Kyle Whitehill, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Vodafone Ghana is definitely passionate about his job. His validity in the telecoms business is also undeniable.
Educated in Scotland with a degree in Marketing and Economics, Kyle has worked in the UK, Central Europe and India for both telecom and consumer goods companies. His early career was spent in Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) with L’Oreal, Jeyes and Guinness before he entered general management with the Soft Drinks division of PepsiCo.
Whitehill steered into telecoms when joined Vodafone UK in 2001 as head of the Enterprise business. In February 2008 he moved to Vodafone India as Chief Operating Officer, shortly after the acquisition of the business from Hutchison. During his tenure as Chief Operating Officer, the subscriber base of Vodafone India’s business grew from 47 million to over 100 million.
It was nonetheless not a surprise when under his leadership in Vodafone Ghana, the company scooped six awards at the Second MobileWorld Ghana Telecom Awards. They included; Telecom CEO of the Year, Marketing Campaign of the Year, Customer Care of the Year, Business Solution of the Year, Woman in ICT of the Year, and the prestigious Telecom Brand of the Year.
Kyle speaks about the awards and about a wide range of industry issues. Excerpts…
You won six awards at the MobileWorld Ghana Telecom Awards this year. This is unprecedented – what does it mean to you?
Firstly it felt like Vodafone really has arrived properly in Ghana on a public basis to be recognized by your peers – it felt like we’ve been recognized for the work that we’ve done and the investment that have been made over the last three years, and some of the awards mean a lot to us as a service provider. We came back to the office and we tried to be humble for a while – but we got addicted to winning and want to win again.
You attributed a lot of the success to your staff, particularly the Ghanaian staff ?
When you have 1,400 people who are directly employed by Vodafone in Ghana and only eight are non-Ghanaians including myself, then more than 99.99% of staff are Ghanaians and we are really proud of that. This means I don’t personally look after four million customers every day, I don’t personally install 100 new fixed broadband customers every day, I don’t stand in 35 stores – all I can ask them to do is what I think are the right things to do every day, and those people have responded magnificently. I think what you see in our stores everyday and what you see in our field Engineers shows Ghana at its best.
Your staff also say Kyle drives us to deliver excellence, and I realize everything you do, whether it is MNP marketing campaign or CSR, there seem to be some aggressiveness – is it a Vodafone thing, or a Kyle thing?
Well I’m a Vodafone guy – I have been in Vodafone for 11 years – so there’s some stuff about Vodafone that makes some sense to me, and one of them is as an ambassador of a brand, you have some passion to deliver what the brand stands for. The brand stands for great network, great service, great people, great value, so you’ve got to do that. I’ve always been aggressive. I have strong beliefs of why things are important but we don’t do some things in an aggressive manner; what we do is, we do things in a passionate and committed manner – so I think if you ask my staff, they will say Kyle is really passionate about what we are trying to do here. When I came to Ghana two years ago, I saw a country that was passionate, I saw a country that really cares about the family, I saw a country that really cares about its future prosperity and when you tap into that as a person it helps you to become passionate and energetic.
And you have a “Happy Feet” at Vodafone – tell us about that?
One of the challenges of being a CEO is that you sit in the board room a lot and go through a lot of numbers and charts and periodically your day gets a break from dark by someone coming to present something and you go wow! So that’s was exactly three weeks ago when 23-year old Phoebe, who works in our Strategy Team came in with a presentation – I wasn’t expecting it – I didn’t ask for it – she started talking about how when you talk to our customers they are knowledgeable about our various products and services just like our marketing folk do – she talked very enthusiastically about people here; my people, my 1,400 people really needing to engage with customers more to understand what customers wanted – she talked about how every single day half of my people are talking to customers, and half had sat in the office not talking to customers, and she did a presentation and said so what I want to do is to take the people in the office and go get them to meet our customers and to understand what our customers want from our products and services – we’ve gone on three “Happy Feet” campaigns since her presentation, and met about 1,600 people each week – we get into buses and we drive together to the area and break into little groups of four –I personally worked with a group of four and we just walked through the streets of Teshie (in Accra), and I met probably 20 or 30 customers – we talked to sellers, drivers and many more. We got a great deal of ideas as to what people at the level need from us as a company. We close the day with aerobics and brass band march to our office, where we have a barbeque.
But Vodafone has been touted as an elitist brand, and the evidence is that for three years, it is only recently that you have started paying attention to people and businesses at the low end?
Isn’t that a danger of having world class brand? The danger of having the 5th most valuable brand in the world and the 17th biggest company in the world is that people’s perception will be that’s not for me. That’s completely my point with the ‘Happy Feet’ because when you’re sitting with a lady who’s got a shop in Teshie or she’s a trader in Makola, or there’s a guy who is a taxi driver you say, how can I make what I do relevant for you, so that lady may not spend very much with one network but she still need that same quality of service and access to information. So listen, we don’t care where you come from, what you do, how much you spend, I’m going to make my work relevant to you. We also have packages for SMEs (small and medium-scale enterprises) that make sense for small business persons. So we launched the hybrid tariff, and predictability of spend – that was deliberately targeted at people who are budget conscious.
You have grown subscribers from 2.7 million to 4.5 million in three years, but there have been questions about how you generate your subscriber base?
Those are standards, and I don’t mess with my numbers – the industry standards would be to look at customers who are inactive over 90 to 100 days and then they are turned off – so 4.5 million is indeed 4.5 million subscribers. The only difference in there is what a person does on a day to day basis – so let’s say Vodafone’s 4.5million or MTN 10 million, the only difference would be how many people phoned that day, received an incoming call that day, sent or received SMS that day, or surfed the internet – but I cannot officially declare the number of customers because Vodafone will not let me do that. Vodafone has a global standard of how you recognize customers.
NCA has said they do auditing of the subscriber figures you submit – some telcos said they are not aware of any such audit – do you know of any such audits?
We submit our numbers to NCA – what they then do with those figures that they didn’t report, I have no idea, but my understanding was they just look for a common format. I believe it is also an NCA responsibility to make sure SIMs are registered – so I think that’s what they are about, to make sure all our SIMs are registered, which we are fully complying with. But whether they will check if we’ve got real customers, I will be surprised about that.
Profits – you promised to make Vodafone ‘productive and profitable in two years’ – it has been three years since you took over – are you making profits?
A: There are two definitions of profit – one is what is called EBITDA (earnings before Interests, taxation, depreciation and amortization), which is the day to day operating profit – and the second will be the profit after tax (direct cash in hand) – for the first time in the 26years history of Ghana Telecom/Vodafone we’ve gone positive at the EBITDA level, so we are delighted about that. One statistics for you – think about three years ago, 4,500 people worked in GT (Ghana Telecom) and the business was hugely unprofitable. Today 1,400 workers have 4.5 million customers – three times as much revenue, and are profitable. I think we were right about their productivity. And I hear stories about those who left us – most of them have their own businesses now and they are doing well.
Q: So you are not positive on cash?
A: No not yet.
Q: So if you are not positive on cash, are you paying taxes in Ghana yet?
A: I am one of the biggest taxpayers in Ghana – MTN is one of the biggest taxpayers in Ghana – every single telco is paying a huge amount of taxes – there is no ambiguity about that – but when it comes to tax on profits after interest depreciation, then maybe it’s only two telcos who pay that tax – and Vodafone is not one of them because we are not positive on cash.
Q: Because of the tax issues around Vodafone’s head in India and the UK in particular, there are concerns you may replicate a similar behavior in Ghana – tax avoidance?
A: The Indian case is an attempt by the Indian tax master to tax Vodafone for buying another company, when in fact it is the seller who is supposed to pay tax. But the seller, Hutcheson is also a Hong-Kong-based company so we are the only company left in India and that is why the tax master came after us. But every single court in Indian has ruled in our favour. We have never evaded one cedi of tax in Ghana. We won an award from the Ghana Revenue Authority recently for being the second most prompt taxpayer in Ghana – the government of Ghana is my 30% shareholder – I have two Ghana government reps on my board, they see every single number and everything we do. The government can see exactly what we’ve done on a day to day basis, so we will be about the most transparent commercial organization in Ghana, I would think.
Everybody is saying the industry is going data – what is your own outlook on the industry in Ghana?
The industry is doing very well – society is growing faster than we ever anticipated – and we keep growing along with the industry which has MTN, Vodafone, Airtel, Tigo, Expresso and Glo in the marketplace. So I anticipate the market will keep on growing fast – this is a market with over 80% mobile voice, and over the next 12 months it will stay heavily dependent on mobile voices. The data is doubling each year so the size of the market is doubling each year. That’s definitely going to continue for the foreseeable future. So I think that the mobile voice is primarily what Ghanaians want to do but they are beginning to accept the interest in data once they get into data, but you don’t have everybody with very good data network so you can access the internet well.So I think the industry is going to continue to be buoyant but it’s not an industry for the faint hearted because of the quality of the competition.
Competition – number six is in – what impact do you see number six having on the industry?
A: Number six is finally in – we’ve been waiting for this for four years – I think generally we are very intrigued – so we ask ourselves what does the market need that we are not providing – is there something we should be providing that Glo might provide? Well we think network quality and value are the things people want, so we think it is not a bad thing because it will help us up our game and keep us keen and interested. We are watching all our competition. I have already got great competitors and having another great competitor means I have to work a bit harder this year.
You are on record as saying we do not need number six, why?
Yes I did because most markets internationally have two to three mobile operators. The reason for that is that it’s had to build a profitable business with less than 25% market share – so when you have six the simple economics will tell you the six can’t have 25% share each because that will be 150%. The implication of that is some people are not going to make money in the market place when there are six operators. So who is going to make money and who is not? Now there may be some of the owners of these telcos that have the pocket and have benevolent investors, but you know MTN, Vodafone, Tigo, Airtel these are large international telecom operators – so my question was always, how are you going to make money as a sixth operator. India had just demonstrated that all the new entrants are coming out now because they realized you can’t make money just like that. When it comes down to what I need to do as a service provider, I think I need to keep on being better – make sure I am still competitive, that I have got a network that makes sense.
You are also on record as saying there will be consolidations in the industry in the near future?
I am actually less convinced now about the consolidation I talked about 18 months ago. I think again, the market is growing faster than everybody anticipated, so maybe you are more optimistic about the look of the Ghanaian market than you may have been 12 months ago, and therefore people might stay on a little more longer.
There is now WACS, Glo One, Main One, and very soon ACE undersea cables in Ghana – how competitive can Vodafone be in the data market with a relatively very small SAT-3 undersea cable?
That’s why I said to you we didn’t need a sixth operator – you think I need any more undersea cables? You know, I think now even with today’s capacity of six times as much capacity as Ghana would ever need in the future, a lot of this capacity is going to land-locked countries outside Ghana, and that’s terrific, that’s the good news. We’ve actually built a connection line between Sankaase to Togo, Benin and to get into land-locked Africa. Internet access in Benin is a nightmare, so now we are beginning to deplore a much better service to land-locked Africa – there is a lot of capacity, but it will be sucked by surrounding countries as well.
You have been accused of playing referee and player in the broadband bandwidth sale – you wholesale to ISPs and also retail to corporate Ghana, thereby making the ISPs less competitive, why is that?
I am in retail because retail directs customers to what they want, and particularly the big customers like the customers we have. We have 31 banks in Ghana, 27 commercial and four government-owned banks. That’s a lot of banks and they need very robust infrastructure to safely manage our money for us. So we are very strong in there because they want fibre and they want robust infrastructure – they want to deal with a known entity. The wholesale marketplace – ISPs (internet service providers), I don’t disadvantage on price, in fact I do not have much to do with my Vodafone Wholesale Business – it has an independent Managing Director – I am simply a board member of that, so I’m not in there setting price or setting commercial terms or telling them what to do. It is very, very independent and made deliberately independent – so the argument I hear about the disadvantaging ISPs I find really baffling because I represent less than 10% of the cost an ISP will charge on a retail customer – 90% of the cost comes from the fact that ISPs are having to use expensive and old fashioned microwave technology or VSAT, which is four times more expensive than anything else in the marketplace. That is why they are disadvantaged because they haven’t made the multi-hundred million investment in fibre like I have, and they are trying to struggle along with expensive and old fashion infrastructure. People discrediting my strategies are just not competitive anymore. Customers want to buy from credible and international companies when it comes to running their business.
Brand of the Year, what should we expect from brand of the year?
We’ve got eight million people watching Vodafone ICONS and we make Ghana have fun with music. You’ve just seen the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards, which people say was the best music awards night in last 13. We are going to see a bigger 020 Live – we do not know who the artistes are yet but we will bring some great artistes this year. You are going to see the brand continue to bring passion and excitement to Ghana – that’s what you can expect to see from the brand this year .