Former EE Chief Exec: Game changing innovation and “really bad” IT

EE, 4G

Olaf Swantee is not shy about painting himself and the EE story as audacious and innovative, but admits his success in the "much missed" UK market was down to a network engineer.

The former CEO made the comments in a new book, The 4G Mobile Revolution, and a subsequent interview with European Communications.

The book charts the rise of the company from the combination of Orange and T-Mobile in 2009 through to its acquisition by BT earlier this year.

Swantee took the CEO reins in 2011 after the operator suffered several years of post-merger inertia and saw through the official launch of both EE and 4G in the UK before heading to Switzerland to lead Sunrise in May.

The Dutch national does a good job of detailing how EE managed to outflank its rivals by launching 4G on refarmed spectrum in 2012.

He reveals how “on a chilly October morning” one unnamed network engineer “piped up” to ask why the company didn’t use existing network resources to launch LTE.

“He was right,” Swantee wrote, “it was possible”.

The book goes on to detail the creation of the new company, including the debacle of calling it Everything Everywhere.

Swantee wrote: “[The regulatory authorities] could not believe that I would start a three-year investment programme at a cost of £1.5 billion without knowing if I could sell the service.”

EE, by now the largest mobile operator in the UK, upset rivals with its approach but Swantee is dismissive of both their rationale and their reaction.

“[My competitors] decided to compete with lawyers rather than with true innovation,” Swantee wrote. “Ultimately, they would fail.”

Secrecy is a recurring theme throughout the book, none more so than when it came to the EE brand.

Speaking to European Communications this week, Swantee says: “If you want to introduce a new brand, especially in mature market like the UK, it doesn’t really matter what the company is called, what matters is what you put behind it.

“Customers are very well informed today. You can’t differentiate yourself through an advertising campaign. You have to offer something authentic, something that can differentiate you.

“New tariffs don’t cut it. You need a gamechanger and we had one in the UK.”

To be clear, he is referring again to 4G not to Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon, who EE have spent a fortune on making the face of a very prominent campaign over the past four years.

The exec reveals that coming up with a new brand was one of four key elements of the EE master plan; the others were upgrading the company’s retail outlets, integrating the 2G and 3G networks, and launching 4G.

One of the areas missing from this list is IT.

Swantee confirms in the book that IT at EE was “really bad” due to a lack of investment.

“Some systems were so old that we dared not switch them off in case they didn’t reboot!”

Further, he admits that all of the issues were not fixed during his time at the helm.

Asked how much blame he takes for this, he replies: “I was responsible so you can blame me!”

He adds: “My learning is that despite IT not being a core competency of a telco you should not outsource everything so you lose control of your entire IT infrastructure. At EE we outsourced too much.”

Another pain point was customer service.

The book recounts the moment when the CEO of Which? came to see EE in 2014 to deliver the news that the operator was the worst telco in the UK for customer service.

“[It was] one of my worst days in the EE office,” Swantee writes in the book.

With a focus on getting the network right, the CEO admits he “started too late” with improvements to customer service.

“A lot of CEOs who say they are customer centric talk to customers, which is fine, but it’s more powerful to speak with staff who have 50 conversations with customers every day,” he says.

“[You need to] delegate power to these people. Reducing complexity through empowerment, that’s a super important principle.”

While customer service and IT issues were trying, Swantee says “the legal side” was the most difficult.

Citing competition law in particular, the CEO says: “I found that very hard, very frustrating.”

Swantee is undoubtedly having a more relaxed time in his new role as head of Sunrise.

He says he chose the Switzerland-based operator because it is a public company – something Swantee has never had experience of – because it has offers the full range of mobile and fixed services, and because it feels “a bit like coming home” for his children, who grew up there.

But he admits he misses the cut and thrust of the UK market.

“It’s super competitive, very exciting and fun,” he says.

As his book attests, he undoubtedly lived through one of the most interesting times in UK telecoms.

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