We are huddled over a clutter of plates, knives, forks, notebooks and pens, which are battling for space on the Falcon Crest modest dinner table. Our lunch of Salmon and veggies is getting cold. Paul Taylor, the new Chief Executive Officer of Botswana Telecommunications Corporation has a lot to say. He is going about it so fast that juggling pens and forks is not a viable option.
The cluttered table and the rushed speech are a fitting metaphor for the man who has hit the ground running, has a lot on his desk and has set so many timelines that it will be quite some time before he stops to catch a breather.
“Quite an interesting time,” was his first line as we sat down for the interview. “It’s quite a unique challenge. There aren’t many companies you can go to with so much going on.”
Anyone with any doubt as to the extent of the challenges Taylor is facing need go no further than the nearest news-stand. Every day thousands of Batswana all over the country have been lapping up stories about how past CEOs spent their tenure at BTC fighting, first for survival, and then to keep their names clean. Then there is the privatization issue which has hardly made it out of the drawing room many bungled attempts later. And then there is BeMobile barely out of its diapers and thrown into the battlefield with strapping giants; Mascom and Orange Botswana. Topping it all is the BTC ponderous fixed line which cannot keep up with the nimble footed mobile telephony.
The man under the spotlight does not seem fazed by all this. In fact, “quite an interesting time” comes across as a Paul Taylorspeak for “I smile in the face of challenges.” He has been there, done that and has a very long r├®sum├® to prove it. He has worked in 6 countries in the last two years. And he says most telecommunication companies he worked for were “at about the same place in the liberalization/privatization cycle as BTC.” He has already rolled back his sleeves and is hard at work trying to turn the BTC into a “world class” outfit. That by any means is a tall order. For every pula that BTC turns over only 20 thebe is realized as profit. This does not compare very well with world class which is between 28 thebe and 31 thebe.”
Then there is the country’s topography to reckon with. Many local companies have floundered in long stretches of unforgiving terrains with very few consumers to rescue them.
Even Taylor, admits it will not be a stroll in the park: “There is quite a lot to do. In terms of taking the BTC from where it is to a world-class status. In Botswana topography is not friendly, but there are obvious efficiencies we can work on.”
Taylor’s strategy has been to spend the first year concentrating on building the foundation and then move to transforming the organization in second year and delivering the vision in the third year.
To build a solid foundation from which to launch his transformation and deliver the BTC vision, Taylor is looking at “improving simple things. We call it brilliant basics”, he says.
To improve efficiencies and cut costs, BTC will move towards ensuring that “everything is delivered through a common set of systems and networks.” This will result in the BTC using one billing system and a single invoice for services provided by different organs of the organization. “We are currently documenting processes we do not need. Monopolies are often very effective but not very efficient. The BTC has been a monopoly for most of its life,” he says as a matter of fact.
While the BTC is rubbing its hands gleefully at the business windfall from BeMobile ÔÇô the outfit which contributes 20 percent to the Group’s revenue ÔÇô the bigger company also has its teeth on ends as it watches anxiously at the dwindling fixed line business. The cellular phone is running the fixed line out of town. No consumer product in history has caught on as quickly as the mobile phone.
Innovation in mobile phones has been happening almost too fast for consumers to change their behavior. It is not just the complications of distinguishing Wap (wireless application protocol) phones from GPRS (claimed to be “always on” to the internet) and the next third generation (3G) of high-speed video phones.
Mobile phones are all the time gobbling up other products like cameras, calculators, diaries, clocks, radios, and MP3 digital music players in a way that no previous consumer durable has ever done. There are many different products that previously might have been bought separately that can now be part of a mobile phone.
A former BTC Chief Executive was given to publicly complaining that there was no way the fixed line BTC was going compete if it was not given the mobile licence. Now a cabinet minister, Vincent Seretse was right in every aspect.
Mobiles have extended conversation, changed the way people talk to one another, saved lives, become style icons and, through text messaging, generated a new sub-stratum of language that, depending on your point of view, is either eroding English or opening up new creative opportunities. The mobile phone is running rings around the fixed line phone, and BTC fixed line section is having the worst of it, traditionally the most dominant component of the Group’s entire makeup, it now is always playing catch-up.
Taylor is adamant that fixed line is here to stay.
He says his business model will continue to emphasize the importance of BTC retaining residential fixed lines as part of an important contributor to the overall income stream. “We are looking at how we can build value around the fixed line so that people do not replace fixed line with mobile.”
He also wants BTC customers to have the same kind of services they have at their workplaces when they are at home.
His vision amounts to no less than a lifestyle revolution.
“People have to be able to work from their homes,” he says.
While trying to build the appeal of the fixed line, BTC is keeping its eye on what promises to be the bigger prize, the mobile phone area where competition is cut throat. Currently contributing only 20 percent to the balance sheet, the mobile component looks like the surest area of future growth.
“We have set up a mobile Quality Control Council to ensure that our investment keeps pace with customer demands. One of the biggest liberalization milestones which is expected to be a game changer in the mobile sector is mobile number portability which will aid choice.” He says customers need to be able to move between networks without having to change numbers.
As companies grow service quality tends to suffer, and Taylor is hoping that first class quality service will help them increase their market share with number portability. “My first priority is to give my customers good quality service”, he says.
As part of improving the company processes, BTC has started a review of “how we go to the market.” This involves making BTC less product led and more market led. The marketing strategy will be built around lifestyle segmentation and “creatively bundling products.”
While his predecessors spoke about privatization with a big “but” Taylor is adamant that privatization is a way to go, and he is happy that things seem to be humming along. He has the support of the board. “The relationship between the board and management is stronger than it has been in a long time” and Taylor is determined to keep it that way. “A standing item on my board meetings is the privatization update.”
Even his staff seems supportive. “I think people recognize that liberalization is a good thing for the industry.” He believes that “anxiety is a function of information or lack of it” and has made show he keeps his staff in the loop every step of the way.