Leaders’ Insights: Karim Benabdallah, Three Ireland

17 May 2016

Karim Benabdallah is the head of End-to-End Strategy and Development at Three Ireland.

CK Hutchison Holding’s mobile subsidiary Three Ireland formally concluded its €850m acquisition of O2 Ireland from Telefónica in 2014.

The acquisition made the combined entity the second-largest mobile operator on the island.

Describe your role and what you do.

My role as head of End-to-End Strategy and Development has three main functions:

  • Support the technology organisation in ensuring the end-to-end customer experience is maintained or improved during the network transformation, which involves the merger and upgrade of the former O2 and Three network infrastructures
  • Look at the various developments in technology and assess them from a strategy perspective on how best they could serve our overall business
  • Bridge the gap between the technology and the business in general to support tactical decision-making to maximise business opportunities.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Overall, I prioritise and organise my working life to ensure the various deadlines and objectives that my colleagues and I have are met. I do, however, try to have clear and open discussions internally to distinguish between what is important and what is urgent. It is a balancing act that requires flexibility, diplomacy, some convincing and a good deal of understanding to ensure we focus on what is important for the business without forgetting the details that matter. One of the difficulties is to protect your time for long-term strategic opportunities against short-term operational demands.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Our business faces several challenges: we need to manage an exponential growth of mobile data consumption year-on-year, constantly roll out network developments to keep up with the demand, manage our cost structure and always keep our pricings competitive in an environment where connectivity is becoming commoditised due to technology layers based on common standards.

We are tackling these challenges by always trying to be more efficient in what we do. We work hard, of course, but we also work smarter, which is critical. In this industry, it is important to take your time and evaluate your options. Of course, we need to look at what our competitors are doing, but we cannot let it unduly influence our decision-making. We carefully study business opportunities based on technology to ensure we can deliver value to our customers while providing a solution that makes business sense.

Nevertheless, we are leveraging our ongoing transformation, merging and upgrading the former O2 and Three Ireland networks to introduce newer, more efficient technologies, as well as upgrading our internal systems to state-of-the-art standards, which helps us bring better value and functionalities to our customers and tackle our industry challenges.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

One of the opportunities we are looking at is the internet of things (IoT). Our approach isn’t to brand former machine-to-machine solutions using cellular SIM cards with the IoT logo, which others may look to do, but rather distinguishing a new market.

New technologies are emerging and maturing and can be deployed at low cost, with low power consumption making the business case a lot easier.

With IoT, we need to think differently. Fundamentally, we need to have a sensor-centric view instead of a network-centric view. At Three, we are carefully focusing on the value that IoT brings to our customers and their businesses.

Sensors need to be very cheap and have an extremely low power consumption to increase service duration and reduce operational costs. The battery alone can account for 65pc of the cost of the device, so this will also help to significantly limit battery expenditure. The cost of connectivity will need to be reduced from what it is today and coverage of service has to be nationwide, reliable and ubiquitous. That’s why we need to think differently!

IoT is an exciting opportunity for our industry. At present, there are various ecosystems reflecting a fragmentation of technologies. Some of these technologies will certainly have a role to play in this new revolution. At Three Ireland, we take IoT very seriously – watch this space!

‘One of the difficulties is to protect your time for long-term strategic opportunities against short-term operational demands’

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I fell in love with the physics of electricity at the age of 15. I thought it was magical! I was so impressed by how we could accurately model electricity behaviours with some mathematical functions and shape any signal with electronic components to do anything we wanted. I studied microwave and electrical engineering in France. I then did my military service in the Air Force microwave squadron and then worked in France Telecom Mobile, which had just started to roll out out its 2G GSM network. 33 years later, I still think it’s magic!

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Personally, I should have bought some Google and Facebook shares when they floated on the market. I learned that companies with an already-proven business model can only flourish, even though their valuation seems quite high at the floatation stage.

Professionally, when I was a young engineer starting out in my career, I thought that a company with the right technology could automatically become successful. It’s more complex than that, unfortunately. It has to be a subtle combination of right technology, at the right time, with an effective business model and the right organisation to accept it.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I give the consultants in my team, who are quite experienced already, as much autonomy as possible, so they have room to express their talent and their ideas. I do not micro-manage and try to assign them duties that fit with their own interests, which results in their own productivity increasing. In parallel to this, I also try to develop and grow their profile as much as possible in areas outside of their comfort zone and I am not shy in congratulating them when they do a good job.

Who is your business hero and why?

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. It is amazing to see the business journey of Amazon.com. Under Jeff Bezos’s leadership, it has reinvented itself several times by leveraging new emerging technologies to become the giant e-commerce reference it is today.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I have two young children, so I do not have too much time to read books outside the technology and economical articles I read on a daily basis. The last book I read was: Back from the Brink: 1000 days at Number 11, by Alistair Darling. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to have seen written by the late Brian Lenihan Jr on the Irish situation and the famous night of the 29 September 2008 and the bank guarantee.

I would also highly recommend these two books because they are incredible human stories:

Iron Coffins, by Herbert Werner – a firsthand account from a 24-year-old German U-Boat captain having to make life and death decisions over a crew of 80 sailors.

With the Old Breed by Eugene B Sledge – a unique account from a first-line marine private soldier about the ground war in the Pacific.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I confess there is nothing out of the ordinary here. My smartphone and access to the internet are vital, as is Microsoft Office (PowerPoint, Excel and Word), and Outlook.