.S., one of the largest and fastest growing communications markets in the world,” says the company’s CEO Dexter Goei. The company statement does not mention any potential benefits for consumers, but the chief says that Suddenlink “should be able to deliver profitability and cash flow levels in line with best-in-class European cable businesses.”
Suddenlink CEO Jerry Kent calls the deal “a testament to the consistently strong operating and financial results we’ve achieved.While our strong performance has afforded Suddenlink ready access to growth capital, the backing of Altice will better position the company to gain critical scale as a major consolidator in the U.S. cable industry.”
Could that include Time Warner Cable? The No. 2 operator is trying to chart its course after Comcast withdrew its $45 billion acquisition offer rather than take on Justice Department and FCC officials who opposed the deal. TWC hooked up with Comcast last year to avoid a hostile takeover by Malone-controlled Charter Communications — which still wants to consolidate.
Analysts are still trying to figure out whether Altice might have any advantage over Charter if they bid against each other. “The regulatory risks are not any easier for foreign operators – and in fact include not only the FCC and DOJ but also the Committee on Foreign Investments,” Wells Fargo Securities’ Marci Ryvicker says.
But BTIG’s Richard Greenfield notes that Altice “appears willing to put far greater leverage on U.S. cable assets than its U.S. peers have done. In turn, a heavily cash-driven transaction is theoretically possible.” Other overseas companies that might also be interested, he says, include Japan’s Softbank, Deutsche Telekom, Mexico’s American Movil, and France’s Iliad.
Drahi has said that he took some pages from Malone’s playbook in building Altice, where he’s Executive Chairman. Both are famous for taking on debt to buy undervalued cable properties, and then pumping up cash flow to cover interest payments — and fund additional deals. Altice tapped public markets in January 2014 with a $1.8 billion IPO for shares listed on the Amsterdam exchange.
Drahi is a citizen of France and Israel but lives in Switzerland. His net worth was estimated at $16 billion last year, making him the world’s 57th richest person according to Forbes.