‘No longer business as usual at NetOne’

‘No longer business as usual at NetOne’
NetOne new CEO Lazarus Muchenje

NetOne new CEO Lazarus Muchenje

LAZARUS Muchenje (LM), the former Vodacom, FirstRand Bank and Celpay International   boss, was appointed State-owned mobile telecommunications company, NetOne’s chief executive officer (CEO) this month. Muchenje , who has a long leadership experience in telecommunications and financial sectors, having worked in more than 15 countries, took over from Brian Mutandiro who has been acting  since June 2016, after then CEO Reward Kangai was dismissed following an audit unearthed  irregularities.  In this long ranging interview with The Financial Gazette’s Business Reporter, Phillimon Mhlanga (PM), the NetOne CEO spoke about his vision, strategy and other things. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

PM: Congratulations on your new appointment as NetOne CEO.
LM: Thank you very much.
PM: You are coming at NetOne at a time when the telecoms giant has been facing challenges in the past few years, especially corporate governance weaknesses. What are you going to change?
 LM: I think it’s a privilege to be invited to lead a company such as NetOne. It’s a privilege that many people would want to have and I am very fortunate to be the one to be given this task, which is owned by the people of Zimbabwe. I am there ready to serve the people of Zimbabwe, something which we are proud of.
When you talk of governance weaknesses at NetOne, one must take cognisance that in any organisation there are weaknesses, which is not unique to NetOne, something which happens maybe in every company or organisation. Now with regards to what I intend to do with the weaknesses that are in NetOne, you know, the normal thing is to come in, try and understand what has been happening, the culture of the company and how one can positively influence the culture. In fact, this is my biggest ambit to say how I can influence the culture of NetOne so that it can be exactly the same as the other big players such as the companies I have worked with in the past. That’s really my plan. How can I really change the culture at NetOne, without looking at any specific weaknesses per se. With the culture becoming world class, we will then address most of these weaknesses.
PM: Comparing with companies that you have worked at around the globe, is leading NetOne your toughest assignment?
LM: (Laughs) Well, I have worked in war zones. I have worked for a network, when we were setting up we were number five (but went on to do very well). So, certainly, this is challenging, but it will not be the most challenging time that I have had. If the question is around the fact that is NetOne the worse company that I have worked for, certainly that’s not true. I think NetOne has some peculiar challenges which are unique to it like any company and I believe that I am sufficiently qualified to deal with those challenges, but I am not taken aback or neither do I think the task is tougher than the Democratic Republic of Congo or Nigeria and so forth. I think it’s not and probably, it’s most exciting because this is home and I can positively make an impact on my own people and I have the opportunity to give back to my own people; something I have not been able to do in the past 20 years.
PM: How then do you plan to address negative issues that have been associated with NetOne?
LM: If you look at most of these so called negative issues, they are external to the company itself. It’s either to do with the people that have left the organisation or don’t work in the organisation. So, I think my job is easier than what you anticipate because the challenges for me, first and foremost are about up-skilling my colleagues, ensuring that we are at world class standard, ensuring that we have clear guidelines in roles and responsibilities; and you will find that over time most of these challenges will fall away.
PM: Do some of these challenges dull your impression of the company and the market?
LM: Oh no! Not really! Like I said earlier, the common trend in my career is that I have always sought where I can add value and where I can create decency in people’s lives. So the challenges give me the opportunity to impact positively not only on the staff, my colleagues in the company, but also in the country. So these challenges exist and are very welcome. I am nowhere inclined to think of leaving because I have seen challenges. I think these challenges are going to drive me further and help me serve our people.
PM: What will be your immediate focus?
LM: Yes, we always want to go back to basics. This is really what we are going to do. We are saying that lets get the basics right. What are the basics? You must have good policy network, your distribution and visibility must be good. Your contact points and service to clients must be good. These are the basics that we have to look at and ensure that we get that right. All the other fancy things that one can think of will not happen if the basics are not in place. So my primary focus is to get NetOne’s basics right. But, not only right, but to do it right the first time and at world class level.
PM: NetOne has been struggling to catch up with biggest industry competitor Econet, yet it has been the recipient of several State assisted equipment acquisitions as well as financial support from China Export Import Bank (Eximbank). What are you going to do differently, in order for you to catch up with the competition?
LM: First of all, I want to say we must be grateful to the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) in the support they have given to NetOne in a difficult and trying environment that we have come through where sourcing for funding for State enterprises is difficult because of lack of currency, lack of lines of credit to Zimbabwe and so forth. So, we are very grateful to the GoZ. Now that we have been funded and we have gone through funding rounds in the past few years, we have gone through two and now we are going to the third and final round for China Eximbank; what I am going to do differently is that we need to look or to choose carefully our battlegrounds. So we can’t fight everywhere, everything. We need to see critically what it is that we want to fight on. For us I think the battle grounds are very clear. We have to fight on mobile money, we have to fight on data, and we have to fight on content. These are our battle grounds. If we focus on these battlegrounds and put all our energy into getting these right then certainly you will start to see some traction very soon.
PM: Now that you are at the helm of this telecoms giant, what can the market expect?
LM: I intend to take NetOne to world class levels. At our company we are saying we are going to another level. Things are no longer the same. It’s no longer business as usual anymore. The experience of our customer comes first before anything else. And we are purely focusing on coming up with the whole world class consumer experience. Our interactions with all our stakeholders should be world class. This is what you are going to see in the next coming months. NetOne becoming a world class company. Fundamentally, I believe that there is no difference between my team, or the team at the competition or the team from where I come from, Vodacom. We have got some really smart people at NetOne, who have really good ideas and plans and we intend to execute them to a world class level. The difference is whether we believe or not.
PM: In the past few years, there has been a huge switch from voice to data based telecoms services. And there has been an outcry from mobile telecoms firms about the emergence of voice over internet protocol (VOIPs), which ride on your infrastructure. Is NetOne in a solid position to counter this development, which I feel remains a threat to telecoms firms. What strategies are in place to address this?
LM: Look, interestingly, VOIPs are not our enemy and we are not positioning ourselves as an enemy of VOIPs. NetOne is a communications company, so for me I welcome VOIPs, because they are bringing functionality. For me, I welcome anything that helps people use more data because data is the future. I don’t know why many people believe that the emergence of VOIPs is a problem in that they are riding on infrastructure. I think they are providing value to our consumers.
PM: President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been saying Zimbabwe is open for business. What does this mean to the telecoms industry?
LM: First of all, his Excellency is very refreshing. I think he is really doing a great job for investment in the country. The Zimbabwe is open for business mantra is good for the sector because now I think you are aware that Cabinet has approved the liberalisation or partial privatisation of some State-owned entities including NetOne. This will allow some investment to come into the industry.
PM: What sort of investment is required for NetOne to catch up with the competition?
LM: Look, I guess I am not at liberty to say what is required. But, suffice to say that we have about $71 million worth of funding from China Eximbank and we are going to invest that money in the right sectors that we can leverage on over our competitors. One doesn’t need to invest the same as completion to win. We can still win by investing smartly and choosing your battles well.
PM: Your target for this year?
LM: This is quite a difficult question because I think in the next three weeks, after I have done an intensive study of the market as you know I am only two weeks old at NetOne, I will then be able to later share with you the strategy as to where I believe we will be at the end of the year.
PM: How do you plan to achieve the turnaround of NetOne?
LM: Everything starts off with the basics. If we get the basics right you will start to see traction. I want to ensure that the leadership is involved in the business. I am not an absent CEO, I am an involved CEO, I am engaged, I am extremely hands on and I intend to be a change agent together with my management team.
PM: Do you see scope in sharing infrastructure with competition?
LM: Our view is that it makes sense to share infrastructure. It lowers the costs of the services that we need and it allows giving cheaper services to our customers. Duplication of infrastructure is bad for an economy because we are having to use foreign currency, which is scarce, to buy the same infrastructure. So as NetOne, we support such a move.
PM: Turning to the regulator’s role, what would you suggest it should do differently in the interest of creating a conducive business environment?
LM: I think our regulator is doing a good job. In fact, I think we have one of the best regulators in the region. And there is little I can suggest them to change today because looking at the other countries I have worked in, the amount of engagement we are having in this economy, the information it makes available is extremely good. So, as of now I think they should keep doing what they are doing and doing it well because I see a good regulator.
PM: What are the key market indicators of demand in the sector?
LM: Tthe economy is becoming very informal, which means that each household has become a revenue generator. People are no longer sitting, waiting for jobs. I think it’s quite important to deal with that space. So, what I see as demand indicators is that a lot of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) popping up everywhere.
SMEs are the biggest demand drivers in most developing countries and Zimbabwe included. I think it’s a positive route.
PM: How are you fitting into that sector?
LM: NetOne is for all the people and most people are into SMEs. So you will see in the near future as we restructure our team that there is going to be a key focus on SMEs, as one of our core pillars of taking charge in that space. We have a big advantage because we are a network for the people, we care for the people. We identify with them through our sponsorship.
PM: Following up on the restructuring of your team that you mentioned. What can we expect?
LM: As with any organisation,  a new CEO looks at the team you and sit with the team and you agree with the team on how best you can go forward. So, I cannot pre-empt, but all I can say is that we will sit as a team so that we come back with a winning formula for the leadership of NetOne. This is something the leadership has a collective view on.
PM: Talking about revenue streams, which segment do you see driving the future NetOne?
LM: I think data and mobile money are the key drivers of future revenues. You will start to see data growing exponentially not only at NetOne, but in the economy as well. We are very positive. We are already seeing incremental growth in our numbers month on month in our revenues and it’s quite encouraging.
PM: Your vision around football as sponsors of the Premier Soccer League giants-Dynamos, Highlanders and Caps?
LM: Football sponsorship gives NetOne the opportunity to give back to society. For us, going forward, we are going to partner with big brands in football because we believe there is a huge heritage, there is a huge following. We will be unveiling a new view on sponsorship. Certainly, there will be a view to take football to world class standards. And we shall make the market know anytime soon.
PM: Briefly, tell us about yourself?
LM: Lazarus Muchenje is the person that is driven by the need to give back to society and also to inspire everybody around him to become world class because Lazarus himself is world class.
PM: Thank you for your time.
LM: My pleasure.

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