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What is your Qwest?


Mergers come and mergers go, but the acquisition about a month ago of US West by Qwest has to rank right up there with the strangest of all time. It wasn't a marriage of giants. You have a mid-sized Baby Bell and a relative newcomer to the telecommunications arena coming together to form a 90-some billion-dollar entity that remains, by global standards, a lightweight. And I truly believe that Qwest, by all accounts and track history a well-run and well-managed firm, got more liabilities than assets by absorbing US West.

I can't help thinking of great lines from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

"What is your quest?"

"I seek the Grail."

Clearly Qwest is after the Holy Grail, that being dominance in the global telecommunications field. By its officials' own admission, the dominant players in the field will be companies in the $500 billion to $1 trillion market-value arena. That means that US West, an acquisition valued at just under $50 billion, is at best a 10% step toward obtaining the Grail.

But what do you get with this small step? You get a company that is not just having service problems, but rather one that has inflicted a service nightmare on its (forced) constituency US West is -- make no mistake about it -- the company people love to hate. Shakespeare, another Englishman with a sense of humor, would ask the pertinent question, "What's in a name?" Not much. You can call it Qwest now, but the passion among customers remains: Given a legitimate choice in telecommunications vendors -- for voice, data and the myriad of other services now linked to these firms -- many, many of us can't wait for the day we can select someone else, anyone else.

I have always admired Qwest. I remember when Phillip Anschutz first spoke of his plans to build a network of fiber optics along the railroad rights-of-way he had acquired by building a railroad empire, and I remember hearing otherwise knowledgeable people suggest he didn't know what he was doing. That being in the 1980s, not many people had the vision of Anschutz. But to be honest, I really don't know what the hell Qwest does outside of buying US West. I know it's in telecommunications, and I know it has significant revenues, but frankly other than that, I am clueless.

Now though, what I know is that it is the phone company. It is the company that makes promises it seemingly can't, or doesn't want to, keep.

It's been said a lot during this agonizingly long merger process that, ironically, communications problems existed and will exist between the two firms because Qwest is entrepreneurial and US West is a regulated monopoly. It's usually called a "culture clash." Most people seem to assume that since Qwest is the surviving entity, and most of the US West dead wood departed in the management ranks, that very soon the whole thing will become entrepreneurial, adopting the former Qwest philosophy. It will, conventional wisdom suggests, be a Qwest culture.

I have my doubts, mostly because 16 years ago when they broke Ma Bell up most people predicted the "corporate culture" would change, and we all know it just got worse. And everywhere else I've ever been -- second grade, high school, college, all the companies I've worked for -- the bureaucracy, the lowest common denominator, seems always to have won out over fresh ideas every time.

It's tough to alter reality, or, as the incredulous French person in Monty Python's Holy Grail put it, "Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?"

Besides, Qwest is on record saying that it intends to keep growing, and it implies that there won't be much time to deal with the current absorption before it goes off to find bigger fish to fry. That, my friends, is the perfect climate for an insidious bureaucracy like US West to flourish.

The quest for the Holy Grail always did involve distractions, like having to cross the River of Death.

"What is your favorite colour?"

"Green. No. Blue. Aarrrghhh!!!"
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Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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