When a Problem Becomes an Opportunity

I spent most of this week in San Francisco at the launch of a new $5 billion company.

Lucent’s chip-making unit is being spun off next year, and I was asked to tell its salespeople enough about last-mile broadband options to make them dangerous.

All hands were summoned to a 7 a.m. telecast to launch the new company name: Agere Systems Inc. (The name is to be pronounced “a gear,” and the “g” in the logo is designed to look like a set of gears.) What really excited the troops, though, was the new company color, purple, replacing Lucent’s red. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO John Young has been tapped as the new company’s board chairman.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown had come by the previous evening to do his stand-up act, in which he portrays homeless panhandlers as a tourist attraction in their own right, a bunch of cell-phone-toting boulevardiers. (Actually they wear blankets and keep their hands out for drinking money, although I did spot a few reading books.)

Ahmad Nawaz, the new company’s executive vice president for global sales, followed Brown to the stage. Following a stand-up comic such as Mayor Brown would be a handicap for most, but salespeople are judged by the energy they exude, and Nawaz could light a small city. His pep talk noted that Agere starts life as No. 1 in communication chip sales and No. 2 in optical electronics, behind only JDS Uniphase — and the company should be able to sell much more to its biggest customers, such as Nortel and Cisco, once the “logo problem” is straightened out. (It seems Lucent’s rivals didn’t want Lucent’s name inside their stuff, but maybe Agere’s will be another matter.)

All the talk I heard from the sales force concerned miracles being wrought by Agere engineers, boosting fiber capacity and building chips that send data through the air at broadband speeds. It was very exciting, until I went upstairs to my room at the Westin St. Francis to send you this story.

There I found a bandwidth sinkhole. The hotel’s old wires and phone system couldn’t even keep a 24,000bps modem call stable. I got hung up many, many times before I could get out even a 3,000-byte file. And when I checked out, I learned that those calls had been billed at $1.25 each. Long-distance calls to home had the kind of surcharges that would make a New York City tax collector blush. (A photo at the hotel entrance noted that Bing Crosby used to stay at the St. Francis — no doubt he could afford to.)

Still, as I flew back east, it occurred to me that some of the optimism Nawaz exuded must have rubbed off. My hotel experience was not a problem, I thought, it’s a sales opportunity. And the looming recession could cause groups to move from the St. Francis because of its antique communications lines, making them motivated buyers. There are big sales coming and good times ahead.

I almost wished I worked on commission.

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