All aboard

All aboard

Within the industry, The Question has evolved from “Who will this downturn affect?” to “How will it all end up?” And everyone is willing to take a guess.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity to buy companies that have good businesses but don’t have the means to keep them going.”

– Jason Donahue, president and CEO, TeleComputing

Early morning on the commuter line. Two people climb aboard and sit down across from me on the upper deck. Consumed as I am in my futile attempt to master the ultimate in multitasking – drinking coffee, reading the newspaper and navigating the wireless Web simultaneously while on a moving train – I don’t notice them. Until they begin to speak too loudly, at which point involuntary eavesdropping joins my task list.

“First it’s Lucent, then Cisco, then Ciena, then Nortel – I don’t know what’s going on,” says One Guy. “I’m taking a bath.”

Convinced that his last statement is a metaphorical reference to his bleeding, telecom-heavy financial portfolio and not a proclamation of his intention to wash his body right there on the train, I lean in a little.

“Don’t forget ADC,” says The Other Guy. “Four thousand people and a second-quarter loss announced just yesterday.”

I glance down at the Americano-splattered page of the business section I’ve been trying to read, where that very story is planted under the wholly inaccurate headline “Chip maker cutting jobs.” These commuter guys are on top of things. They must be journalists, I think.

Having discovered my train companions to be more accurate sources of up-to-the-minute industry updates than the general business press – and since the train’s breakneck speed won’t allow my wireless device to maintain a sufficient connection to access any breaking news – I turn my full attention to the live feed coming from across the aisle and chuck the java, the paper and the Palm. I glance at my watch, eager to clock how long it takes them to get to The Question. Within a minute, it comes.

“What do you think will happen in the end?” says One Guy to The Other Guy. I’m fumbling for my notebook to write down the answer when the conductor explodes into the car to demand tickets in a loud, overbearing, “I-must-demonstrate-why-I’m-still-relevant-in-an-automated-world” voice. By the time he’s finished with his floor show we’ve arrived at our destination and havoc has ensued. I never get to hear the answer.

Not that I haven’t heard dozens of versions of it before. Within the industry, The Question has evolved from “Who will this downturn affect?” to “How will it all end up?” And while nobody – from the CEOs of telecom companies to seemingly well-informed commuters (who could have been CEOs, for all I know) – seems able to predict the outcome with any certainty, everyone is willing to take a guess.

Speculation tends to range from complete industry decimation to more positive, survival-of-the-fittest forecasts. I’m more inclined to side with the latter: I believe the telecom industry will emerge from the current economic condition leaner, smarter, more focused and more pragmatic, having struggled with the reality of cutbacks, layoffs, mergers and all-out liquidations.

And with regard to that last point, I agree with the view of Jason Donahue, president and CEO of applications service provider TeleComputing. Donahue believes not only that the strong will survive if they possess good technologies, logical business plans and competent, experienced people, but also that the inevitable shutdown of many companies means that a second-hand, fire-sale market of good business and technology elements will emerge from the rubble.

But then again, anything could happen. Tickets, please.

Contact Jason Meyers at jmeyers@intertec.com

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