Activist investor Elliott Management has urged U.S. telecommunications company Crown Castle International to shift its focus away from fiber optics toward the legacy tower business.
The activist said it has an exposure of $1 billion to Crown Castle, a company with a market capitalization of $72 billion.
This is the second public campaign launched by Elliott since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, after Elliott’s European arm targeted Dutch insurer NN two weeks ago. The Crown Castle campaign also underscores Elliott’s increasing interest in the U.S. telecom space. Last year, the activist targeted AT&T and submitted a plan to streamline the media and telecom conglomerate.
In a Monday press release, Elliott said Crown Castle has underperformed its potential and peers “by a wide margin” because of its fiber business, which “has yielded disappointing returns despite $16 billion of investment.”
Instead, Elliott urged the company to focus on its tower business, saying it sees “significant opportunity ahead…as 5G deployments accelerate and ongoing densification continues,” the letter penned by the activist’s Jesse Cohn reads.
In response, Crown Castle said its current strategy is the “best opportunity” to generate “significant growth while delivering compelling returns for shareholders.” Still, the company said it remains “open to having continuing dialogue” with Elliott and noted that it has already met “multiple times” with the activist to “fully understand and extensively evaluate” its proposals.
In Elliott’s view, Crown Castle needs “sound capital allocation” and “prudent” investment to reverse the losses in the fiber division. The activist reckoned these steps would generate more cash flow for deals, growth investments, and capital return.
The activist criticized Crown Castle’s strategic pivot away from its core tower business and into the fiber industry, started a decade ago. Elliott Partner Cohn said in a Monday letter to the company this resulted in a “profound” underperformance relative to peers in terms of shareholder returns.
To remedy the company’s “chronic underperformance” and unlock “significant, sustainable value” for shareholders, Elliott presented a set of measures encompassed in a plan dubbed “Reclaiming The Crown.”
Elliott argued Crown Castle should cut its annual fiber capex to $600 million, from $1.4 billion last year, and commit to a fiber capex return on investment (ROI) target of 40%, from an average of 13% between 2017 and 2019, according to the presentation.
The changes in investment strategy would allow Crown Castle to boost its dividend to $7 next year, a 46% rise from current levels, Elliott said. The payouts should continue to accelerate after that and rise above $8 in 2023, the activists added.
On the governance side, Elliott said Crown Castle has a “long-tenured board lacking in diversity” that needs fresh perspectives from new directors with “fiber-specific experience” and “strong capital allocation experience” to oversee the shift in strategy.
Shares in Crown Castle traded up 2.2% at 10:20 a.m. on Monday. The stock has climbed 22% so far this year.