AT&T (T) CEO Randall Stephenson addressed activist pressure on Tuesday morning at a Goldman Sachs telecom and media conference, calling the recommendations a "mixed bag" and arguing that the telecom and media giant is well on its way to achieving its goals for the near term.
Activist investors Elliott Management has taken a $3.2 billion stake in AT&T and sent a letter to the company on Sept. 9 questioning its acquisition of Time Warner and recommending the company to divest some of its non-core assets to unlock shareholder value.
"From our view, it's a mixed bag. There are some things in the letter that we look at and say makes a lot of sense and we need to push further in and talk about it," Stephenson said on Tuesday. "There are some other areas where you look at it and as you would guess, it's not quite as clear in terms of how that would make sense for us."
Stephenson concluded that "at the end of the day, we're going to evaluate it and talk to [Elliott] and see what makes sense for all of our shareholders."
Stephenson said that AT&T's main near-term priorities have been getting its leverage down, returning its wireless business to growth and stabilizing its entertainment business, which consists of its broadband and TV business.
On the leverage front, Stephenson said the company's goal has been to get down to 2.5x debt to EBITDA and is on track to get there this year by monetizing at least $8 billion in assets and increasing its annual cash flow to at least $26 billion.
He said that getting wireless subscriptions back to growth was a second priority that would likely impact its stock price the most, and the company was well-positioned to do that by upgrading its network through building out the first responder network and using that valuable spectrum, aggregating new spectrum and building out its 5G capabilities.
And the third priority of stabilizing its entertainment business has started to take place in the first half of the year with EBITDA in that division growing by 7% in the first quarter and 3% in the second quarter, although the third quarter would be harder to achieve growth because AT&T has to start recognizing the cost of NFL Sunday Ticket.
"As it stands right now, I'd be really surprised if we don't hit all [of our objectives for 2019], Stephenson concluded.
On the succession front, Stephenson said that the recent promotion of John Stankey to AT&T's chief operating officer was a good sign for Stankey but no guarantee that he would get the CEO job.
"I've been asked a thousand times, is [Stankey] the heir apparent? First of all, the board hasn't informed me that I'm retiring, so I'm a little offended," Stephenson joked.
"But I will say, he's in a pretty good position if he executes his play," Stephenson added.
Shares of AT&T were down 0.42% to $37.15 on Tuesday morning and are up almost 30% this year.