Winning new business is important to new Vodafone CEO Jason Paris, but it’s not his only focus. He talks to Bill Bennett about Vodafone giving Kiwi businesses an international edge and bringing the best of telecoms technology to New Zealand

Incoming Vodafone New Zealand chief executive Jason Paris is no stranger to the sharp end of the telecommunications business. He joined Vodafone Group, the local company’s parent organisation, late last year. For six months or so he worked in Europe as the director for convergence acceleration in the company’s Africa, Middle East and Asia Pacific region section. Now he is back in the country to run the local Vodafone operation from its Smales Farm headquarters on Auckland’s North Shore.

Until last year, Paris was chief executive of Spark’s home, mobile and business unit. In the past, he has worked in senior roles at Television New Zealand and Mediaworks.

The formal handover from Russell Stanners to Paris was at the start of November. Stanners is a tough act to follow. He led Vodafone New Zealand for 12 years. In his time, the company went from being a mobile carrier to a full-service telecommunications company. It also added a sizeable enterprise practice. During his time Vodafone also acquired TelstraClear, WorldxChange and Farmside. It made a bid to merge with Sky TV too, although the Commerce Commission turned that one down.

Vodafone New Zealand is part of a worldwide business. The headquarters are in London. This makes working for the company quite distinct from working at Spark, which lives or dies in New Zealand.

For Paris, Vodafone’s international status is an attraction. He says it was a big driver in his choice to move to the company. “There are very few organisations in New Zealand that have the capability to transform Kiwi lives and businesses through technology like Vodafone can. There are a lot of successful technology and telecommunications companies in New Zealand. But none have Vodafone's global reach and network.”

Hence, he says, his first challenge is to make use of all the things Vodafone’s global reach can deliver. Paris points to the company’s relationship with New Zealand Police to illustrate how this might work.

“I always wondered why I’d only seen pockets of Vodafone mobilising its global advantage. [Now I know] the reason the relationship with the Police exists is because Russell Stanners and his team demonstrated how advanced Vodafone was in other markets when supporting emergency services, especially in the UK.”

“I saw there was an opportunity to do more of this in other sectors. We can bring the best of the world to New Zealand. At the same time, there is the possibility of taking some of the best New Zealand businesses, which sometimes struggle to reach worldwide scale, and use Vodafone’s global network to help them do business internationally.”

“In the six months I spent overseas, I visited 16 different markets, building relationships, seeing what the best in class looked like. On a personal note, I wanted to see how the best in class could be relevant to New Zealand.”

change of brand

Paris played a leading role when Telecom re-branded as Spark. At the time, the company needed to shed its fusty old image, to better reflect modern New Zealand values and attract younger customers.

While there is no need for a similar re-branding exercise at Vodafone, Paris wants to work the company’s brand harder. He says many New Zealanders already like the brand, but now there’s an opportunity to make it something that New Zealanders love and admire.

Winning new business is important, but Paris doesn’t see the market as a zero sum game. He says it is less about Spark versus Vodafone and more about being the best at things customers care about.

He says: “You change their lives, improve their businesses and transform the country. Competition is great. If Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees all do that and we lift the level of capability, innovation, partnership and commercial success, that’s good.”

Competition isn’t without its problems though. Paris worries about a damaging race to bottom on price.

“Commoditising is great for customers because they get great pricing, but it’s not sustainable for the industry. You can’t be in an industry that requires so much capital investment and operational investment to meet customer expectations, yet where customers are not prepared to pay for the cost of that investment. Nor can you survive when the industry drives prices down through intense competition,” he says.

This is especially true in broadband, which Paris says is a very competitive market. “There are close to a hundred broadband brands out there. You’ve got a regulated input price. There’s a fixed wireless access component for us and Spark. This makes it difficult to create a margin, which, in turn, makes it hard to justify further investment when you’re not getting the returns.”

Competition doesn’t have to mean playing cat and mouse with rivals. Paris explains his approach is to play your own game. He says: “If you’re distracted by what competitors are doing, you’re not focused on what customers want. More importantly, you need to focus on the people in your organisation, what they do and how they can do better. Great people drive great customer outcomes, and that’s more important than watching competitors.”

There is another aspect to telecommunications industry competition. The rivals you are up against one day are likely to be your partners another day. Paris says: “Vodafone, Spark, 2degrees, Datacom, Chorus and others often end up working together. We share many clients and co-operate when dealing with them.”

One of the challenges facing an acquisitions-focused player like Vodafone is bringing together the disparate parts of such a growing business under one umbrella. Paris can see upsides to this process.

“There’s been a bunch of acquisitions and these have brought with them two challenges. One is the technology challenge. There are many legacy technology stacks coming together. That’s always difficult, especially when you’re trying to be a dynamic, fast-paced, agile business.

“The other is cultural. The organisations built their own different cultures. They were all successful in their own right. Bringing those tribes together as one isn’t simple, but there are benefits. If you look at our group strategy, with the current acquisition of Liberty Global assets in Europe, then New Zealand looks like the best in class that Vodafone Group is trying to get to.

“Here we’ve got 50 percent mobile, 50 percent fixed. There’s 50 percent consumer, 50 percent enterprise. We are a complete, integrated, converged telecommunications company. That’s where Vodafone Group wants to get to,” he says.

Paris says this complete, integrated, converged telecommunications business is the starting point for his ambition for the local company. When asked what he will do differently to Stanners he says: “I want to accelerate past this. It’s not only about the connection itself, but connectivity plus – that’s the additional services that connectivity enables. I want us to be an important part of that.”

However, Paris says, his first months in the job will be about building on what Stanners put in place.

“When I was working in the Group, there were six or seven things that the various companies were doing well that made them disproportionately successful in their markets. These marry exactly with what people in the local organisation here tell me are the opportunities for us.”  

“[But] all of this is underpinned by the strategies Russell has put in place. These are clear things like market differentiation, accelerating investment and our data strategy; making sure we’re competitive in the market and focusing on digital. So, rather than doing things differently, I’m going to accelerate his strategy. We need to move even faster than today to keep up, and faster again to win.”

Call to run Vodafone New Zealand a surprise

Paris says when he first joined Vodafone Group he expected he would be overseas for three or four years.

“My wife had resigned from her job as a partner in Bell Gully. We had enrolled our kids in schools. We had sold our cars. We were going overseas. We wanted to live on the other side of the world again as a family before our oldest son hit high school.

There was a discussion about whether a move back to New Zealand with Vodafone would be possible. After all, Stanners had been in the job a long time. But that wasn’t the immediate plan.

“Then all of a sudden Russell decided the timing was right for him to step down. On the morning of our going-away party at home, I got a call from Vittorio and Vivek, my two bosses. They said, ‘Congratulations, you are now the new CEO of Vodafone New Zealand’.”

At the time, Vittorio Colao was Vodafone Group CEO. He has recently left the company. Vivek Badrinath is in charge of the company’s Africa, Middle East and Asia Pacific region.

The restraint agreement with Spark meant Paris couldn’t move immediately, so he spent six months with the company in Europe. It was a long induction period, but it meant Paris could learn more about the company and how it operates elsewhere in the world. He says he also made valuable contacts that he will be able to go back to so as to better run the New Zealand business.