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Rogers' new CEO says Canada is cold but welcome warm; pledges better results

The new CEO of Rogers Communications says he's not satisfied with the company's fourth-quarter results that saw profit and revenue dragged down by cheaper cellphone roaming rates and monthly data-sharing plans.

Guy Laurence, who took over from former chief executive Nadir Mohamed in December, said Wednesday that Rogers' growth has slipped compared with its peers, referring to Bell (TSX:BCE) and Telus (TSX:T).

Laurence said he expects to outline his strategy for the Toronto-based telecommunications and media company in May, noting the industry faces moderating growth and regulatory uncertainty.

"With respect to the results of Q4 and certain of the trends, while there are areas of strength overall, they're not satisfactory to me and over time I expect to do better," Laurence told analysts during a conference call.

"Our margins, cash flows and return on assets are strong, but we slipped in terms of our growth rates relative to our peers and we need to execute in even a more methodical and disciplined manner as we go forward."

Laurence also pledged to improve customer service, which some analysts have noted needs work.

"We have opportunities to put our customers needs more front and centre in everything we do to deliver a better, more consistent experience," he said.

The company also announced two initiatives geared to its shareholders — a five per cent dividend increase and a renewed share buyback program.

Canaccord Genuity analyst Dvai Ghose said he and other analysts had expected a 10 per cent hike in Rogers' dividend.

"While BCE and Telus appear to be trading at a discernible premium to RCI (Rogers), these results, 2014 guidance and the disappointing dividend hike clearly suggest that RCI should trade at a discount," Ghose said in a research note.

Ghose noted that BCE announced a dividend increase of six per cent last week.

Rogers stock closed down 5.3 per cent, or $2.42, at $43.27 Wednesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Laurence said the main difference between Rogers and U.K.-based telecom Vodafone, where he was formerly chief executive, is the value the Toronto company provides with content.

He's touring Canada and meeting Rogers staff and customers and said the "welcome I've had from Canadians has been warmer than I expected and, secondly, the weather has been colder than I expected."

Rogers owns TV stations, such as City TV, 56 radio stations and magazines that include Flare and Chatelaine. It also owns the Blue Jays baseball team and won a 12-year deal with the NHL to secure broadcast and multimedia rights on all platforms beginning in 2015. The company didn't reveal the value of its sub-licensing agreement with Quebec's TVA to broadcast hockey games in French, saying it's confidential.

Meanwhile, it intends to introduce Internet-based TV next year, a service that Bell has with its Fibe TV and Telus with its Optik TV. Rogers also said it hasn't decided yet on launching an online TV and movie service to compete with Netflix.

In its financial results, Rogers reported $357 million or 69 cents per share of adjusted earnings for the three months ended Dec. 31 — below analyst estimates of 75 cents per share.

The quarter's revenue also missed expectations, falling one per cent from a year earlier to $3.24 billion and below estimates of $3.3 billion.

Rob Bruce, head of Rogers' communications division that includes wireless, said the move to reduce cellphone roaming rates has had a significant financial effect.

Roaming rates charged for travel in Canada and the U.S. are under review by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which is considering regulations as a result of consumer complaints about the high costs.

Rogers said its simplified data sharing plans also had an impact. Rogers, as well as Bell and Telus, introduced sharing plans last summer that allow mobile phone and tablet users in a household to share one data package with a set amount of monthly data.

In its wireless division, Rogers added 34,000 net postpaid customers, who generally have lucrative smartphone contracts. That compares with net additions of 58,000 in the same quarter last year.

By comparison, BCE added 119,520 net postpaid customers in its fourth quarter.

Rogers said it cut its net loss of cable TV subscribers to 25,000 in the quarter, down from a loss of 28,000 in the same year-earlier period. Total cable subscribers as of Dec. 31 were 2.1 million compared with 2.2 million in the same period last year.

The company added 13,000 net Internet customers versus 22,000 last year as the total number of Internet subscribers rose to 1.9 million from 1.8 million.

In its financial results, Rogers net income before adjustments fell to $320 million or 62 cents per share from $522 million or $1.01 per share in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The dividend increase will raise the quarterly payout to 45.75 cents per share or $1.83 on an annualized basis, up from $1.74.

The share buyback will give Rogers the opportunity, but not the obligation, to repurchase and cancel shares.

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