24/7 Wall St. recently picked America’s five worst-run companies of 2020. After the list and the overall criteria were examined, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) took the top position, making it the worst-run company of 2020. The huge U.S. telecom bested the four other public corporations: Ford, IBM, Intel and Macy’s.
The successes and failures of many of America’s largest public companies have been marked by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as much as anything else this year. At one end of this spectrum, the chance of a banner year for cruise ship company Carnival ended in March. Zoom Video Communications, on the other hand, went from a small provider of video conferencing to one of the largest stock market successes in decades, as people moved from their offices to their homes. However, in some situations, management decisions were as important, if not more so, than the pandemic or the economy, to determine how companies performed in 2020.
24/7 Wall St. looked at large public companies to find those that did particularly poorly against broad measurements. This included the quality of their products and services as measured by third parties, their market share, their financial performance compared to competitors in the first three-quarters of the calendar year, their employee relationships and their stock market performances against peers for the first 11 months of 2020. Finally, we looked at the wisdom of major strategic decisions.
It would be hard to identify a company that has made more severe blunders than AT&T has this year. John Stankey took over as chief executive when former CEO Randall Stephenson left on July 1, 2020, under pressure from investors because of AT&T’s extremely poor financial performance. Many view Stankey as more of the same. He was instrumental in two huge merger and acquisition decisions. The first was the buyout of DirecTV, which was never fully integrated into AT&T’s broader customer bases and is shedding subscribers. The buyout of Time Warner was probably a worse decision.
AT&T may be close to unloading DirecTV. It would get $15 billion, which apparently would include debt, according to The Wall Street Journal. AT&T paid $66 billion for the unit in 2015. DirecTV was never cross-promoted well or blended into the company’s broadband and wireless operations. Since AT&T bought the company, it has lost millions of subscribers and become a drag on AT&T’s financial results.
Stankey has struggled to figure out the best ways to monetize the company’s WarnerMedia brands like HBO and CNN. Its new run at streaming, HBO Max, is late to a crowded market dominated by Netflix and Amazon. The decision to release the Warner Bros. 2021 lineup of 17 movies on HBO Max and in theaters at the same time was widely derided. Warner’s partners, stars and directors were caught by surprise. The decision may even trigger legal challenges. Analysts believe that AT&T may undermine its ability to make money on these expensive films. Moreover, HBO Max may be so far behind the competition, based on subscribers, that the move does little or nothing to solve that problem.
At least Stankey has 5G to drive wireless revenue, although competition from Verizon and T-Mobile means there could be a costly price war. Finally, there is AT&T’s 6.6% dividend yield.
AT&T stock is off 20% this year. Shares of rival Verizon are flat.