When Stewart Sherriff joined Meteor two years ago this month as acting CEO he inherited a world of woes. The then CEO, David Sims, had resigned suddenly 18 months after the company’s launch. Stymied by its late market entry due to a legal challenge, the mobile firm was struggling in a market dominated by two entrenched competitors. What’s more, Meteor owner Western Wireless International (WWI) had passed on the opportunity to buy an Irish 3G licence, calling into question its commitment to this market and indeed the viability of Meteor itself.
Two years on, the outlook is altogether brighter for Meteor. If not quite out of the woods yet, the firm is certainly on the right track. Its market share has risen a couple of percentage points to 6pc. More importantly, it is winning customers at a faster rate than its rivals.
In the past quarter, for instance, Meteor added 22,900 subscribers as against 18,000 for Vodafone and less than 5,000 for O2, lifting its total customer base to 220,000. Thanks to the recently inked national roaming agreement with O2, Meteor can for the first time offer subscribers national coverage, which should further help the customer acquisition cause.
In retrospect the 3G decision looks inspired: 3G services have been slow to come to the market and are being challenged anyhow by the popularity of other wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi.
While Sherriff cannot claim credit for the 3G decision, he can for the overall turnaround as he undeniably brought a focus and sharpness to the company that was lacking before. For example, before he took over, Meteor had failed to carve a niche in the marketplace by differentiating itself sufficiently from Vodafone or O2. In the past year, however, the firm has taken a different tack and relentlessly pursued a value positioning — as reflected by the current billboard campaign trumpeting the 69pc call savings over rival services. Sherriff may not agree, but it could be said that he did a Ryanair on Meteor by concentrating on core voice and text services to the detriment of sexier features such as picture messaging.
His second achievement was to put Meteor in a position where it could finally go after the business customer. This is thanks to the O2 roaming deal, which came into effect yesterday on 1 September. Under Sherriff’s watch, Meteor extended its own network to cover 90pc of the population but a perception of poor network coverage persisted, acting as a major deterrent to business customers. Having coverage equal to that of Vodafone or O2 removes a major barrier to competition and allows Meteor to target this lucrative segment in earnest.
Sherriff’s third feat was to remove the constant hovering threat of acquisition. At one time the subject of feverish takeover speculation — Eircom one week, Hutchison the next — Meteor is no longer seen as a takeover certainty. “All the talk of a takeover has ebbed away,” notes Pádraig Coakley, managing consultant at telecoms consultancy Mason Communications.
“I don’t think it was ever in its agenda to be bought out and there is certainly no for sale sign today above Meteor’s headquarters in Citywest Business Campus.”
In announcing the management changes at Meteor last week — the arrival of new CEO Robert Haulbrook and departure of Sherriff — Brad Horwitz, president of WWI and chairman of Meteor, paid tribute to Sherriff’s achievements. “Meteor’s performance, both in terms of rolling out our network and building our business has been very strong this year,” he said, “and the company is now set to make a real impact. Stewart has done an excellent job in bringing Meteor to this stage.”
John Doherty, chairman of the Commission for Communications Regulation, agrees with this assessment. “He came in at a critical time — the company was late to market, it had little penetration and its market share was under 4pc. In the time he’s been there, Meteor has been consolidated and stabilised. The deal with O2 has been instrumental in bringing about that change.”
Doherty likens Sherriff’s role to that of a corporate troubleshooter turning the company around, whipping it into shape and leaving it in good order. “The right systems and processes are in place. It is now fundamentally an issue about marketing sales and promotion,” observes Doherty.
Coakley feels, however, that Sherriff’s achievements have to be kept in perspective. “Meteor is a niche player and it will remain a niche player, at least in the medium term. I don’t see it turning the market over.”
And so Sherriff is moving on — or at least back into the arms of WWI, where he has been given an expanded role as senior vice-president and chief technology officer. In the light of the mark he has made on Meteor, the name of the Dublin restaurant that hosted his farewell lunch last week, Chapter One, was just a little ironic — Sherriff might justifiably feel that the Meteor story moved way past the first chapter during his time there. But at this point neither he nor anyone else can guess where the story might end.
By Brian Skelly