Eir CEO Carolan Lennon: ‘We will be Ireland’s telecoms champion’

29 Nov 2018

Eir CEO Carolan Lennon. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

10 months into the job as Eir CEO and armed with a €1bn investment plan, Carolan Lennon is on a mission to transform Ireland’s digital future. She talks with John Kennedy.

As rain lashes Dublin city, I’m late for my meeting with Eir CEO Carolan Lennon on account of traffic being held up by two road workers who couldn’t coordinate their ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ signs, backing up traffic in both directions. If ever there was a metaphor for Ireland’s broadband journey up until now, that was it, I mutter ruefully to myself.

From talking with Lennon, though, you feel things are about to change and that a new chapter in Ireland’s telecoms history is about to be written.

‘We want to be a modern, dynamic telco that has great infrastructure, delivers really good customer service, and one that has a really simple proposition stack that everybody gets and buys into’

Lennon is the first woman CEO to take the helm at Eir, after leading the company’s Open Eir wholesale division before that. Prior to joining Eir, Lennon gained a wealth of experience in the telecoms and technology sectors, working as consumer director and marketing director at Vodafone Ireland.

New owners, new philosophies

About 10 months into the new role, the first thing that is evident is Lennon’s enthusiasm and drive. The acquisition of a majority stake in the company by French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel’s NJJ-led consortium at an enterprise value of €3.5bn has led to an injection of new philosophies and ways of doing things.

In recent weeks, Eir revealed a plan to invest €1bn to transform its infrastructure, including converting 1.4m homes that were fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) to fibre-to-the home (FTTH), as well as a €150m plan to bring 4G to 99pc geographic coverage and kick-start the first of the company’s 5G networks in key cities.

Not only that but, in the months following her appointment, Lennon has had to manage a major redundancy programme and begin a new recruitment drive that will see 750 people hired in Sligo, Limerick and Cork as Eir brings customer service back in-house.

Any student of Eir’s history post-IPO in 1999 would accept that the succession of several different owners led to a climate of underinvestment at Eir, ultimately holding back Ireland’s march into the digital age. Under the stewardship of previous CEO Richard Moat, Eir’s bondholders saw that investing in infrastructure would make all the difference, and things changed as fibre and quad-play services including mobile and TV entered the picture.

The crucial difference that Eir’s new owner NJJ brings to the table, Lennon explained, is that it is a telecoms organisation with fixed and mobile interests across Europe, and that also brings considerable synergies, technologies and, crucially, philosophies to bear.

She said that as telcos, NJJ and Eir speak a common language, and that technologies and synergies developed at NJJ interests such as Iliad, Free and Monaco Telecom can be applied at Eir.

“If you scratch the surface at Eir, we are engineers at our core.

“Pre-examinership, the network team and engineers were disappointed at the lack of investment in the network. Post-examinership, we were investing in the network again and we were investing in rural Ireland, which is the heartland for Eir because it is where a lot of our employees live and work.”

Lighting up Ireland

Woman in green dress smiling at camera.

Eir CEO Carolan Lennon. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

‘They looked at our network and said: “It is a good network. But what if we make it the best network?”’

Eir will enter 2019 with 1.9m homes and businesses connected to fibre and a €1bn plan to deepen the fibre and mobile footprint. This includes a 335,000 rural FTTH footprint by June.

Last year, Eir signed a commitment with the Irish Government to serve 300,000 premises with FTTH, removing them from the National Broadband Plan’s (NBP) original intervention footprint. Lennon disputes speculation that this led to other telcos walking away from the NBP. “I think it is fair to say that Eir got a good deal to spend €250m of its own money. It was unsubsidised and all the risk was taken by ourselves. At the end of September, 228,000 families, farmers and businesses in that footprint have had access to high-speed fibre broadband, and it will be 335,000 by June.”

Not only this but out of 1.6m premises currently connected via FTTC, 1.4m will be converted to FTTH, stepping up the competition in urban and regional areas against rivals Siro and Virgin.

Returning to what the new owners bring to the table, Lennon said that it quintessentially boils down to a different way of doing things. “They bring new philosophies into town in terms of they believe in investing in the infrastructure. That’s because they believe that is how you win. They believe that your own people should be serving customers with pride. They believe in selling a smaller number of simpler propositions that customers understand.

“On the infrastructure side, they asked what did we plan to do next after we completed the 300,000 rural premises? And, in a very short space of time, we made the decision to convert 1.4m urban and semi-urban homes from FTTC to FTTH. We are already close to those homes so it’s not like we are starting from scratch. Our job is to take that fibre from the cabinet and bring it directly into people’s homes. When this is complete, it will give us an enormous competitive advantage.” She added that the outstanding 200,000 premises connected to the cabinet will in time become FTTH, too.

Mobile market shake-up

In terms of mobile, it is worth studying NJJ and Niel’s strategies in Europe with Iliad. Iliad has already begun to shake up the Italian 4G market by launching mobile services for as low as €5.99, and it has acquired 5G spectrum. In Ireland, Eir has also acquired a good portion of 5G spectrum, and the NJJ philosophy of winning by having the best infrastructure is coming to bear in terms of the €150m mobile investment.

“We want to have the best mobile network in the country and, at the moment, ours is smaller than some of our rivals. So, we are going to increase the number of sites we have by 25pc and put new equipment in more than 500 sites, and make them all 4G to the point we will have 99pc geographic coverage. No site is going to be untouched.

“We are moving our offices to Citywest and they will be the first beneficiaries of 5G. We are also trialling fixed wireless access (FWA) over 5G and we’ve identified four sites in Mayo and Meath.”

When asked if we’ll see the same aggressive tactics as those of Iliad in Italy, Lennon said: “The tactics will be different depending on the different markets. But I think the philosophy is the same. You need the best infrastructure to compete. That’s the philosophy they bring and that’s how they’ve been successful in various markets.

“They looked at our network and said: ‘It is a good network. But what if we make it the best network?’”

Lennon said that the key objective will be to increase market share in mobile. “But we are going to go for that share on the back of having the best mobile and fixed network in the country.”

A can-do spirit

Lennon said that also requires having the best customer care experience, which leads us to the increase of jobs in Limerick, Cork and Sligo.

‘Younger people are stepping up and taking on extra responsibility, building things themselves, writing code, running ad campaigns, taking ownership and being doers’

“Being absolutely honest, we have struggled in terms of customer care. Nobody excels, but we have struggled. And, even as our propositions improved, our care service didn’t. Another philosophy that NJJ bring to the table is that, alongside the best infrastructure, you need to have in-house customer care versus outsourced. To give customers the best experiences, you need people who work for you.

“When we looked at the entire business, our customer contact centre in Dublin had a high staff turnover, which had a lot to do with the high availability of jobs in Dublin – but that was no excuse and didn’t fix the problem.

“We decided the answer was to bring all customer service in-house and move to regional hubs. Between all the new hires, we are going to have 1,000 new people coming into Eir in the coming year.

“We believe by having customer care in these regional hubs, our people will own it and, by integrating with their communities, these people will stay. The standard of applicants is very high, the feedback is great and it feels like we are positioning ourselves for success in this space. But we have to go and deliver it.”

So, how does Lennon feel about the kind of company Eir is going to become? “We want to be a modern, dynamic telco that has great infrastructure, delivers really good customer service, and one that has a really simple proposition stack that everybody gets and buys into.”

This amounts to a new agility and can-do spirit in the organisation. “My current management team are mostly promoted from within the organisation. Younger people are stepping up and taking on extra responsibility, building things themselves, writing code, running ad campaigns, taking ownership and being doers.

“Eir used to call itself the national telecoms champion. I would love us to get back to that again and everybody here wants to feel proud of working for a national telecoms champion that has invested. We will be Ireland’s telecoms champion.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years