BrightPoint’s $840M sale ends wild ride for CEO Laikin

Bob Laikin is so ingrained in the cell phone business that it’s almost hard to fathom he’s selling his company, BrightPoint Inc., a heavyweight in the wireless distribution industry.

Indianapolis-based BrightPoint has $5.2 billion in sales, 4,000 employees and facilities in 24 countries. Laikin started it just a few years out of college, in 1989, when cellular phones were clunky and brick-like and were mostly for the wealthy.

Bob Laikin Laikin

A BrightPoint spokesman said Laikin wasn’t able to comment in the wake of the July 2 announcement that BrightPoint is being acquired by Santa Ana, Calif.-based Ingram Micro Inc. for $840 million.

But those who’ve followed his career say he and his board probably are pulling the trigger at the right time for shareholders, given the pressures and setbacks that have buffeted the company this year.

Ingram, already the world’s biggest tech distributor, was eager to add mobile phones to its arsenal, in part because telecom, computing and media are converging, erasing the lines between product categories.

Ingram brass sees explosive growth ahead. On an analyst conference call, CEO Alain Monie cited International Data Corp. projections that smartphone shipments will rise from 494 million units in 2011 to 1.2 billion units in 2016. IDC expects tablet shipments will grow even faster, from 60 million units in 2011 to 335 million units in 2015.

“Smartphones and tablets remain in the early stages of adoption and promise to provide further meaningful revenue and profitability catalysts for years to come,” Monie said on the call.

Sounds like plenty of growth to keep Laikin’s adrenalin pumping. The problem, say analysts, is that some of BrightPoint’s big customers—including Nokia and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion—are losing out to Apple, maker of iPhones and iPads. Apple doesn’t do business directly with BrightPoint, though the firm does handle Apple devices on behalf of some carriers, including Sprint.

Nokia sales have plummeted, ending its run as the world’s largest handset maker. Meanwhile, RIM’s market share is plunging, and Morgan Stanley called the firm “essentially broken.”

It didn’t help that, in February, the cell carrier Cricket, another major BrightPoint customer, said it was pulling its business.

It’s clear that decision still sticks in Laikin’s craw. “The reason behind it is still unclear,” he said on the conference call. He said the move hasn’t happened and “there’s still a chance that this particular customer doesn’t leave.”

Such ups and downs go with the territory, as carriers and manufacturers gain and lose market share and shift strategy.

In fact, it was a breakthrough deal with Nokia in 1998 that put BrightPoint on the path to becoming a powerhouse, said Al Goldfield, former CEO of Dallas-based competitor CellStar Inc.

In the United States, Nokia had been using CellStar, BrightPoint and a third firm that was struggling, but wanted to consolidate to one. Goldfield said Nokia offered CellStar U.S. exclusivity if it would pay $6 million owed by the third firm. Goldfield declined—a decision he now regrets that opened the door for the then-smaller BrightPoint.

BrightPoint proved itself with Nokia, and soon also was working with Motorola.

“They started growing and growing and growing,” Goldfield said. “Nokia was the key to his growth. Without that, he wouldn’t have had the chance to grow.”

Goldfield credited BrightPoint’s later success partly to its expansion from low-margin distribution into logistics, which includes services like software loading.

Analysts saw nothing forcing BrightPoint into a sale. The problem was the recent setbacks rattled investors already frustrated with the topsy-turvy nature of its business.

Shares reached $12 in February, before the succession of bad news halved the stock price. Analysts say Ingram’s offer of $9 a share was higher than the firm likely would achieve on its own for the foreseeable future.

So Laikin is selling after 23 years. After the sale, he’ll be senior adviser to Ingram’s Monie.

It’s not clear what that entails. A spokesman wouldn’t say if he’ll be a full-time employee.

Regardless, count on Laikin, 49, to be a short-timer, those who know him say. After building a Fortune 500 firm, they doubt he’d be satisfied as a management cog in a giant corporation.

“He will be out of there really quick. I can see that,” Goldfield said.•

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