BARCELONA, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Cellnex, Europe's largest mobile phone tower operator, said its near-term priority is to get a credit rating upgrade from S&P rather than seek further expansion, signalling a strategy shift.
After borrowing heavily to build the largest cellphone mast network in Europe, mainly through acquisitions, the Barcelona-based company is now focusing on its debt amid a higher interest rate environment.
Cellnex's shares traded 4.4% higher early on Friday.
The Spanish company said it was committed to get an investment grade BBB- rating from S&P credit agency, an upgrade from its current BB+ rating, and to maintain its BBB- rating by Fitch.
"We have an elevated debt level, markets are not like they were six months ago, so given Cellnex's maturity ... that leads us to request an investment grade," Chief Financial Officer Jose Manuel Aisa told Reuters.
He ruled out any plans for Cellnex to enter the United States.
Renta 4 bank analyst Angel Perez said, with its shift, Cellnex was adopting a "more conservative profile" given the current macroeconomic context and was focused on reducing debt and consolidating its current business.
Cellnex's net financial debt rose to 17.1 billion euros ($17.52 billion) from 14.3 billion in June. Aisa attributed the increase to financing for the acquisition of Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison's British assets.
The Hutchison operation has also lowered Cellnex' immediate liquidity to 4.3 billion euros from 7.6 billion euros in June, Aisa said.
Asked about Cellnex's plans for the 4.3 billion euros, Aisa said: "In this moment, we have no liquidity (plans) for projects, but to secure the investment grade (rating)".
Cellnex, present in 12 European countries, on Friday reported a 45% rise in nine-month core earnings, benefiting from its 2021 expansion and 46% revenue growth, but slightly lowered its full-year guidance.
While earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) jumped to 1.94 billion euros ($1.97 billion), it reported a widening net loss of 255 million as its amortisation costs jumped 52% and financial costs from acquisitions rose 28%.
Aisa said the outlook change was due to a delay in closing the purchase of CK Hutchison's British assets, which it expected to have completed by June and was completed on Friday.
It now expects 2022 EBITDA of 2.61-2.66 billion euros versus a prior estimate of 2.65-2.7 billion.
Cellnex expects 2022 revenue of 3.405-3.455 billion euros versus prior estimate of 3.46-3.51 billion. In January-September, its revenues reached 2.6 billion euros.
Its 2025 outlook remains unchanged, expecting its EBITDA to exceed 3 billion euros and revenues to be above 4 billion.
($1 = 0.9849 euros)
Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Andrei Khalip, Inti Landauro and Jane Merriman