12 October 2017

Nigeria: Task Before Akinlola, NTEL's New CEO

Last week's appointment of Ernest Akinlola as the new managing director of ntel, is a test of his managerial expertise to turn around ntel and reposition the company for competition, writes Emma Okonji

After several years of failed attempts to sell the Nigeria Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) to core investors by the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), the government agency, which is responsible for the sales of government assets, eventually sold NITEL to NATCOM in 2015, through a guided liquidation process, after the unbundling of telecommunications firm.

Few months after the completion of the successful bid process, NATCOM, trading as ntel, rolled out its services in 2016, after shopping for its first managing director and chief executive, Kamar Abass. The MD/CEO was poached from Ericsson Nigeria, where he hitherto held sway as the country manager in Nigeria.

One year after Abass struggled to position ntel, and made it to hit the ground running, he suddenly took ill. He decided to let go the plum job, in order to take care of his failing health, a situation that compelled the owners of ntel to shop for another credible CEO that will turn around the telecoms company and set it on the path of competition, which is the game of survival in the telecommunications sector, where ntel currently plays.

Although it did not take ntel so much time to shop for Abass' replacement, industry watchers are of the view that the appointment of Earnest Akinlola as a replacement of Abass, is not only a test of the managerial skills of Akinloa to reposition ntel in an era of stiff completion, but also a test of the vision of ntel to retain its industry position as the best 4G LTE service provider in the 21st Century.

About Ernest Akinlola

In the last one week of his appointment, many Nigerians, including industry players have been asking questions about Akinlola, and about his capacity to turn around ntel.

Their desire to know more about Akinlola is due to the task associated with the highly elevated office of the managing director of ntel. He is now saddled with the responsibilities of upholding the vision and mission of ntel to remain the leader of 4G LTE service provider, after pioneering the launch of 4G LTE technology among telecoms operators.

THISDAY's search about Akinlola, however, revealed so much about him.

Akinlola is soft spoken but intense, and he is the kind of man who knows how to put his points across. He is a well-educated, widely-travelled and vastly experienced in the field of telecommunications.

He holds a degree in economics, a Chartered Accountant and fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. He also holds an MBA from Manchester Business School. He has worked in pharmaceuticals, packaging and delivery, telecoms and consulting. His career has seen him traverse America, Europe and Africa.

Call him a man of the world and you wouldn't be wrong.

But how does all that come to play as he takes over the helms of affairs as the new MD/CEO. Many in Nigeria's telecom ecosystem remember Akinlola from his brief stint at Etisalat, now 9mobile, where he berthed as Marketing and Strategy Director, and drove the company's innovation-focused marketing strategy that saw rapid increase of its subscriber number.

Akinlola has credited the growth to his single-minded focus on the customer.

"Customer value management is my thing. That's what I focus on. I want to know who the customers are and what we can do to keep them and grow them," Akinlola said in his recent speech.

The focus on "Customer is King" has helped him notch up success after success in a 20 year plus career in telecoms media and technology, which took off when he joined the fledgling One 2 One (now called T/Mobile UK) telecoms operator in the United Kingdom (UK), where he was instrumental in establishing a world class internal audit and compliance department.

"No one gave us a chance at One 2 One. Some people called us One 2 None but we soon changed the game when we launched Virgin Mobile on the One 2 One network," Akinlola said.

According to a statement from the management of ntel, "Akinlola as head of department, led the assessment and subsequent launch of Virgin Mobile UK on the One 2 One network, which proved to be the pioneering Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) at the time. Following One 2 One's acquisition by T-Mobile, Akinlola was a key member on the integration team, leading on commercial strategy and growing the wholesale side of the business to launch several MVNO's focused on specific customer segments. He was an integral member of the team charged with executing Virgin Mobile's $1.5 billion IPO. Many senior roles followed including leading the transformational roll out of T-Mobile's store retail programme."

Akinlola was subsequently headhunted as COO by Lycamobile, the world's largest international MVNO, to lead its European strategy, successfully expanding into 10 countries including UK, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and Spain within two years.

Akinlola is considered, on account of his work and successes at One 2 One, Virgin and Lycamobile, a MVNO expert and guru at moving new and small companies into the big league.

Why ntel went for Akinlola

The Director, External Affairs at ntel, Osondu Nwokoro, says Akinlola is a good choice having "held top positions in finance, wholesale, MVNO's business strategy, marketing and transformation programmes."

The company's statement announcing Akinlola's coming to ntel went further to point out that "following his notable successes in Europe, he focused on Nigeria's telecoms sector and was approached to lead a major marketing drive for the former Etisalat, now 9mobile, the 4th entrant in a highly competitive telecoms market. As marketing director, he spearheaded a range of initiatives that took the former Etisalat from the fourth ranked operator to the second, in terms of Average Revenue Per User (ARPU)."

"His African odyssey was short lived and Akinlola soon returned to Europe where he launched a business but he never stopped thinking about Africa," Nwokoro said.

In 2016, a chance to make a mark in his home continent presented itself when Allumno, a company he headed as CEO Founder/Telecoms Advisory was engaged as a strategic advisor by the board of Swazi Mobile to formulate a commercial strategic plan for the application of a 4G VoLTE licence in Swaziland South Africa.

"Swazi Mobile was successfully awarded the 4G VoLTE, 4G, 3G licences in December 2016 with a score of 75 per cent compared to other international bids.

Akinlola sees the ntel offer as a challenge as well as an opportunity to do something huge," Nwokoro added.

The task before Akinlola

The task before Akinlola is huge given the fact that the company has a system in place that seems not appealing to customers who wanted to feel more of the impact of ntel at the grassroots level.

The fact that customers cannot get ntel's physical recharge cards to buy from vendors, unlike the tradition in the telecoms sector where subscribers have access to physical recharge cards of all operators through various vendors, leaves much task for Akinlola to convince the majority of subscribers who are more at ease with recharging their mobile phones through the purchase of physical recharge cards, rather than going online to purchase recharge cards as it is the case with ntel.

Again, Akinlola has to work very hard to speed up the network rollout plan to other cities, other than Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, where it currently operates. The task of maintaining the company's position as the leader of 4G LTE technology service, having rolled out its initial service with the 4G LTE network, is also before Akinlola. His managerial expertise has to come to play to enable the telecoms company maintain that leading position of 4GLTE service provider because other operators that later launched their 4G LTE networks, are also strategising to overtake ntel in the 4G LTE service provisioning.

But in all of these challenges that are before Akinlola, he has this to say: "I am excited to be appointed MD/CEO of ntel, Nigeria's pre-eminent 4G/LTE network. ntel has tremendous untapped capabilities, which can provide a step change in customer experience for large enterprises, SME's and consumers. I look forward to leading the team in driving innovation and delighting our current and future customers."

Although he sounds convincing that he can lead ntel to the promise land, but industry watchers are, however, hoping that his words of promise are not empty.

Abass' milestone

In one year of rollout, the pioneer MD/CEO of ntel, Abass, was able to launch the operations of ntel in three states with a subscriber base of about 100,000 with majority of them as data customers.

Shortly before disengaging from the services of ntel, Abass led the company to conclude the first phase of its roll out and was getting set for the second phase roll out.

Since its rollout last year, ntel, under the leadership of Abass, had always focused on deepening mobile telephony. The telecoms company was able to sell between five and 10 megabytes per second connections to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), using the ntel 4G LTE network. With Abass, ntel successfully deployed the best technology to drive its 4G LTE services, without necessarily been religious whether it is fixed or mobile service offerings, but was bent on giving customers the best experience with 4G LTE services.

In one year, ntel as a brand, was able to set up a billing system that gave the telecoms company a better integration between the sales representatives and the customer care system. The company had 70 per cent coverage in the three states it currently covered, with plans to expand to more states. Within one year of operation, ntel also got award from an American company as the fastest internet service provider, a position that Abass saw as a great feat in one year of rollout. "But our achievements in one did not even come as a surprise to us because we know we are the clear leader in the industry, offering 4G LTE services to customers," Abass had said.

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