The telco of the future?
Tiny Vanco doesn't own any networks. Could it be on to something? Fortune's Stephanie Mehta reports.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The telecom industry hasn't been kind to resellers - companies that lease phone lines and other assets from the big telephone companies and then repackage that service to customers. Earlier this year, Disney (Charts) said it would shutter Mobile ESPN, a reseller of Sprint's wireless phone service.
Some of the biggest losers in the telecom bust of a few years ago were upstarts essentially reselling the Baby Bells' local phone lines under their own brands. The problem? Because resellers don't control the networks, their services typically aren't that different from what consumers can buy directly from the big telcos. The resellers also have slimmer margins, so they can't offer big discounts, either. In short, it is a tough business to be in.
And yet one of the top-performing telecom stocks of the last few years is a UK-based global reseller of phone networks called Vanco. The company, which listed on the London Stock Exchange in late 2001, has seen its share price soar more than four fold since its IPO, outgunning the likes of AT&T (Charts), Verizon (Charts) and all the major stock indexes. (Vanco doesn't trade in the U.S.) Its revenue is growing steadily, up 31 percent for the first six months of its fiscal year, and it is profitable.
Vanco was launched as a "virtual network operator" 18 years ago when founder Allen Timpany acquired the company, then a money-losing data services firm, for 1 pound.
Timpany, a serial entrepreneur whose background was mostly in computers, began to stitch together a global network by acquiring capacity from phone carriers worldwide. The company now manages networks in more than 150 countries, but has the ability to offer services in all 230 countries and territories in the world.
The telco of the future
This truly international reach seems to be Vanco's edge, the thing that differentiates it from most phone companies and therefore, prevents it from becoming the next reseller roadkill.
Say you're a company like British Airways (a real Vanco customer) that needs telecom connectivity for - and among - your offices in dozens of countries around the world. You could contract with the local phone operator in each country, plus a backbone operator that could allow all those offices to talk to each other - or you could hire Vanco to do it all for you.
"The value Vanco provides is cobbling it all together," says Jan Dawson, a vice president for tech consultancy Ovum. "It puts networks together in such a way that it acts like a single network."
Vanco offers customers more than just raw connections - in fact, Timpany dismisses the mere transportation of calls and data as a commodity business - but also provides value-added services such as security and monitoring of networks for their customers. And it also sells services to its suppliers: Carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and others can contract with Vanco to extend their own services to far-flung countries where they don't own assets.
The company prides itself on making it easy for customers to get the connections and services they need. It recently launched, for example, a Web portal that allows all its customers to comparison shop and purchase network connections online.
Unsurprisingly Timpany happens to think Vanco is the telco of the future. "I don't see this being a resale-type model at all," he says. "I see us being the correct model for supplying multinational corporations with networks."
Indeed, Vanco has spawned at least two venture-backed imitators: Virtela of Greenwood Village, Colo., and Masergy in Dallas. Timpany questions the conventional wisdom that not owning assets is a big disadvantage for a network operator. He says that's a big plus: Vanco takes no technology risks at all, and there are no depreciating assets for him to write off.
Of course, Vanco still is a relatively small company. Its sales of about $275 million are tiny compared to AT&T's $44 billion in 2005 revenue. And at this point, carriers are more likely to see Vanco more as a sales channel than a competitor: Thanks to its Web portal, for example, Vanco acts as a sort of clearinghouse for the phone companies. If a customer is looking for additional capacity in, say, Los Angeles, it can use the Vanco Web site to find the best prices from half a dozen network operators who might otherwise not had a chance to bid for that customer's business.
But Ovum's Dawson thinks Vanco's real benefit to the existing phone companies is that it has started to get customers comfortable with the idea of turning their critical telecom needs over to a company that doesn't own networks.
Even big carriers such as Verizon or BT (Charts) (formerly British Telecom) can't - and won't - have phone lines everywhere in the world. But like Vanco, they can create "virtual" global networks by leasing capacity from peers in other countries. "Nobody is going to build an end-to-end global network," Dawson says, "Vanco has made it okay not to own all the networks. Vanco has actually done the phone companies a big favor."