Making the right connection

Vodafone Ireland has appointed Cork-born Anne O’Leary to head its operations at a time when the big focus is on 4G rollout. Her task will be to ensure the biggest mobile operator in the country continues its march, says Kyran Fitzgerald

Making the right connection

This week, Vodafone Ireland has a new female boss — the first to fill the post since the departure of American Teresa Elder in 2006.

Anne O’Leary, born in Cork City, also becomes the first Irish person to head the company’s operations here.

Vodafone has been in Ireland for more than a decade following its acquisition of Eircell, Eircom’s successful mobile phone subsidiary. Many questioned the wisdom of the decision on the part of the then Eircom executive Alfie Kane to offload Eircell. It is widely felt that its sale contributed in no small part to Eircom’s subsequent problems.

Vodafone does not break down its Irish results, but it is clear that during the boom years, in particular, the Irish operation turned into quite the cash cow.

Its market share is around 44%, ahead of O2 on around 29%, Eircom’s Meteor on around 17.5%, and 3 on 8%.

The recession has hit mobile revenues, however, with average revenue per user across the sector down from €36 per month in the first quarter of 2010 to €29 per month two years later.

If Irish people have become less gabby, they are using their mobiles in many more ways, with data transmission on a rapid upward curve as smartphones assume the ascendancy.

Under Dutch chief executive Jeroen Hoencamp, Vodafone Ireland, over the past three years, underwent an internal shake-up that involved cutting back on office space to save on costs.

Partitions have been removed and employees encouraged to operate more collaboratively.

The company has also been expanding. Vodafone paid over €161m upfront to Comreg in the 4G spectrum auction last November. It acquired the lion’s share of the spectrum on offer.

As enterprise director since joining the company in 2008, Anne O’Leary has played a key role in spearheading the expansion in product offerings to businesses.

Vodafone has snapped up Perlico as well as some BT assets. It recently acquired Interfusion and Complete Telecom, fusing the two with part of Vodafone to create Enterprise Solutions Unit, employing 80 people.

The existing network is being upgraded to accommodate the growing demand for data services on the part of businesses and individuals.

Meanwhile, the number of smartphone users is up 95,000 quarter on quarter.

The extension of 3G into rural areas should, it is hoped, bring big improvements in the way business, most affected by the digital divide, conduct their work.

Coming from a sales background, O’Leary has sought to transform the way the company responds to the needs of businesses on its books.

O’Leary’s response has been the establishment of the Enterprise Solutions Unit and a dedicated customer centre at the Vodafone Ireland headquarters in Central Park, Leopardstown.

The idea is that customers are brought in to meet a range of executives — this is both a customer fact finding and massaging exercise from the point of view of the company. It also enables the customer to get the broadest idea of what is going on as well as securing the widest range of responses to queries.

Vodafone is something of a global gorilla. In less than a decade, under the formidable Chris Gent, it was transformed from a mid-level UK player into the world’s largest tele-communications company.

In 2000, Gent master-minded a hostile takeover of German telco Mannesmann for a record £112bn.

Gent himself extracted a £10m bonus from the deal, infuriating many shareholders who considered that he had paid over the odds. He departed at the end of 2003 and remains a prominent City figure.

More recently, the UK parent has had to deal with a tanking economy in southern Europe, with revenues in Italy and Spain plummeting by between 10% and 15% last year.

Group revenues fell by 7.4% to just under €22bn in the first half of 2012.

In Ireland, Comreg has reported a modest year on year drop in revenues from ‘electronic comm-unications’, with a degree of stability returning in recent months.

The convergence of fixed and mobile technologies are dramatically transforming the way people conduct business with each other. It is also leading to a dramatic change in the marketplace, with the convergence of the cable and telecommunications industries.

Sky is currently ramping up its Irish operation, with an addition of close to 1,000 people. Cable operator UPC is investing heavily. Eircom has been seeking to target larger corporates. It is not a market in which people can fall back on incumbency with ease.

If the US serves as an example of the developed world’s future in communications, then it is one that is pretty positive.

According to a recent report by Deloitte & Touche, the industry there is already enjoying growth, driven by a dramatic rise in data consumption. With 4G and other technology enhancing broadband access coming on-stream, data traffic will continue to expand exponentially.

The implications of a successful and wide rollout of truly fast broadband on hitherto neglected rural areas in particular could be huge.

Vodafone has committed to investing €500m over five years. The big question is how long a substantial rollout will take. One of Anne O’Leary’s tasks will be to engineer this rollout during her term.

Companies like Vodafone have to be able to bat off the accusation that they are simply here to profitably cherry pick business in large urban areas.

Certainly Vodafone Ireland is a big player, with 2.45m customers, including almost 250,000 fixed line broadband subscribers.

The UK-based giant and its Cork-born Irish CEO could yet play an important role in the sort of upgrade of national infrastructure that can underpin economic revival not just in the cities but far further afield.

CV: Anne O’Leary

- Born: Cork.

- Education: Ursuline Convent Blackrock, Cork, Cork Institute of Technology, Marketing degree. London Business College.

- Career: Esat Telecom, Cork. BT Ireland. Manager, global services. Managing director, SME Business, Ireland.

- 2008-13: Director, Enterprise Business Unit, Vodafone Ireland.

- February 2013: Appointed as CEO, Ireland

- Family: Married to Nick Walsh.

- Leisure: Triathlons; skiing; fashion; food.

- Other: Board member of UCC and Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

Picture: Anne O’Leary: Since joining the company in 2008 as enterprise director, she has spearheaded acquisitions, with Vodafone snapping up a number of firms. Picture: Maxwells

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