Motorola not ready to hang up on phone business

March 7, 2008, 1:27 PM UTC

By Michal Lev-Ram

Is Motorola really considering getting rid of its cell phone business? Don’t count on it — at least not anytime soon. Despite mounting pressure from activist investor Carl Icahn to sell or spin off the money-losing division, the company still seems convinced it can revive the once high-flying division.

Since January, when it issued a vaguely-worded statement that it would explore “the structural and strategic realignment of its businesses,” Motorola has been been signaling it intends to hold on to the handset unit.

Case in point: At a recent Morgan Stanley technology conference, Motorola (MOT) chief executive Greg Brown said the key to a turnaround will be led by a new and improved lineup of phones.

“At the end of the day, I think that the recovery of that business will be primarily product portfolio led,” Brown said, adding that he is focused on bringing out a wide range of new devices across “different technologies, geographies, price points and tiers.”

Brown also told his audience that he is actively searching for an executive to run the company’s mobile devices business. “We want someone steeped with experience, ideally having some technology familiarity or orientation,” he said.

Brown himself has been running the handset unit since early February. The CEO says he now spends about 80% of his time on the division, which posted a fourth-quarter operating loss of $388 million in January

Some industry insiders say they’re not surprised.

“Their message has consistently been that they were going to fix it themselves,” says Robert Laikin, CEO of cell phone distributor Brightpoint (CELL). “I never thought they were going to sell it.”

Others say Motorola tried selling its mobile devices unit but couldn’t find any takers. According to recent reports, both LG and Sony Ericsson have said they are not interested in buying the cell phone business.

In the meantime, Icahn raised his stake in Motorola to 6.3%, up from 5%. Gearing up for the company’s annual shareholder meeting in May, Icahn is pushing to put four favored executives on the phonemaker’s board, including Keith Meister, who manages the shareholder’s various businesses. Icahn has said his proposed directors will “assist Motorola” in executing the company’s “long over due decision regarding the separation of its mobile devices business.”

Motorola has asked its shareholders to reject Icahn’s nominees. A company spokesperson also said Motorola continues to evaluate its options in regard to the cell phone business.

It’s clear Brown is trying to buy more time to clean up the mess himself. If the company’s mobile division is able to show signs of improvement, that will make it more attractive to potential buyers or partners. Then again, if Brown manages to revive the cell phone unit business himself, why he would want to get sell off his fixer-upper is finally starting to show signs of life again?

Either way, Motorola’s CEO acknowledges it could take into 2009 for the company to get back on track. By then, other phonemakers — including Nokia (NOK), Samsung, Sony Ericsson and LG — could continue to eat away at what’s left of Motorola’s worldwide and U.S. market share. As for Icahn, you can bet he’ll keep agitating.