The Great Escape

"The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds." - John Maynard KeynesThe General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (13 December 1935).

This past week, Michael Batnick, from Ritholtz Asset Management deployed a version of this quote to make a point about investing; he provided a nice callback to Blockbuster and an equity analyst's repeated bad calls vis-a-vis Netflix (which popped this week after impressive subscription growth - despite negative free cash flow (-$600mm+) and an increasingly levered balance sheet). TL;DR: don't be too wed to your ideas. 

This applies to the actual businesses that investors pour money into too. In today's rapidly transforming environment, businesses must now, more than ever, pivot, and innovate. They can't be too wed to legacy ideas. Recognizing that is the first step. It then becomes a question of execution in the face of constraints.  

Enter Avaya Inc., a privately-held provider of contact center, "legacy" unified communications and networking products and services with 176 global entities, $940mm of adjusted EBITDA, 200,000 customers and 9700 employees. To Avaya's credit, the company pivoted in 2009 away from its historical hardware-based operating model - recognizing the shift towards software-based and cloud-oriented services solutions. It undertook a massive reinvention, adapting its revenue model and streamlining operating performance in a manner that cut $700mm in costs since 2014. To some degree, the company's private equity overlords - TPG Capital and Silver Lake Partners - deserve some credit, too, for working with management and reconciling the need to pivot. After all, they had a $8.2 billion LBO to rationalize. 

But sometimes the constraints are insurmountable. Avaya has $6 billion of debt on its balance sheet; it has $440mm of annual interest expense along with an additional $180mm nut for annual pension and OPEB obligations. And it faces stiff competition from the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and others, necessitating another ~$400mm in expenditures to fund R&D and other investments. It's been bleeding cash, losing over $505mm in the fourth quarter and over $750mm in fiscal '16.

And so the company is now a bankruptcy filer. Notably, the papers accompanying the filing have zero specificity about the company's go-forward business plan. Its one small victory is a robust DIP financing commitment and milestones intended to achieve a rapid turn in bankruptcy court. But then what? 

We rarely see big freefall bankruptcy cases anymore. Clearly there seems to be disagreement among the various constituencies about how best to proceed with this business in the face of competition and technological headwinds. That said, the company was able to secure $425mm of its proposed DIP facility at the "First Day" hearing on Friday. So there's that. 

"Software is eating the world," we noted last week (per Marc Andreesen). We'll see very soon whether Avaya gets swallowed along with TPG and Silver Lake's investment. Yes, they pivoted. But was it too little too late?

Thoughts? Opinions? Let us know at 

Odd ad to place in the WSJ on the day after bankruptcy.

Odd ad to place in the WSJ on the day after bankruptcy.