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Planned share sale is a bolt from the blue but why now?


A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Reuters

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Reuters


A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Reuters

Where did that come from? In a business world where rumours spread faster than Digicel-sponsored Usain Bolt, yesterday's news that the mobile phone company will sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange came as a surprise.

There are several reasons behind an IPO but chief among them can be a desire by founders to cash out or alternatively to fund further investment. Digicel wants the money for the latter.

The lengthy prospectus that accompanies any US share sale says the mobile operator that specialises in some of the world's smallest countries does not plan to pay dividends anytime soon. That suggests founder Denis O'Brien had no immediate plans to take money out of his company which is probably no bad thing right now.

Jamaica-based and Bermuda-registered Digicel has always been a cash-hungry business. Since it was founded 14 years ago, it has moved into 31 markets or a new country every six months.

Many of these countries are small and relatively poor but that has not stopped Digicel from increasing subscribers from 400,000 in 2002 to 13.6 million today.

Annual sales are $2.8bn thanks to carefully tailored offerings that suit developing countries such as not charging for incoming calls or ensuring coverage stretches out to sea to allow fishermen to sell their catch before returning to port.

To achieve this, Digicel has had to win licences, build infrastructure and then launch marketing campaigns to woo customers.

The fact that Digicel operates in developing countries, where building infrastructure can be physically difficult, makes the company's success even more impressive.

None of this came cheaply. Today, Digicel's debt totals $6.5bn which has been borrowed on the bond markets. With leverage like this, it makes sense to go to the stock market for different sources of funding.

But Digicel is turning to the New York Stock Exchange at an interesting moment in the company's development when it is moving from cheeky challenger to a big player which must defend itself against other big players such as Carlos Slim's America Movil or Cable & Wireless.

It also has more demanding customers who want smartphones as well as television and broadband. To meet this demand and ward off growing competition from well-heeled rivals, Digicel has been snapping up small companies that offer everything from detailed sports news to television.

This sort of investment requires the billions Digicel is now likely to raise in New York.

Irish Independent