Another perspective on Nortel

It's been said that Canadians like to see one of their own do well. But not too well.

It's a lesson Nortel Networks Corp. is no doubt well schooled in. No company seems to have done so well, then so spectacularly not well, in such a short period. In the late '90s Nortel was clearly the favorite son of the Canadian IT tech family.

Then the post Y2K dip arrived, hitting telecom harder than software and hardware, and Nortel's business growth model came under a more critical media light. CEO John Roth went from hero to dog virtually overnight. Nothing changed about Nortel per se, of course. It was only guilty, along with many, many other technology firms of the day, of getting caught up in a bubble. They gambled, they lost.

But that was then. In many ways the current allegations around the now-fired senior executives are much more serious. If they prove to be true, then Nortel will rightly have much to answer for.

But that's still only one side of the story. The other is best highlighted by James (not his real name), who these days is busy fine-tuning his résumé and trying to capitalize on his years of Nortel experience. James, who was laid off along with scores of other people at Nortel, says people shouldn't assume that the Brampton, Ont.-based company's current troubles are the result of impulsive decisions or mismanagement.

In fact, he says Nortel was home to lots of smart, well-informed people who were forced to make crucial decisions in a particularly harsh and fast-moving business environment. "There was an awful lot of demand from customers to change things," he said. "There was pressure in the market ... . It was a unique time.

In regards to the latest allegations, James is surprised. He didn't see anything that led him to believe there was funny business going on in accounting, an area that he was familiar with. "If anything, I saw them as leaders in many of those (ethical) areas."

He also "wouldn't hesitate" to go back if an opportunity arose to do so.

James isn't alone. Bad press aside, one analyst said Nortel is, in fact, a relatively healthy company. "They haven't been burning cash," said Albert Lin, telecom analyst with American Technology Research. "I don't think the product lines are being damaged."

James isn't entirely comfortable with all of Nortel's decisions. With two out of three employees now gone, he said the measures Nortel took to correct itself may have helped do more damage. But like Nokia Corp. in Finland or Sony Corp. in Japan, Nortel is in the local spotlight. It likely earns more than its fair share of press -- good or bad. And it's a place where some people actually liked to work. Regardless of how it got there, it's also now a more stable, if much smaller, company.

Because Nortel is simply a business, and as we all know, business above all means risk.

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