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Elliott Management, the famously ruthless activist investor, is asking a variation of the question we’ve all been pondering lately regarding the likes of WeWork and Peloton. Rather than wondering if AT&T is a technology company, though, it wants to know if the telephone company’s underperforming management team should be running an entertainment conglomerate.
Geoff Colvin ticked at all these themes in his incisive look at AT&T in Fortune earlier this year. AT&T is heavily indebted. Its growth is hampered by its phone and satellite business. And competition will be brutal in the coming streaming wars where its WarnerMedia’s offering will go up against Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, NBCUniversal, and others. Perhaps three or four of those will win. Elliott is asking if a bunch of guys, and they are all guys, whose experience optimizing phone-line ARPU is right for the task. (I purposely used some Bellhead jargon for ‘average revenue per user,’ by the way.)
Elliott doesn’t always get its way. But it has a nose for picking moments where it might. The fight over AT&T’s acquisition of TimeWarner focused on the government’s efforts to stop it, not whether it was a good deal. Elliott has strong thoughts on that and other things. Here’s how Colvin summarizes Elliott’s position: “Your company is a strategically clueless, appallingly managed mess that is squandering a portfolio of world-class assets. Start fixing it right now.”
AT&T shareholders bid up the price of the company’s stock Monday by 1%, a large dollar amount but not a particularly big percentage increase. The Business Roundtable recently distributed a statement of purpose that lists social responsibility ahead of shareholder value. In fact, under John Donovan, the AT&T executive who runs its telephone business, AT&T has been a leader in working re-training. Donovan unexpectedly announced his retirement last month.
As for AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who signed the BRT’s purpose manifesto, he’s about to have a gut check on his list of priorities. Now he has a shareholder like Elliott breathing down his neck, demanding value for its investment, and, by the way, asking appropriate questions about the company’s direction and decisions.
I highly, highly, highly recommend the Netflix documentary American Factory, a nuanced, balanced, and heart wrenching exploration of U.S.-China relations, the global labor movement, cultural diversity, and the times we live in.
On Twitter: @adamlashinsky
Feel a tingle in the air. It’s the annual iPhone unveiling at Apple later today. For the first time, you can catch the Apple keynote live also on Google’s YouTube as well as through the usual Apple streaming service.
Catch a falling knife. All that talk of just how little the company formerly known as WeWork might be worth has now spooked its main investor. Execs at the We Company and SoftBank, which owns almost one-third of the startup’s stock, are weighing whether to possibly just shelve this whole going public idea. Elsewhere in the halls of investment banking, Shopify is buying warehouse robot startup 6 River Systems for $450 million. And Root Insurance, the startup monitoring customers’ smartphones to set their car insurance rates, raised $350 million of venture capital at a valuation of $3.7 billion.
Take a number. With a goal to hire 30,000 new workers, Amazon is holding job fairs in six cities next week. Residents of Arlington, Va. (home of its upcoming second headquarters), Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Nashville, Tennessee, and Seattle should have their resumes tuned for the Sept. 17 events. A few days later, hundreds of people who already work for Amazon are planning to stage a walkout. The Sept. 20 event is intended to prompt the company to do more to slow global climate change.
I’ll see you in court. As tipped last week, attorneys general from many states (48 plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, to be exact) opened a formal antitrust investigation of Google to go along with all of the other, similar probes already ongoing. In other legal news, a federal appeals court ruled that so-called data scraping, aka copying information from a public website, is not computer fraud or abuse. LinkedIn was the loser in the ruling, part of a case where it is seeking to block a company called hiQ from scooping up public profiles of its users.
I’ll probably see you in court, too. In other Google troubles news, Recode finds more current and former female employees of the search giant who are afraid of retaliation over reporting sexual harassment.
Hold this. The Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, are best known for suing Mark Zuckerberg, but they’ve pivoted pretty successfully to the digital currency arena over the past few years. On Tuesday, they announced a new service dubbed Gemini Custody which will store up to 18 different cryptocurrencies for customers.
Oversharing. Two popular apps for tracking female periods, Maya and MIA Fem, are sending data about their users to Facebook, non-profit Privacy International says. Facebook says it is talking to the group to get more information.
Neural networking. If you want more in-depth coverage of artificial intelligence, don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly Eye on A.I. newsletter. The newest issue comes out later today.
ON THE MOVE
It’s the end of an era at Chinese Internet giant Alibaba. Founder and chair Jack Ma is stepping down today, 20 years after starting the company. CEO Daniel Zhang will take over the top spot on the board of directors…Melissa Eamer, vp of sales and marketing for Amazon devices, is jumping to online makeup site Glossier as chief operating officer. The startup is also adding Diane Vavrasek as chief people officer. She had been vp of HR at Walmart’s Jet.com unit…Architectural robotics startup Ori hired Edwin Hendriksen as its new president. Hendriksen had been senior vice president and global head of WeWork’s WeLive unit…BT Group’s former CEO, Gavin Patterson, joins Salesforce as chair for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Patterson was ousted from the telecom giant in February amid investor concerns about his strategy…Autonomous car startup Faraday Future brought in Carsten Breitfeld, who led BMW’s i8 electric car project, as CEO. Founder YT Jia leaves the top office for the role of chief product and user officer.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
With the music streaming wars running full tilt, the major players are looking beyond music. Spotify last year hired broadcast and media veteran Dawn Ostroff as chief content officer with a mandate to beef up the services’s podcasting offerings. Wendy Lee has an interview and profile of Ostroff in the Los Angeles Times. Spotify has already spent big to acquire podcast maker Gimlet Media. What’s next?
Ostroff said she’s looking for content that is “really going to be loud” so it brings in the largest amount of users to sign up and spend more time listening to it. “The amount of content that we can make is endless,” Ostroff said. “Seeing how many of the existing talent in the Hollywood community and the news community are interested in migrating toward this new medium, it really makes it a lot easier.”
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BEFORE YOU GO
Somewhat to my wife’s chagrin, I hauled my old stereo speakers, amplifier, and turntable down from the attic recently and set them up in my office, all for the purpose of taking some old records off the shelf (“I’ll sit and listen to them by myself.”). Turns out I’m not completely by myself. This year, for the first time since…I was in college…vinyl may outsell compact discs. CDs sold slightly more in the first half of 2019, but record sales are growing at 12% versus flat sales of the smaller, plastic rival. Stay tuned.