Monday, November 22, 2010

The Lionbridge Situation: A Moderate Proposal for Constructive Action

It's been seven hours and 20 days since Lionbridge VP Didier Hélin took the translation world by storm with his love letter to the profession. The response has been overwhelming.

The question is: What can be done about it constructively, aside from complaining? It is a testimony to how courteous and professional the worldwide translation community is that the comments to my blogposts are often more moderate than the posts themselves (believe me, I take on board all the suggestions... even the one from a very irate Polish gentleman who helpfully suggested I "get a job").

Aside from my lame suggestion to take a week to think about it, several commentators to the blog contributed more intelligent and thoughtful proposals for constructive measures translators can take as a community. The most detailed came from someone called "Rory C," who I'm guessing 1) is not Lionbridge CEO Rory Cowan and 2) is very knowledgeable about the industry. He basically called on people concerned about the situation to write to the company's major shareholders and the equity analysts who cover the company, listed on the company's Yahoo! Finance profile. Well, I would like to second the motion.

I hear some of you asking: Why would this change anything? First of all, Lionbridge is a publicly traded company. The wealth of information on the Yahoo! profile must be disclosed legally. Secondly, since the company's value is a matter of public knowledge as its share price goes up and down daily on the stock exchange, it must make an effort to cultivate a positive image. The generalized perception of Lionbridge as a sweatshop could depress its value and lead management to at least consider some of its more salacious corporate practices. It is even possible that some investors are not aware of the company's low reputation among its supply of vendors and freelancers.

What I propose. My view is that freelance translators (regardless of whether they work for Lionbridge or not) can exert pressure on the company to renounce some of its worst policies by communicating to so-called stakeholders (fellow translators, shareholders and analysts) the message that the company runs the risk of doing irreparable harm to its public reputation. The concrete actions I recommend:

First
Do not work for the company unless you absolutely have to (obvious for some, difficult for others now dependent on the company for regular income). 

Second
Communicate to colleagues (whether publicly, through blogs and forums, or privately) your opinion that Lionbridge is a low-wage, low-quality provider and that collaborating with or working for a company that is viewed negatively carries a stigma (yes, "Alan Walsh," a stigma).

Third
"Lionbridge is whaaaat? That's enough to make a saint curse!"
Write six letters to the addresses of analysts and investors listed below to communicate your opinion as an individual that Lionbridge is generally viewed as an irresponsible corporate citizen that is increasingly seeking to squeeze lower and lower wages from its vendors both directly (through unilateral demands for discounts) and indirectly (by demanding that its providers use its subscription-based online GeoWorkz Translation Space and setting up a job distribution platform in which translators pay additional fees for getting preferential treatment in the assignment of projects). Also, convince friends and collagues to write to these analysts and shareholders.

Add your opinion that while a company must always seek the best deal it can for the services it purchases, Lionbridge has taken the effort to an extreme that creates: 1) a continuous revolving door as translators become disillusioned with the company and leave it as a client of last resort, forcing the company to engage in a constant drive to find new translators who tend to be less qualified and experienced; 2) the need to compromise quality, which will eventually depress the company's performance; and 3) a generalized perception of Lionbridge as a third or fourth class corporate citizen.

The concrete objectives would be to:
1.- Convince Lionbridge to provide any freelancer that works for it a free subscription of at least 80,000 words per month to GeoWorkz Translation Workspace. (Incidentally, this actually makes sense, if not from the viewpoint of basic human decency, from a purely commercial standpoint. If Lionbridge wants to increase the market share of its tool, what better way than to have thousands of its freelance providers become evangelists for the avowed wonders of its SaaS?)

2.- Convince Lionbridge to roll back its Job Posting Pilot Program, which requires freelancers to pay a subscription for viewing and applying for any jobs.

3.- Convince Lionbridge to suspend its policy of exacting a fee equivalent to two month's subscription from users wishing to cancel their subscription to GeoWorkz Translation Workspace.

4.- Convince Lionbridge to pledge a moratorium on further fee reductions until 2012.

5.- Revert to a net-30 day payment policy for individual freelancers.

6.- Convince Lionbridge to conduct fee negotiations on an individual, case-by-case basis and to refrain from sending mass emails to its entire database.

7.- Convince Lionbridge to update its database of freelance providers.

8.- Convince Lionbridge to pledge to improve its relations with vendors in general and affirm a commitment to both quality and competitive pricing.

Three closing comments. Firstly, please take the trouble to print out your letters and send them instead of simply emailing. It simply carries greater credibility, in my view. The second parting note is that I will post a suggested form letter as soon as I have a chance and leave it here for readers to make suggestions. However, if you come up with one before me, feel free to send it and I will post it, if you so desire. Lastly, please don't send letters to just the first six addresses. Mix it up so everyone shares in the joy of getting to know Lionbridge!

Please send your letters to six recipients out of the following addresses:

Major shareholders:

Head of Investment Management
William Blair Funds
222 West Adams Street
12th Floor
Chicago, Illinois 60606
U.S.A.

Head of Investment Management
Tocqueville Asset Management LP
40 W. 57th Street 19th floor
New York, NY 10019
U.S.A.

Head of Investment Management
Rutabaga Capital Management LLC
64 Broad Street # 300
Boston, MA 02109-4351
U.S.A.

Managing Partner
Glenhill Capital Management LLC
156 West 56th Street
17th Floor
New York, NY 10019
United States

Head of Investment Management
Wells Capital Management
525 Market Street, 10th Floor
San Francisco, California 94105
U.S.A.

Head of Investment Management
Marshall Funds Inc
111 East Kilbourn Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53202
USA


Head of Investment Management
Franklin Resources
P.O. Box 997152
Sacramento, CA 95899-7152
U.S.A.

Head of Investment Management
BlackRock Institutional Trust Company, N.A.
400 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States

Head of Investment Management
Vanguard Funds
Vanguard
P.O. Box 1110
Valley Forge, PA 19482-1110
USA

Head of Investment Management
Dimensional Fund Advisors
Palisades West
6300 Bee Cave Road, Building One
Austin, TX 78746
USA

Head of Investment Management
Consulting Group Capital Markets Funds
222 Delaware Avenue,7 Th Floor
Wilmington, DE 19801
USA

Head of Investment Management
Goldman Sachs Structured Small Cap Equity Fund
Goldman Sachs Asset Management, L.P.
200 West Street
37th Floor
New York, NY 10282
USA 

Head of Investment Management
Fidelity Investments
P.O. Box 770001
Cincinnati, OH 45277-0003
USA

Analysts:

Kevin Liu
Senior Analyst
B. Riley & Co.
11100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 800
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Richard Davis
Managing Director, Research Department
Research Department
99 High Street, Suite 1200
Boston, MA
USA 02110

Joe Vafi
Managing Director, Equity Research
Jefferies & Company, Inc.
One Montgomery Street, 24th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Vincent A. Colicchio, CFA
Senior Research Analyst
Noble Financial Group
6501 Congress Avenue, Boca Raton, FL  3348

Richard K. Baldry, CFA
Senior Research Analyst
75 Arlington Street
Suite 500
Boston, MA 02116


Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

9 comments:

Didier Fourcot said...

Let's look at point 5) of your proposal: "30 days net payment for freelancers". As we are both working on financial translations, and I am French (and stopped working for them more than 10 years ago), I have looked at the published balance sheet of Lionbridge France:
http://www.societe.com/cgi-bin/anafi?rncs=381979525

This gives an idea of what they consider worth publishing and these are data that they endorse and consider true.

You may note that the revenue has dropped from 10M in 2008 to 5 in 2009, but this is not our point, (or perhaps a consequence of our point?).

let's look at the line
"Délai règlements fournisseurs (en jours)" this is the weighted average payment terms of vendors in days, and what can we read there?

2008: 59 days
2009: 84 days

So Didier Hélin's point "we DO pay our translators" is a bit weakened: is 59 days in average acceptable? Is 84 days what you put your pride in this year?

If you consider that this weighted average is heavily biased by paying the smallest amounts much later because they are less likely to send their lawyers and after all we will pay them someday if we need them again, then you realize that as nobody is paid before 30 days, you can probably expect 3 to 4 months between a job for the Lion and any improvement on the balance of your account, perhaps our fellow colleagues actually working for them, if there any left, will be able to enlighten us.

What is striking me is the variation: last year Lionbridge France has substracted 25 days of business from his vendors, if you look at the other elements of the balance sheet, this amounts to 2 to 3 times their profits.

The point is clear: they have a profit, more or less equivalent to last year, but the whole of this profit comes from the pocket of their vendors, and without this borrowing, they should have a loss at least equivalent.

So Lionbridge France is NOT a translation company when it comes to their profit source, they make their profit by borrowing to their vendors, sort of a bank in fact.

Then do you really believe that point 5) is feasible? This should for sure put Lionbridge France out of business, because their bank or their shareholders won't be as nice as their vendors.
In all fairness we do also have to consider that the situation is worse on the accounts receivable side: 110 days average, but how much of this comes from real customers and how much from Lionbridge Corp, I don't know, it could be that the Big Lion took a too big share on the small French Lion that had to bite his share on the back of the poor vendors.

My conclusion is: with the data I can see, point 5) is close to impossible, so my suggestion is: work for companies who have a chance of being able to pay you at reasonable terms and who make a better job than shrinking their business by half in 2 years.

Financial Translator said...

Hello Didier,

Your point is well taken. Although I feel also that in the short and medium term the only option for vendors is to turn elsewhere for work, it is important to try to get Lionbridge to mend its ways. Mainly because it is the largest company in the industry worldwide. It sets a standard through its sheer size. If it lowers the bar below ankle level, you can bet that other companies will follow.

Tomasz said...

Sounds like Lionbridge is changing the way translation services are provided: paying on-line CAT tool, paying job platform. Why do this?

Financial Translator said...

Hi Tomasz,

Why? It's a mystery to me why a company would sacrifice its standing for a couple of peanuts. My purely speculative guess is that, faced with stagnant revenue growth they have decided toconjure some earnings out of thin air.

Didier Fourcot said...

"it is the largest company in the industry worldwide. It sets a standard through its sheer size"
Sure it is, but I am old enough to have known other dinosaurs:
- remember Ashton Tate #1 of databases, Lotus #1 of spreadsheets, WordPerfect #1 of word processing, Novell #1 in networks? I was with Borland at the time, this may give you a clue about my attitude
- OKay this was decades ago, lets' try in 21st century: remember when MySpace was the #1 "social network" and everyone wanted to be there, when the Pocket PC revolution was the latest hype gadget everyone wanted (I was having a Palm), how many years ago?

Whatever Alan Walsh could say, you do care and support Lionbridge much more than many fellow translators: you try to amend them, you advise Goliath about his weaknesses when we prefer to ignore them while they fall (or perhaps help David?).

Looking at the Lionbridge France balance sheet, that I have known under the #1 names of INK, RR Donnelly or Stream before this latest incarnation, demonstrates that they are sucking their vendors' blood in an attempt to survive yet a few months or years, do you really want to discuss payment terms with them?

These Behemoth translation mills are the windmills of Don Quichotte, their customer management is 20th century and their vendor management 19th century; I am on the vendor side, I know that they will pay me if they must and cut my throat if they can (believe me they tried!) so I will rather keep your #1 suggestion: stay away!

I believe that their lies will progressively come to light:
- they share their workforce with all other translation companies, and their "database of expert professionals" is a dusty paper directory of yellow pages in "translation and interpreting", most of the entries never even return thier calls
- they sell chinese T-shirts and jeans by the truckload, when a number of customers require Haute Couture and dedication to their specifics that a team of translators may much better offer
- they pretend to have "unlimited project size" and continue to inundate market places and translators' inboxes with frantic calls for anyone able to work on this so urgent and important project that they promised to their customer

In financial terms they are selling short: their salespople promise the moon and the stars at the price the customer may dream of, then they go to the market and attempt to fulfill with whoever is available and still willing to work for them.
Look at the "subprime" job bundles they subcontract to 2nd or 3rd level agencies, does that not remind you a process of selling short other subprime contracts?

Customers and analysts are not dumb, their will discover the inside of this industry, realize that they order a special meal in a chic restaurant and see the waiter call by a backdoor for unemployed cookers after the order; their customer side is brick and mortar, the illusion remains and it may hold a few years like Novell or Lotus, but their vendor side is on the click side and may fail as fast as MySpace.

johnrawlins said...

As translators do we want Lionbridge to mend its naughty ways, or would we be better served if the company went bankrupt or was taken over. I suspect the latter. Let's help their clients and investors discover their dirty little secrets!

Financial Translator said...

@Didier
Hello again. Yes, I think LIOX is a subprime dealer of translation services. However, its short-sighted policies can do a lot of harm (not just to itself) before it passes on. Why should our industry leader be such a disappointingly poor company? Why isn't the biggest company in our sector an elite outfit that everyone would want to be associated with? Is that too much to ask?

@john
I believe in free markets, but I am far from believing they are perfect. They say on Wall Street that the market can remain irrational for a whole lot longer than you can remain solvent. Likewise, a company as large as LIOX can gobble up a whole lot of market share and generate a whole lot of misery for a whole lot of time before the survival of the fittest catches up with it.

Anonymous said...

speaking of free markets, you can of course also show disapproval of lionbridge's practices and earn money at the same time (assuming that those bad practices sooner or later lead to bad numbers) by simply shorting its stock :-)

Financial Translator said...

Oooh, shorting stocks is highly dangerous. I don't do it and I certainly don't recommend that anyone do it. Remember: when you buy a stock, you can only lose all your money. When you short a stock, you owe as much as it costs you to buy it back, which could theoretically be many times what you put into the short, as the hapless bear raiders on Volkswagen learned to their eternal chagrin in what is now called "The Greatest Short Squeeze Ever."