We must operate even more efficiently, dream up smarter things and continue to be very much business case driven
Jason King has been Telenor Bulgaria’s CEO since 2018. He has led business transformations and restructurings and business operations expansions in a number of challenging markets for leading international companies including Deutsche Telekom, UPC Liberty Global, Veon, Apple, Telenor Denmark.
Mr King, 2020 has been an unprecedented year. How has this impacted Telenor?
The pandemic, clearly, brought enormous economic and political turmoil. From our standpoint we had to collaborate both more tightly and with huge flexibility. The novel and emerging situation challenged everyone’s leadership skills and called on the entire senior Telenor team to step up and keep things on an even a keel as possible. The fact that we were all suddenly – and separately - at home forced us to find extra levels of self-motivation and inner stability. There are always those who are inherently self-motivated - sales people and entrepreneurs being the most obvious - but for many teams in big corporations it perhaps wasn’t so easy to approach the situation with that mindset.
Strategically-speaking, Telenor was already perfectly set up to meet any challenges in terms of investment plans, equipment, security and processes. We also have flexibility embedded in our culture. A beautiful example was the mass and unprecedented shift to working from home - we have had a remote working regime in place in Telenor for years. So for us this wasn’t a huge practical issue while it was a wholesale change for some other companies. It was still a tough psychological challenge though - offices were empty, there was uncertainty for the future and we questioned our values. But I’m proud of the way the team handled it all as we remained stable in providing business-critical connectivity and resiliency, facilitating work-from-home arrangements, and keeping individuals and society connected and informed with a consistent and reliable network during this compulsory social isolation.
Do you believe these enforced changes to our behaviour will now become embedded?
I’m not so convinced as others that they will. Certainly, almost every aspect of how we live has been impacted by COVID-19. The ways we work, communicate and interact with each other have all shifted. We’ve seen the accelerated adoption of technologies and fast digitalisation, a pivot away from actual globalisation to virtual globalisation. But is this deep-seated change? Will people go back to the lives they led pre-COVID when they can? My guess is that yes, they largely will, the moment they start feeling more secure. Embedded change requires a true adjustment of our mindset and it’s still to be seen whether these few months have fundamentally changed our view of the world. On a wider scale, unfortunately, we have also seen more polarised politics across the globe. My greatest takeaway so far from this year has been that we need greater connection between leaders and the people in every sense.
Where would you rank telecommunications in peoples’ list of essentials during this crisis?
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has crystalised what people deem to be essentials. Our own survey during the crisis revealed that people put telco services in their top three most valued commodities – right up there with food and medicines/hygiene products - and only a fraction would consider cutting the expenses of telco services if the situation became worse. All the technologies which connect us, whether cell phones and instant messaging, the internet, emails and other online tools have been more crucial than ever in allowing us to do our jobs. They’ve promoted more flexibility and collaboration, and brought home that today we cannot do without telco services, either as single users or as businesses and a society.
How has peoples’ consumption changed?
Everyone’s expectation was that there would be a spike in data usage, but what was a real eye opener for us was that people actually called each other more instead. They wanted to hear each other’s voices as they couldn’t meet and so the volume of voice calls increased exponentially throughout all markets - the opposite of all predictions. For Telenor, network reliability is and will remain a focus, coupled with improving the customer experience and giving people access to networking services. Telcos around the world are adapting in new ways to sell products and provide services with self-services becoming increasingly important - an area we systematically invested in over the past two years. In the light of COVID-19 governments and organisations are likely to increasingly use data to track and contain the spread of the virus, making data privacy an increasingly hot topic.
The ability to work remotely allowed many to escape big cities. How do you see this playing out in the long-term?
As a mobile operator we have a presence in every part of the country so from a practical point of view connectivity is the same wherever workers are. But the reality is that most people who left cities did so purely to minimise the risk of getting very ill. I honestly don’t believe that people will want to work solely remotely on a permanent basis. A handful, yes, and a few jobs truly can be done from anywhere, but there’s a whole lot of people who want to be in an office! So much of our lives centres around our work, a huge chunk of our social structure is there, It’s not as simple as closing the office so people can ‘escape’ to the country-side. I acknowledge it’s a difficult, complex equation for businesses though and there might be a recalibration. But such permament change is a very risky step and it needs to be well thought through – but my belief is it’s still unlikely to pay off for most big corporations although it may be beneficial to start-ups and greenfield investments.
What are your plans for the development of Telenor Bulgaria from now on?
Growth is key and that won’t change. We will continue working with our existing customer base, offer new products and services and also want to move more into the content space. Being a mobile-only operator has benefits and we’ll develop these further - our direction is shifting from simply focusing on the individual to working with whole households. We define ‘households’ as perhaps a physical location or a family. This might not be the nuclear definition of a family but people who are working together, socialising together or even simply a cluster of younger similar-mind professionals or several people living in a house not necessarily related or close friends. We will develop this connectivity layer - whether fixed or wireless - delivering content and other services that they really want. Our focus on B2B is another driver for growth as well as retail, including selling additional branded goods such as laptops and TV sets.
You are in the most dynamic segment of this new era. What pressures does that bring?
A lot! Industry growth in our markets today is in single digits - very different from even five years ago – and in some markets it is negative. Growth and efficiency are key for telcos right now. Our shareholders expect growth, so we must operate even more efficiently, dream up smarter things and continue to be very much business case driven. If something makes sense and brings business growth then we invest in it. We are working in a number of verticals - for example mining and the IoT, fleet management, smart metering and more.
What is the future for telecommunications and the companies that develop and provide services?
There are difficult years ahead. Continuous growth and business development are more uncertain in the foreseeable future. As a result of the lockdown the general creditworthiness of customers has declined. However, telcos are forced to invest more and more in adding up capacities. Governments and customers have the expectation that private telecoms will keep investing in their networks and have the most modern equipment. In my opinion, telcos should focus on network reliability, look at opportunities for more automation, both for customer-facing processes as well as internal ones, make sure they are efficient and invest wisely.
What are Telenor Bulgaria's plans for 5G?
5G is a not-so-distant reality. We successfully trialled it in July 2019 with a historical live 5G video call between our sector minister, Minister Rosen Zhelyazkov and the actor Bashar Rahal. But it’s too soon for any mass market 5G availability as many elements of the ecosystem are not fully in place and customer demand is still not quite there. New network equipment is very expensive, and many infrastructure vendors are still working out their own teething problems. Handsets and devices are in their early days. Spectrum is another topic, which at least in Bulgaria is getting positively resolved. In my mind 2022-2023 is when we are going to see the first real wider-market uses of 5G. Although, we could see 5G networks earlier in Bulgaria should any of the market players pre-empt their investments despite being in its infancy. Like any other previous mobile-industry Gs, 5G is ultimately going to be here.
What are Telenor’s brand strengths? Do you have plans to rebrand?
The perception that we are trustworthy, ethical and transparent is our biggest strength. I know it sounds cliched but I genuinely believe that our front line people are our most valuable asset in communicating that - how they interact with people, resolve their problems, speaking everyone’s everyday language. This is very important and reassures customers that we are trustworthy and transparent. We deliberately don’t overload our customers with acronyms and tech jargon, Also, of course, we are known for having a great network which we are constantly improving, and this is why we have Best in Test awards. If I were to sum up three reasons why anyone should choose Telenor they would be that we are trustworthy partners, have a reliable network and are customer-orientated. In the near future there’s no plan for rebranding.
Does this small market of ours have great potential? What would you change?
A resounding yes! Bulgaria has a fantastic and as yet untapped geopolitical location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. It has access to all the EU structures to benefit from and there’s a lot of talented people. You have strong human capital abroad and a lot of people who might want to come back if they can see the potential or opportunities. Trade routes - another underused advantage – allow access from here to the Middle East, to Western and Northern Europe.
On a personal note I am amazed at how underrated Bulgaria’s natural beauty is. The mountains and the sea are extremely beautiful – you should market this more! Sofia and other parts of the country are really on the path of becoming a hub for innovative businesses, R&D and start-ups making the country a magnet for fascinating people from all over the world but also keep bright minds here. What would I change? The environment is certainly very dynamic but I would prefer to have a more predictable and stable environment, to better plan for the future. It’s very intertwined with the political environment – but that is often the way in smaller countries. Bulgaria will always be a part of me, even when I do eventually depart.
What thorny business problem is currently keeping you awake at night?
How do we continue growing at a pace that makes sense? Prices on this market are relatively low compared to the rest of Europe. Local purchasing power to some extent tends to reflect this fact. However, on the other hand, the cost of network equipment and all other associated costs are similar to other global operators. This disparity between higher costs and lower prices, when a business is reliant on larger global infrastructure investments, could be a stone in our shoe. That’s true for any business highly dependent on capital equipment from outside the country.
Тhe number of communication channels is rapidly growing. What is your preferred one?
Nothing beats face-to-face communication but in terms of social media it’s LinkedIn.
Who is Jason King outside the office? When the working day is over, how do you relax?
With family and friends, enjoying a nice glass of local Mavrud, often after experiencing a light trek amongst the natural beauty of Bulgaria’s incredible mountains or simply relaxing along its stunning coastline.