New Ericsson CEO will face fierce competition

Hans Vestberg, Ericsson's new CEO, will have to fight off Chinese companies and a bolstered Nokia Siemens venture.

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By Stephanie N. Mehta, assistant managing editor

Hans Vestberg, Ericsson's CEO, starting next year
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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It is no surprise that Hans Vestberg, who will become Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson's CEO next year, started off an interview about his new post by talking about the global financial crisis. Vestberg, after all, is the Swedish telecommunications gear maker's chief financial officer, and he's had a front-row seat for the worldwide economic malaise.

But Vestberg, who will replace Carl-Henric Svanberg (he's becoming BP's chairman), will face more challenges than the global economy, which may start to rebound as he takes office. A more persistent challenge for Ericsson (ERIC) may well be competition from rivals old and new.

Earlier this month Nokia Siemens, a joint venture of the two telecom giants, agreed to acquire key wireless assets from Canada's Nortel. The purchase will give Nokia Siemens a stronger foothold in the North American market, where Ericsson, the world's largest supplier of wireless telecom equipment, has been a major player.

The Nortel deal "gives Nokia Siemens something else in their arsenal," says Jane Zweig, CEO of the Shosteck Group, a telecommunications consulting group. "And I don't think Ericsson really factored Nokia Siemens in."

Ericsson also faces stiff competition from a pair of Chinese equipment makers, Huawei and ZTE.

Huawei and ZTE have been taking share from established equipment makers such as Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent (ALU) and others for years. Initially customers had concerns about the quality of the Chinese companies' products. But today, phone operators say, the products from Huawei and ZTE are comparable to those made by longtime gear providers.

Vestberg, 44, says he believes Ericsson has its own set of tools in its arsenal. "Of course, we will always face competition whether they are French American or Chinese," he says. "I think our competitive advantage is our technology leadership. We will compete by having the best technology and the most robust technology."

He also points to Ericsson's strong presence in the services business. As telecom networks have become more complex, a growing number of operators are turning to Ericsson (and others) to basically run their systems and help them migrate from one generation of technology to the next.

Vestberg appears to have the energy for the job. Since joining the company in 1991 he has worked for Ericsson around the world in markets such as China, Chile and Brazil. He was president of Ericsson in Mexico and served as CFO for Ericsson in North America.

Executives and analysts who've met Vestberg describe him as personable and relationship oriented. And because he worked so closely with Svanberg, they say, investors are not likely to see many radical changes in Ericsson's strategy. To top of page

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