In Mel Brook's movie comedy "The Producers," two con artists scheme to make a fortune by producing a Broadway musical so horrible that they can pocket the investors' money when it flops. To their abject dismay, their musical becomes the hit comedy of the season.
"We had the wrong director, the wrong actor, the wrong script," wails one of the pair, "Where did we go right?"
That captures the sentiments of many leading telecommunications analyst and observers who follow Comsat, the Communications Satellite Corp., which is based in Washington.
They say Comsat's management is stodgy, its strategic ambitions warped, and its current forays into the competitive marketplace doomed to drown in red ink. And yet, Comsat's stock has orbited as high as $92 a share in the past few months with the company's just-released annual report showing record operating revenues of $410 million.
With all of Comsat's preceived problems, where did it go right? How could its stock leap in value so?
One Wall Street analyst, who asked anonymity, sniffs: "Because people are stupid."
The Comsat name provokes everything from scathing criticism of its management to unabashed admiration for its technical proficiency. Comsat is a company that has enjoyed a healthy and prosperous growth in the shelter of regulatory protection, but it's also a company that wants to change both its image and its business.
Comsat is not unlike American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in that respect. The phone company, by virtue of both legal and competitive pressures, now has a separate subsidiary to venture into unregulated markets. Comsat is traveling a similar path. It wants to compete -- and profit -- in the competitive telecommunications marketplace and has mapped a set of strategic plans to do so.
Comsat is already part of Satellite Business Systems, a telecommunications consortium with IBM and Aetna. The company has other ventures in the offing: Satellite Television Corp. is its probe into the consumer market, with a direct broadcast satellite-to-home pay TV service scheduled for 1986. In response to the Reagan administration's desire to "commercialize" the government's weather and land-sensing satellites, Comsat has offered to buy the government out.
The company wants to give the impression of being both conservative and aggressive.
And yet, The Street isn't impressed. "Everything I see, I don't like," says one research analyst. "They succeed in spite of themselves."
"If they can provide an innovative satellite system," says Win Himsworth, a Lehman Brothers vice president and telecommunications analyst, "that seems more important to them than return to investors.AT&T at least looks at the bottom line. I don't see that orientation at Comsat."
"Comsat originated as a quasi-governmental entity," says Steven Chrust, an analyst with Sandford C. Bernstein in New York, "The company had no profit vision and was never aggressively managed." Comsat is a stock that is a geostationary orbit away from Chrust's "buy" list.
Other analysts are more favorably disposed to the company -- but their attitude is inspired less by Comsat's new ventures than by its basic business: international telecommunications.
Comsat was charted by Congress in 1963 to see whether the new satellite technology could be exploited and packaged into a global telecommunications system. Between intense diplomatic negotiations and complex technical innovations, Comsat led the way in getting countries to form an international telecommunications cooperative -- Intelsat -- which carries virtually all of the world's satellite communications.
Comsat now has a 24.4 percent share in that global network. "Comsat has done a superb job in providing an international communications satellite system," says Will Demery, assistant chief of the Federal Communications Comission's Common Carrier bureau, "not only from the technical standpoint, but from the standpoint of international diplomacy."
As the United States' agent to Intelsat, Comsat was given a monopoly over the U.S. portion of international satellite communications and its revenues regulated by the FCC. To get overseas, you had to go through Comsat.
However, Comsat was restricted by regulation to being a "carrier's carrier." That means Comsat made its satellite pipeline to companies such as AT&T, ITT World Communications, Western Union International and RCA Global Communications for transmission of voice and data.
In essence, Comsat dealt with a very narrow customer base that had virtually no choice but to come to Comsat. The result was that, as the need for international communications grew, Comsat grew right along with it. For the past several years, Comsat's revenues from Intelsat have grown at a 20 percent compounded annual rate. The vast portion of Comsat's profits have come from Intelsat.
Intelsat is Comsat's cash cow -- and it is a bovine with a bursting udder.
Comsat has certainly invested enough in its cash cow to keep it creamy, but the company, under Dr. Joseph Charyk, Comsat's founding president and chief executive officer, has sought to build on both its monopoly and technical expertise and move into the unregulated marketplace.
"This company is an enigma because of the very limited number of customers we have had," says Charyk, "but now we're reaching out to smaller companies and to consumers. We're taking advantage of our knowledge and expertise.
"The individual homeowner will know Comsat. We want Comsat to become a household word as a provider of competent and effective services."
After some initial disputes with the FCC as to who its partners could be, Comsat -- along with IBM and Aetna -- launched Satellite Business Systems in 1975. SBS was originally intended to be a "Cadillac" telecommunications service, giving the Fortune 100 companies every single communications capability they could desire or dream about: video-teleconferences, computer networks, ultra-rapid facsimile -- the works.
Unfortunately, SBS badly miscalculated the demand these companies would have for these exotic new technologies. Last year, SBS lost an estimated $2 million a week. That's just a paper cut to corporate behemoths like IBM and Aetna, but it was an open wound for Comsat, bleeding more than $2 a share off its earnings.
"SBS is poised right at the edge exactly where the partners want it to be," says Irving Golstein, Comsat's executive vice president. "I think it's been a tremendous success."
Others flatly disagree. "SBS will make money right around the time my hair turns gray," says one analyst, who is bald. The problem, he says, is that SBS did not analyze the market correctly and spent too much money for providing a service array that just wasn't cost-effective.
In fact, SBS has radically changed its strategy since its inception. Even Charyk concedes that the company is seeking ways to exploit the "excess capacity" SBS has to kill time waiting for the market that he, IBM and Aetna hope will ultimately come.
SBS has just launched "Skyline," an MCI-like low-cost long-distance dialing service and has publicly announced that it is willing to lease or sell some of its satellite capacity. Both of these moves, says Jerome Lucas, a former Comsat employe and president of the local consulting firm TeleStrategies, reflect a complete departure from SBS's original plans.
SBS is expected to creep into the black by December, but most analysts believe that the company will experience incremental, rather than exponential, growth.
However, SBS has to be examined in the context of Comsat's overall strategic ambitions. George Billings, Comsat's vice president of business development, views the company's evolution into competition as an extension of its "strength in technology."
"Our skills," says Billings, a Harvard MBA with a consulting background, "are founded in technical design and network management."
According to Billings, this makes Comsat an excellent company for information "transportation." What Comsat lacks and hopes to acquire, says Billings, are skills in the equipment and the contents aspects of the information industry. In essence, he says, giving "value-added" to Comsat's basic satellite service.
In terms of equipment, Comsat recently acquired Amplica, a California microwave equipment manufacturer, and has been pushing TeleSystems, a local company that makes echo-cancelers for communications lines. Billings has high hopes for them.
As for the content side of "value-added," Comsat is ambitiously moving into the pay television business with its Satellite Television Corp. subsidiary. By 1986, STC expects to have a satellite beaming pay-TV programming into tiny, two-foot-diameter home satellite dishes. Basically, this direct broadcast satellite service appeals to an aftermarket, or those who can't get cable television in their communities.
This effort is expensive.STC anticipates spending roughly $600 million in the next three years. Comsat is seeking at least one additional equity partner to share the burden.
"We will have a partner," says Bruce Crockett, Comsat's vice president of finance. And, Crockett adds, that partner will have some of the market skills that STC lacks -- most notably, marketing, distribution and programming.
This absence of marketing skills disturbs analysts. Several believe that Comsat's "corporate culture" just isn't suited to the rigors of the marketplace. Comsat's Charyk sees his company as technology-driven, but does not agree that that means the company can't have a marketing emphasis, too -- even if that means embarking on joint ventures to acquire it. However, Charyk says, with all of Comsat's ventures, how cananyone accuse it of lacking direction?
But will these ventures succeed? "Satellite Television Corp. is the confirmation of the ridiculousness of SBS," says Bernstein's Chrust, "Here they are, willing to drop another $600 million to $700 million in costs in an area they know very little about." Should these enterprises do poorly, Chrust says, Comsat would be in financial trouble.
Shifting a regulated corporation into a competitive entity in a capital-intensive industry costs a lot of money. Comsat has just requested a 2-for-1 stock split from the FCC. In its capitalization plan, it stated it would seek over $100 million a year for the next three years. "This company hasn't had a lot of experience raising money," says Crockett, "and that's what we're going to be doing a lot of."
So what is the key to this capital acquisition? It will be Comsat's cash cow. "We expect our jurisdictional business will more than double in the next five years," says Crockett. It is the robust health of the international market that gives Comsat the financial fuel for its domestic ambitions.
Most of Comsat's non-regulatory enterprises -- from SBS to the manufacturing side -- are money-losers. Comsat's future profits from the private sector depend on businesses that have yet to be proven.
However, the Intelsat cash cow is so generous that the risks seem worth it. Comsat thinks it could be a multibillion dollar company by the end of this decade.
But Comsat's cash cow could be turned into ground beef. "Comsat has been feeding undisturbed at the monopolist's trough for 20 years now," says Jonathan Miller, editor of Satellite Week, "and now the long knives are starting to be drawn."
In essence, the same kind of deregulatory philosophy that has spurred telecommunications competition domestically is beginning to be applied in the international sphere. "It is natural for what's going on in the domestic front to influence the international market as well," says the FCC's Demery. "There are signs that the international environment is changing."
Last year, the commission authorized Comsat to market directly to end users of Intelsat, thus transforming Comsat from a carrier's carrier into a carrier. By the same token, however, the commission is exploring the possibility of allowing carriers to bypass Comsat and hook into Intelsat directly. Moreover, the commission is currently considering an application for a satellite system that would offer communications services that might compete with Intelsat.
The existence of a fiber-optic transatlantic cable capable of carrying thousands of data streams and telephone calls could compete directly with satellite communications and diminish Intelsat's and Comsat's appeal. But, says the FCC's Demery, "It's difficult to think of a major competitor to Intelsat in the next five years."
While no one is seriously forecasting the demise of either Comsat or Intelsat, few people predicted the break-up of AT&T.
Comsat is in the midst of an intriguing transformation: it is acquiring new people, new funds, new businesses. At the other end, the international monopoly that finances this entrepreneurial zeal may soon be threatened by the same deregulatory forces that revolutionized domestic telecommunications.
Whether an established organization can learn new tricks remains to be seen; whether a regulated corporation will have to do battle on both fronts seems inevitable.