BT Exec Bross a Sidelight in Ciena Deal

Shame on you, Wall Street. It's not always who you know.

With cynicism having replaced optimism as investors' outlook of choice, it's little wonder that Ciena's ( CIEN) big deal with British Telecom ( BTY) was the subject of some snickering this week.

After nearly two years of courting BT's business, Ciena finally brought home a major agreement with the European phone giant. Analysts put the value of Thursday's three-year equipment deal as high as $200 million, a huge sum for struggling Ciena. Even more important, the BT deal marked the first success for Ciena in cracking the top-tier European phone market. Shares of the optical gearmaker have jumped 9% since the announcement.

But dampening that celebration a bit was conjecture by some on Wall Street over what role, if any, BT's new technology chief may have played in setting up the deal. The whispers were a bit more insistent given that the executive is Matt Bross, a onetime investor in a company Ciena acquired last year and a man who has been a telecom industry wheeler-dealer of sorts in the past.

Bross joined BT in November, less than a year after Ciena acquired optical networking rival ONI. At the time of that deal, Bross was a major shareholder in and a director of ONI. According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings at the time of the deal in March 2002, Bross held 192,000 ONI shares. Those shares would have converted to 137,000 Ciena shares in the takeover.

Given the decline in Ciena shares since then, some wags wouldn't have been surprised to see if Bross still had a stake in the gearmaker. But through a BT spokesman, Bross said he no longer owns those shares. Details remain a bit sketchy: Neither Bross nor the spokesman would say when he sold his stake. The BT spokesman said Bross may have sold when he took the chief technology officer job, but he couldn't confirm that.

Still, as inviting as the shareholding question is to certain black-helicopter types, that's not the only reason Bross' name attracts attention. After all, the executive had made a name for himself as a telecom power broker long before he crossed the Atlantic.

Prior to his BT job, Bross was tech chief at the failed Williams Communications. Probably his most notable achievements there came from his shrewd ability to obtain cheap pre-IPO shares of emerging networking companies and then cash in the stock during the hot and heavy rise of the Nasdaq. At one point with ONI, for example, Bross held 1.9 million shares, nearly 2% of the company. Interestingly, Williams Communications was also not only a big ONI investor, but ONI's top customer early in its short life.

Bross and Williams also brokered an arrangement under which Williams would agree to buy gear in exchange for a stake in the pre-IPO company. ONI needed customer commitments to interest investors in the company and go public. Bross eventually cashed out most of his shares for more than $40 million.

As one networking analyst said: "He was by far the most brazen about the pay-to-play arrangements."

But going by what BT says, the Bross chatter undermining the Ciena win was misguided. Now it seems clear that Ciena's landing a coveted BT supplier role ranks as a major victory for the company's risky damn-the-costs strategy.

Seeking to set itself apart from the pack, the Linthicum, Md.-based networking shop has boldly vowed to ignore losses and sell its way to success, as its rivals Nortel ( NT) and Lucent ( LU) cut staff and shrink their product offerings to survive the postboom tech recession.

The British Telecom win not only validates that gutsy strategy, but instantly catapults Ciena into the Net gear big leagues.

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