Why Isn’t Lionbridge King of the Globalization Jungle?
Being the leader of the pride, it seems, doesn’t guarantee you a nice meal everyday. Waltham, MA-based Lionbridge Technologies (NASDAQ: LIOX) may be the world’s largest provider of localization services, helping hundreds of other companies from Microsoft to Merrill Lynch to Pfizer go global by translating their websites, product manuals, software programs, and drug warnings into other languages. But it sure isn’t getting rich doing it: On May 6 the company reported a net loss of $4.4 million for the first quarter—its third straight quarterly loss—and last Friday Lionbridge stock dipped to $2.37 per share, its lowest point in more than five years, and down 61 percent compared to a year ago.
That’s lower than even the most pessimistic analysts were predicting at the beginning of 2008. As the financial website 24/7 Wall Street put it in a catty post recently, “It looks like the lion’s roar is a meow, at best.”
It’s a frustrating reversal for a company whose CEO, Rory Cowan, was being lionized (that’s the last cat pun, I promise) just three years ago for putting together a $180 million deal to buy one of its main competitors, the Global Solutions unit of New York-based Bowne & Company. That acquisition vaulted Lionbridge into the ranks of Boston’s 60 largest companies. And it’s a puzzling state of affairs, given that the company’s revenues are large and growing—a record $117 million in the first quarter, up more than 8 percent from a year earlier. But no matter how high the company’s revenues go, its expenses seem to go higher.
One answer to the puzzle seems to be that Lionbridge’s expansion has put it at the mercy of the same twin forces—technology and globalization—that drive demand for its services.
Analysts who follow localization services—a $12 billion industry in 2007—point out that translation is still a labor-intensive process, and that Lionbridge’s strategy of employing hundreds of managers, engineers, and translators in expensive regions like Europe may be backfiring with the weakness of the U.S. dollar against the Euro and many other currencies.
And while Lionbridge has made a significant investment in technology—especially on work-flow automation and memory systems that save labor by identifying material that’s already been translated—it hasn’t really profited from that spending. “What has happened is that the benefits of the efficiency gain that Lionbridge has been able to produce through the use of technology have been handed right to the client” in the form of prices that have stayed flat despite global inflation, says Ben Sargent, content globalization strategist at Common Sense Advisory, a localization market research firm in Lowell, MA.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Lionbridge, founded in 1996, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on acquisitions and other growth strategies, and has the client list (Bayer, Cisco, DuPont, GE, Google, IBM, Merck, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Nokia, Pfizer, Sony, and Wal-Mart are a few of the big names) and revenues ($452 million in 2007) to show for it. With 4,600 employees in 45 offices around the world and a network of 25,000 freelance translators skilled in more than 200 languages, the company is three times the size of … Next Page »