BERLIN -- Just because you've got the money doesn't mean you have to spend it.
Such sentiment may not mean much in today's age of unbridled consumerism, but executives at Europe's largest Internet service provider,
, apparently still think it might. Although T-Online's parent,
( DT), is flush with cash, T-Online's CEO
made it clear Thursday that the company wouldn't expand at any price.
In an interview with
, Keuntje poured cold water over the idea that T-Online might be on the verge of buying leading U.K. ISP
from British electrical retailer
. In recent weeks, T-Online, which is keen to build up its presence outside of Germany, had been seen as the leading bidder for Freeserve.
"The question is whether you want to pay billions or several hundred million for an acquisition or whether it is cheaper to set up a business from ground zero," Keuntje said in the interview.
After the interview's publication, T-Online officials told
, a sister publication of
, that Keuntje's comments didn't represent a break with previous statements. (For more, see
In recent weeks, stock traders speculated that T-Online was mulling a $9 billion bid for Freeserve. In the wake of Keuntje's comments, however, shares of both companies fell. In Frankfurt, T-Online shares fell 0.68 euros, or 1.7%, to 38.50 ($36.87). In London, Freeserve shares tanked 11%, but recovered slightly and were recently down 29.50 pence, or 6.3%, at 439.50 ($6.65). New York-traded Freeserve ADRs closed down 4, or 5.6%, at 68.
According to Albert Richards, an analyst for
Schroder Salomon Smith Barney
in London, the price tag the market put on Freeserve was never realistic. "They'd definitely be better off taking that much money and starting their own operation." Schroder Salomon Smith Barney does not have an underwriting relationship with Freeserve.
Keuntje said T-Online was in talks with Deutsche Telekom's U.K. wireless phone operator
, with the aim of jointly offering Internet access in Britain. While acquiring Freeserve would have quickly given T-Online a strong foothold in the U.K. and, perhaps more importantly, in the English-dominated Internet world, some observers agree with Keuntje that in light of Freeserve's prospective price tag, it makes more sense to build U.K. operations from scratch.
Other observers thought the whole idea of a T-Online-Freeserve linkup reflected more a fantasy on the part of investment bankers hoping to cut a rather lucrative deal than genuine interest from T-Online in the first place. However, similarly cynical voices now say Keuntje might merely be trying to lower the price of any potential bid for Freeserve. Indeed, in the interview he made clear that his talks with One2One wouldn't preclude an acquisition or partnership in the U.K.
Whether or not T-Online decides to go it alone, the ISP will have its work cut out for it. Besides having the likes of
nipping at its heels at home, alliances such as the planned merger between Spain's
( TRRA) and U.S. Web powerhouse
( LCOS) will keep the pressure on T-Online as it attempts to broaden its European footprint.
And that probably means that no matter how thriftily Keuntje gets his U.K. operations up and running, at the end of the day, he'll likely have to cough up some serious coin.