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Nokia Siemens chief targets US growth as rivals face snags

Nokia Siemens Networks, trying to sustain nascent sales growth in the cut-throat phone-equipment industry, is targeting the U.S. market where Chinese rivals face political hurdles and rising data use entices carriers to spend.

The venture owned by Nokia Oyj and Siemens AG (NYSE: SI) is forgoing less lucrative deals in Africa and the Middle East to focus on the United States, CEO Rajeev Suri said last week in an interview. In a shrinking global network-gear market, U.S. demand is rising as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and other carriers add capacity.

Suri, into his fourth year as CEO, is trying to find areas of strength for the venture that last month posted its first quarterly sales increase and profit since last year. Chinese rivals Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp., which have made gains globally, are struggling to win orders in the United States as the country’s officials advise against buying from them.

“The industry is a tough place,” Suri said in Munich. “The U.S. is certainly an opportunity so we’ll be there.”

Equipment for faster networks allowing consumers to watch video and browse the Web on their mobile devices helped Espoo, Finland-based Nokia Siemens boost sales in the Asia Pacific region 29 percent last quarter, driven by South Korea and Japan. Sales in North America fell 6 percent, a trend it is now trying to reverse by ramping up marketing spending and tapping the rising demand for data services.

'Compelling partner'

Nokia Siemens vies with Huawei for the second spot in the global wireless-gear market behind Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) of Sweden. While cheaper equipment has helped Huawei and ZTE gain market share in Europe and Asia, U.S. carriers have so far been wary of awarding them large contracts.

The two companies, China’s largest phone-equipment makers, provide opportunities for Chinese intelligence services to tamper with U.S. telecommunications networks for spying, the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee said in an Oct. 8 report, advising against using their gear. China’s Commerce Minister this month rejected the U.S. concerns.

Nokia Siemens may also benefit from another rival’s woes. Alcatel-Lucent SA (NYSE: ALU), traditionally strong in the U.S. because it was formed through a merger of Murray Hill, N.J.-based Lucent Technologies and Alcatel SA, is weighing asset sales to cope with mounting losses that sent its stock to a 23-year low.

“The competitive environment within the mobile-equipment industry has changed in favor of NSN,” said Sami Sarkamies, a Nordea Bank AB analyst in Helsinki. “It looks like the Chinese vendors will be kept out of the U.S., while NSN’s improving profitability makes it a more compelling partner than Alcatel- Lucent, which is struggling.”

U.S. spending

Nokia Siemens won a deal in May to build a faster wireless network for Deutsche Telekom AG’s U.S. unit. Earlier this year, AT&T and Verizon Wireless awarded it smaller contracts, which Suri called “beachheads” to potentially larger deals later.

AT&T, the second-largest U.S. wireless carrier, plans to invest $14 billion in wireless and wireline improvements over the next three years. Nokia Siemens had global sales of 3.5 billion euros ($4.5 billion) last quarter.

The U.S. is one of the three mobile-phone markets where operators have changed their pricing strategies to better reflect users’ data consumption rather than offering all-you-can-eat plans, making them more profitable, said Suri, 45.

“Our strategy was to go for Korea, Japan and the U.S. because that is where operators are monetizing data,” Suri said. “It was about withdrawing from some markets in the Middle East and Africa where it’s hard to make money and the rest of the world we would defend and not grow. What we saw in the third quarter was that the strategy is working.”

'Independent entity'

Nokia shares fell 3.6 percent to 2.66 euros in Helsinki, its first decline in six days. Siemens slipped 0.3 percent to 78.01 euros in Frankfurt.

A recovery in the United States would be another step toward Nokia and Siemens’s goal of making the venture a more standalone business. Nokia Siemens’s parents abandoned talks with private- equity companies in July 2011 after the buyout firms failed to come up with a compelling offer. The parents said two months later Nokia Siemens would “become a more independent entity.”

Since then, Suri has said he will cut 17,000 jobs, or about 23 percent of the total, to make the company sustainably profitable. Gross margin, or what’s left of sales after production costs have been deducted, expanded to 32.2 percent last quarter, beating market leader Ericsson’s 30.4 percent.

Suri has also sold units including the microwave-transport and fixed-line broadband-access businesses. In August, people with knowledge of the matter said the company was in advanced talks to sell a unit that helps phone operators manage their billing systems.

“Let’s just focus on where we have scale, and the others -- where we don’t have scale and will never get it -- let’s just sell those businesses or put them into maintenance mode,” Suri said. “The key is to be patient and play the long game. ”

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