Running a mobile telecommunications network in Lebanon has in recent years presented itself as profound challenge, not only in terms of achieving operational excellence but also as quest demanding ultimate skills in diplomacy. With new management contracts for the mobile sector in place since mid 2003, EXECUTIVE ventured into the challenging exercise of asking what it takes to bring this crucial sector forward. Ineke Botter, CEO of Alfa operator Fal Dete Telecommunications, stepped up to the plate to hit fastball after fastball on communications.
E: What is your assessment on the evolution of your activities since Fal Dete Telecommunications stepped in as manager of the cellular network formerly known as Cellis?
Looking at the past six months, it is a successful story in operational terms. We reorganized the company and put a structure in place that is more oriented to teamwork. We also put a human resource project in place, which was carried out over the course of three months and vamped up the personnel again to an acceptable level by international benchmarks. At the same time, we were taking a close look at the billing environment but also the network itself. And we will shortly propose what we call an optimization plan to the government. All in all it has been a successful handover period, and the major project that we are undertaking as we speak is the introduction of our brand name, Alfa, and everything that goes with it. Before that, we completed an internal exercise of changing FTML into FDT on the corporate side. This entire project is successful as you can see on top of this building and everywhere.
E: Are your changes in the brand going beyond the level of visibility?
The philosophy of the brand is that of an umbrella brand, Alfa, and everything underneath is also Alfa. It is a transparent and very easy to understand brand. We designed this project in three steps. First, change from Cellis to Alfa. You have seen it on billboards and on television. So, brand awareness was built. The second step is to ensure that this brand awareness stays with people. This involves explaining what Alfa is about, the umbrella brand and presenting the sub-brands. At this point in time, there is no change yet in whatever else. Then we anticipate doing something in the area of services but this is very much a negotiation part with the ministry of telecommunications, the MOT. That is our situation.
E: If we view the mobile sector in the context of communications in Lebanon, where would you position communication in its importance for the Lebanese economy?
Telecommunication in my view is the basis of the economy. If you don’t have the telecommunication infrastructure in place, then you basically cannot develop an economy. I always say you can run a telecommunications network on generators but not vice versa. Telecommunications is number one in many countries; it is a condition SINE QUA NON. If you don’t develop that, you are stuck economically.
E: Lebanese customers are known for their fascination with new and advanced technologies. How does the mobile network rate today by latest tech standards and what can you do to position Alfa at the forefront of technological development?
As I said, we have carried out an investigation of the entire network including the network environment and the billing environment. As network elements have a technical lifetime, the reason for this investigation is to see what network elements have to be replaced in order to continuously provide the service. But this is also an opportunity for us to be close to the MOT in ensuring that we have the latest technology in the GSM area. Using the latest technology in this realm means that most network elements will be able to address both the GSM 900 and 1800 bands. In the moment we don’t use that  band but in order to anticipate the future, we could already make sure that what we purchase has at least dual capacity. The same applies to the billing system. The billing system we have is from the beginning, in my estimation it is nine to ten years old. Now a billing system has a certain lifetime. The capabilities of a billing system in the early 90s are totally different from the capabilities of a new billing system. Such systems are tailor-made to the environment and one thing that we especially would like to look at is can this billing system cater to new services that we would like to propose.
E: Such as?
Expansion of GPRS data services, especially.
E: In the past, data services did not seem to generate much turnover here. How important could data services be in Lebanon?
In the mobile industry, price elasticity is extremely important. In the moment that you are giving something for free, the uptake is of course enormous. But that is for many reasons not doable. In our situation, we have the management contract with the MOT and we propose to them what we can do. But what we propose will also mean that we have to implement it in a network. It doesn’t come automatically. The moment that you are propositioning data services for a wider public, the immediate effect is that you have to look at your network. But in doing the optimization plan, we take this into account.
E: Is there a specific element of local flair that you find in the corporate culture of Lebanon that is different from any other country you worked in?
If I look at the culture in the company, I am very pleased. These are highly educated people, hard working. We have run this company without any incident with initially less than 50% of personnel. That is all very positive.
I always say a person has a character, a company has a character and a country has a character. Of course, this company has a character and I think it has changed because we put a new administration in place and hired new people. What will still take some time is to put those cultures together but that is logical.
E: How important is your role at the top in this process of changing this corporate culture. Are you going through all departments to give the impulses?
Yes, I think there is a role and a personal touch of what a CEO should do to see that there is transparency and a communications code. We have a couple of tools that I use. For example, at the end of each month I write an email to everyone on what we achieved and what we are going to do next month. We have also already twice done information meetings talking about what I expect and what we will be doing, etc. Then there is a breakfast every Friday morning and the departments are invited to have breakfast with me. We have done an introduction course for everyone, including old, new, and they go for two days and see parts of the company.
E: How could communications in Lebanon be improved for the benefit of the local economy and towards playing a role in the region?
Vis-à-vis the region is difficult for me to judge because after half a year here I don’t know all the regional operations yet. If I look at Lebanon, the first thing that we need is the telecommunications regulatory office. Of course it is the ministry of telecommunications that sets the telecommunications policy and strategy and then there is the regulatory authority that executes those. It would be very helpful to have that and I think the minister is looking into how to do it. The other thing is that by proposing to the MOT certain plans, we will make sure that the technology level is adequate, because telecommunications is constant renewal, new technologies, and investments, investments, investments. And we are proposing those plans.
E: Do you have a formula by which x investment in telco translates into x added opportunity in the economy?
No. That depends on a lot of parameters. If you can tune all those parameters then you can run a business model. What is a fact is that when you start a new mobile operation – and we are not starting, we are taking over a ten years operation –the spin-off in surrounding jobs, the suppliers, the service companies, can be eight times the number of employees in the company itself. The spin-off of investing in telecommunications is rather big. It is a stone in the water and it spreads.
E: Have you seen any country where telecommunications was the number one source of revenue for the state?
To a certain extent, yes, but for a limited period of time.
E: Is there anything in particular that you expect to happen for 2005, except for the launch of the regulatory office that all are waiting for?
That’s one thing and the other thing is if the ministry will introduce new packages and new services etc, part of that will be initiated in a communications event. It is their prerogative so I am not saying that we can make any promise but for sure we have enough in-house knowledge to have a very useful communication with the ministry about it.
E: What is the secret that you bring in as a CEO and person to make everything better at Alfa?
The reason that I have been working at this level for a long time has something to do with first of all my understanding of the industry. I have been in this industry in many countries under many circumstances, so my experience is by definition very large. The other thing hopefully is that as a person, I think I am pretty informal and accessible for people. That of course needs to be confirmed by other people. But in my experience, this is helpful and I like very much to work with young educated people who have an ambition. That is one of my drivers.
E: Knowing that despite their many contributions to the success of Lebanese companies, women are still rare in executive decision-making levels in the corporate environment, can you offer some advice for women aiming for the top?
I think it is a matter of experience and what you can contribute in value added. If you have the experience and the value added, then it would be very strange if people didn’t listen to you, no matter what gender. Going into a contest of ‘I am a man; I am a woman’ is not the point. The point is if you are professional at your job. People have to believe in their capabilities and do that. That is no different also for men. A specific advice on how women can grow to the top? It’s hard work. That’s it, and you have to have luck as well sometimes. You have to believe in yourself and if women are not believing in themselves, that is detrimental. It is also not helpful if your surroundings are telling you that you have to prove yourself.