Nortel throws investors another curveball

The marketing tagline for the 1970’s shark-attack movie Jaws 2 was “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” If you replaced the word “water” with the name “Nortel,” you’d probably have a fitting tagline for what’s going on at Canada’s favourite love-it-or-hate-it networking-equipment company, Nortel Networks (or “No-tell” Networks, as one wag dubbed it). Except, of course, that for Nortel the latest financial restatement isn’t just the sequel to its previous financial troubles — it’s the third in a series of such restatements, each of which affected several years worth of results.

In case you need a refresher course in how not to run a giant telecom supplier, Nortel has spent the better part of the past three years restating its results, changing chief executive officers and otherwise reorganizing itself. Not long after John Roth left the company and was replaced by former chief financial officer Frank Dunn, the company announced that its results were not reliable. That produced the first restatement, which altered revenues and profits for several years, and led to an internal review that eventually produced a second restatement to correct errors in the first one, which delayed the company’s official filings for more than a year. As a result of the review, Mr. Dunn and half a dozen other executives were fired.

Former U.S. Navy officer Bill Owens came on board to straighten things up and get customers back on board, but after an acquisition that didn’t get many cheers and a failed succession plan that got a lot of boos, he left and was replaced by former Motorola executive Mike Zafirovski. And a new CEO seems to require yet another restatement, this time for various contracts that were signed in 2003, 2004 and part of 2005. Why? Mike Z says it’s because the company is now applying more stringent rules to how it accounts for contracts. And guess what? He said he can’t say for sure that there won’t be more restatements or “adjustments” as they go through the rest of the deals from last year.

To continue with the horror-movie analogy — one that some Nortel investors might see as appropriate — let’s hope the company isn’t trying to create a 10-movie legacy like the Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. Investors have suffered enough already.

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