* Cellnex has been snapping up masts from rivals
* Company now controls 50,000 sites
* Firm to expand in Europe, may enter new markets
* Shares trade down 1% after initial 5% tumble (Recasts with CEO comments to Reuters, new details, share price)
BARCELONA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Europe’s biggest phone towers firm, Spain’s Cellnex, will continue investing in 2020 to expand its portfolio and may consider a capital increase to maintain its credit rating, its chief executive told Reuters on Wednesday.
Cellnex said it expected core earnings to rise significantly in 2020 after reaching its 2019 target thanks to acquisitions and a new partnership with French mobile operator Bouygues .
Its shares, which initially fell 5%, were trading down about 1% at 1436 GMT, after the firm narrowed its net loss to 9 million euros ($9.8 million) in 2019 from 15 million euros in 2018.
Cellnex, which has snapped up tens of thousands of phone towers in Europe in the past few years and now controls more than 50,000 sites, is seen as a key player in a potential consolidation of the telecoms infrastructure market.
Chief Executive Tobias Martinez said the company’s goal was to grow in the eight European countries where it is present, although he did not rule out expanding to others.
He said Cellnex would continue to invest in 2020 but was likely to make less investment commitments than in 2019 when it invested almost 4 billion euros out of 7.7 billion euros it had said it planned to invest over an unspecified period.
Martinez said Cellnex was ready to make deals with any operator, including France’s Orange, from which it bought in 1,500 towers in Spain for 260 million euros in December.
He said the rise in Cellnex’s net financial debt to 3.9 billion euros in 2019 from 3.1 billion euros in 2018 was not a cause for concern and could be lowered if needed.
If new acquisitions required more debt, the company would seek to raise capital to avoid hurting its debt rating, Martinez said, although he said there were no current plans for a capital increase.
Cellnex has a BBB- credit score by ratings agency Fitch and BB+ by Standard & Poors.
Cellnex raised capital twice last year by a total of 3.7 billion euros, which partially funded its purchase of the telecoms division of Britain’s Arqiva.
Arqiva’s acquisition could be finalised between May or June, boosting Cellnex’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) this year by 80 million to 90 million euros, Cellnex Chief Financial Officer Jose Manuel Aisa said.
Cellnex now expects its EBITDA to grow almost 60% this year to more than 1 billion euros, but if the Arqiva operation is included, the rise could reach 70% to 80% in 2020, Aisa added.
$1 = 0.9201 euros Reporting by Joan Faus, additional reporting by Jesus Aguado and Aida Pelaez-Fernandez; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Edmund Blair
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