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SureWest hangs up on dividends

By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein
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News this week that SureWest Communications Inc. will end its longstanding tradition of paying quarterly dividends has left some of the company’s hometown investors feeling they’ve been disconnected. The Roseville-based telecommunications provider announced Wednesday its board of directors had voted to issue a final cash dividend of 25 cents per share June 16 – capping a 55-year-old business practice that has reliably rewarded investors with dividends that have ranged from 10 cents to 40 cents a share each quarter. In a statement, Steve Oldham, SureWest’s chief executive officer, said the company would use funds spent on dividends – estimated at about $14 million per year – to instead reinvest in the business. “While ceasing dividend payments on our common shares was a decision the board did not make lightly, we believe it is in the best interest of the company and its shareholders as we pursue our growth strategy,” Oldham said in the statement. “Over the long-term, we expect that shareholders will receive a higher return on capital by our reinvesting in the company than they would receive from dividend payments.” But the decision to end the practice doesn’t sit well with many local investors, some of whom have owned the stock for generations. Longtime Roseville resident June Wanish said she’s grown to count on the quarterly dividends from shares of the stock that were handed down to her by her parents. “There’s some things I would normally do that now I won’t do,” she said. “It may be the right thing for the company to do, but as far as the investors who’ve been depending on this, I don’t think it’s the right thing.” Wanish, who said she primarily uses the dividend checks to pay for vacation expenses, said she knew many in town who would suffer much more than she would. “I don’t have to use this for living expenses, so I’m luckier than some,” she said. Wanish added about a third of her group of friends probably own SureWest stock; one friend, she said, depended on the dividend checks to pay the long-term care insurance for her disabled husband. SureWest has been traded on the Nasdaq since 2001, but for decades, the company’s primary stockholders were small-time investors. Many were Roseville residents who were attracted to the stock by the regularity of the quarterly dividend and hometown pride in the company formerly known as Roseville Telephone Co. Bob Doyle, the late president of Roseville Telephone, was famous for personally selling stock to local residents over the phone in the mid-1950s, according to Stephen Chanecka’s 1995 “History of the Roseville Telephone Company,” a corporate history. From 1953 through 1997, the company offered quarterly dividends of anywhere from 10 cents to 40 cents in cash and stock per share, according to the company. Since 1998, the dividend has remained an all-cash offering of 25 cents per share. “It all of a sudden sunk in that this will make a difference in the rest of my life,” Wanish said Thursday. But SureWest spokesman Ron Rogers said investors will be better served from the move. “Our focus is to create value for our shareholders,” Rogers said. “By putting money into the company, that will in turn grow the stock value. The belief is we can turn this into a company that has higher value in its stock, which will in turn give them more money in their shares.” Bill Carson, an investments professor at Sierra College and Roseville-based certified financial planner, said reliably dividend-paying stocks are becoming increasingly rare as companies work to attract investors with higher share prices – not dividend payments. But for those dependent on the quarterly dividends, he said, options are few. “Typically where you’d go to is bonds or even CDs, but what’s happened is interest rates have gone down so much even they are not paying a good return,” he said, adding some securities, such as real estate investment trust, might make sense but often are more aggressive than some investors can stomach. The dividends decision isn’t the only change SureWest has made recently. In 2007, the company sold off its cell phone business to Verizon Wireless for $69 million, and its directory assistance unit to GateHouse Media for $60.2 million. Officials have said the moves are part of a shift to focus the company’s core business on phone, Internet and TV service – the so-called telecom “triple play.” Late last year, SureWest stepped outside the region in announcing it would acquire Kansas City-based Everest Broadband for $173 million. SureWest stock closed at $15.51 per share Thursday. The stock is off about half of its 52-week high of $32.36.