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Tony Lacavera and West Face buy Wind Mobile from VimpelCom

09/16/2014 08:27 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:52 EDT
Wind Mobile founder Tony Lacavera will partner with Canadian private equity firm West Face Capital and others to buy out Wind's majority shareholder, foreign telecom conglomerate VimpelCom Ltd.​

The move brings a tentative end to a multiyear drama in which the Russian-Dutch company has been trying to offload its tiny sliver of Canada's wireless market, which it acquired when it bought Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris's company Orascom, which was Wind Mobile's original financier before it launched in 2009.

After word of a deal emerged in Canadian media on Monday, VimpelCom confirmed it has sold its stake in Globalive (the company that owns Wind) for $135 million.

The investment group now taking full control of a fully Canadian Wind Mobile also includes Tannenbaum Capital Partners, LG Capital Investors, Serruya Private Equity and Novus Wireless Communications — subject to regulatory approvals.

"With stable, long-term ownership and secure financing, Wind Mobile is moving into an exciting new phase," Lacavera said Tuesday.

Novus Wireless Communications applied to bid in a recent government auction of wireless spectrum, but was unsuccessful, which makes their interest in Wind Mobile all the more interesting.

Lengthy process

The so-called "Big 3" of Canadian wireless — Rogers, Bell and Telus — collectively control about 90 per cent of the market. Lacavera has been trying to position Wind as a legitimate, national rival to that bloc since launching the company in 2009. 

But Wind has been hampered along the way by financial hurdles — especially lately when its reluctant partner VimpelCom refused to sign off on paying for the expensive wireless spectrum that the company needed to expand earlier this year.

Wind's complicated ownership structure made it so that Lacavera owned a majority of the equity in the company, even as the foreign backers controlled the money. It's not yet known how the new deal would redistribute control, but Lacavera figures to feature prominently.

Wind currently has about 750,000 customers concentrated in populated areas of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, but requires access to one of the Big three's national networks or partnerships with other small carriers, and likely will for some time to come. It also wants to invest in additional spectrum licences.

Greg Boland, president and chief executive officer of West Face Capital, said in the statement that the government's support for long-term competition in the wireless sector "has not gone unnoticed by the investment community."

Industry Canada has taken a number of other steps that have been favourable to Wind — including capping how much the big three carriers can charge for traffic that use their larger national networks — but Wind's access to foreign investment for further growth was hurt by Ottawa's decision to block VimpelCom from buying Lacavera's portion of the business last year.

What remains to be seen is whether Wind's new owners plan to spend a little cash to beef up their new acquisition in order to truly compete on a national scale. At least one telecom analyst said Tuesday he suspects the plan will likely to be sit tight, maintain the status quo and wait for the earliest chance to flip their asset to one of the incumbents.

"We assume that private equity may just want to operate the asset with modest incremental funding until rules change, and Wind can be sold to an incumbent, perhaps after the 2015 Canadian federal election," Canaccord analyst Dvai Ghose said.

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