I’m a fan of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. I like his Texas-sized ambition, his willingness to rumble with the giants of entertainment and tech. I admire his bold plan to retrain, rather than replace, his company’s 100,000 employees with obsolete skills. I applaud his courageous positions on social policy, pushing the Boy Scouts to reverse its ban on gay people, and giving an emotional defense of Black Lives Matter. In many ways, he typifies the new breed of CEO—leading with inspiration and moral direction as much as strategy and tactics.
But at the end of the day, he still has to perform for shareholders. And he now has one very big shareholder–billionaire Paul Singer’s hedge fund, which has taken a $3.2 billion stake in the company–saying he is not up to the job.
There is plenty of grist for the critics’ mill. AT&T has underperformed the market and its major rivals. It has made some costly mistakes. And as Fortune’s Geoff Colvin argued in this piece in May, Stephenson’s strategy is so “breathtaking in scale and scope—the largest transformation underway at any company in the Fortune 500”—that it’s hard to believe the odds favor success. Such a big elephant. Such a complicated dance.
Which is why the tussle between Stephenson and his new shareholder will ultimately come down to time and trust. Melding Time Warner and AT&T into an effective competitor for the likes of Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Disney won’t be accomplished overnight. And in the meantime, Stephenson has to keep the wolves at bay—perhaps by tossing them a bone like the sale of DirecTV. Whether other shareholders side with Stephenson or with the activists remains to be seen. This one won’t end quickly—which is why the stock price fell back after first soaring on Monday. But it will be fun to watch.
Separately, AT&T’s challenge underscores some of the points my friends John Iwata, former head of communications at IBM, and Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur Page Society, make in a new report being released this morning on the role of the corporate Chief Communication Officer. At a time of rapid change and unprecedented transparency, and in what Iwata calls “a world of fake news and deep fakes, of weaponized information, algorithmically reinforced opinions and biased AI,” the job of CCOs has become more complicated than ever. They are the guardians of trust, but that treasure is getting ever harder to defend. You can read the report later today at page.org.
More news below.
A whopping 50 attorneys general have launched an investigation into Google’s “potential monopolistic behavior” in the online ad and search markets. That’s 48 states (not including California and Alabama) plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Google has already been whacked with the antitrust hammer several times in Europe and elsewhere. Fortune
Moody’s has downgraded Ford’s bonds to Ba1, a junk rating, due to low cash flow and a poor profit margin outlook—it’s restructuring at a time of sectoral weakness. However, Fitch and S&P still have Ford at an investment-grade BBB rating. Wall Street Journal
Today’s the day that Jack Ma relinquishes his role as Alibaba chairman, handing over to current CEO Daniel Zhang. Ma is the first of his generation of Chinese tech entrepreneurs to step down. He is expected to now devote his time to philanthropy and education. BBC
SoftBank and WeWork
SoftBank is reportedly urging investee WeWork to back away from its looming IPO, due to investors being less than keen to throw money at the lossmaking property outfit. WeWork’s valuation keeps slipping, and bankers currently have it at somewhere between $15 billion and $20 billion, which is nowhere near the $47 billion valuation it enjoyed at its last private funding round. Financial Times
AROUND THE WATER COOLER
Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost another two votes last night, making it a straight six defeats—an historically bad start to a British administration. Now the law compels him to: ask the EU for an extension by the end of October, in the absence of a Brexit deal; publish the government’s no-deal contingency plans; and reveal the private correspondence that led up to his five-week suspension of Parliament (which is now in effect). He also lost his second bid to call a general election in October. Johnson maintains he will not ask for that extension. CBS News
Meanwhile, Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, is to become a managing director in Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division. Few people are as well-versed in the intricacies of Brexit as Robbins. City AM
The Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica reportedly plans to cut around 5,000 staffers from domestic workforce by offering voluntary redundancy to all employees over the age of 53. Like other European telcos, Telefonica is struggling with a highly competitive market. Bloomberg
Saudi Aramco’s Saudi listing will take place very soon, CEO Amin Nasser said today. Nasser also said a secondary international listing would still take place—but, as ever, it’s unclear when or where. CNBC