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Telecoms chief is still learning

Published on Friday, 25 May 2012
Tarek Robbiati
Group managing director of Telstra International Group, and chairman of CSL
Photo: May Tse

Tarek Robbiati is group managing director of Telstra International Group and also chairman of CSL. During a 20-year career in the telecoms, finance, media and technology industries, the Italian native has been guided by Michelangelo’s maxim: Ancora imparo – “I am still learning.”

What did you study at university?
I studied engineering and nuclear physics, long ago in France. My speciality was something called electronic instrumentation and physics. It’s a very traditional engineering discipline. I also did an MSc in business administration in France, and then I did an MBA – much later, in 1996-98 – at London Business School.

What attracted you to the telecoms business?
All I knew was that I liked the industry and I wanted to look at it from different angles, and I felt that I was always missing one angle. I started as a strategy consultant – deep into understanding technology, its operation and its strategic applications, and business strategy. And then I realised that there was very little knowledge applied in big telcos about finance and understanding what was driving the value creation. This prompted me to go into equity research.

What excites you about this business now?
This is an industry that has an enormous amount of change – competition brings change, technology brings change, regulation brings change, industry consolidation brings change. If you don’t like change, don’t get into this industry. The other thing that is brilliant about it is the innovation capability that you have in this industry is second to none. It’s like a magic box; you can always find new ways of doing things.

What do you see as your most significant achievement to date?
I think the best thing I’ve done is undoubtedly when we carried out the total network swap out of CSL in Hong Kong, which basically involved replacing the entire CSL network – which was live and supporting 2.7 million customers at the time – with a brand new advanced network of real 3.5G, which set us up for the next 10 years. The project started in January 2008, and was completed in March 2009. It has put CSL in a very different competitive position. We’ve leap-frogged everybody!

What are the biggest challenges facing the telecoms industry in Hong Kong?
The industry structure in Hong Kong will always be a challenge. There are too many players in this market, and not many who are making money. Then you have inflationary pressure, which is another very big challenge, particularly when you look at, for example, the price of real estate in Hong Kong, which is affecting everybody including the telecoms industry, because we pay rent. The third challenge, for me, [is that] it’s shocking to see such a sophisticated, advanced economy at the very top of the world which doesn’t have a proper competition law. And it would be desirable to have this to prevent industry malpractices – such as predatory pricing, cartel behaviour, and others – which distort not only the economic aspects for competitors but also hinder the greater good, in a sense.

What else do you hope to accomplish at CSL and Telstra?
CSL is a train that is launched on the fast track, and I want to make sure that it keeps accelerating on that fast track. It’s a business that is performing extremely well – or perhaps very well. I shouldn’t say extremely well – there’s always room for improvement.

Would you describe yourself as a competitive person?
A terribly competitive person. I’m a competitive and learning person. That’s my leadership style. I love to compete.

How would you describe your business philosophy?
I think it’s about competing to win, and learning is very, very important because if you think you’ve made it and you rest on your laurels, it’s never going to work. You’ve got to find the next big idea – all the time. You have to be extremely analytical and numerical in your approach, because numbers tell you the story that sometimes people don’t want to tell you.

The attention that one needs to spend driving performance in a high-growth business is very significant and, at the same time, you have to be quick at rectifying your course of action… So I would say my management philosophy is to deliver results in an uncertain, changeable environment, and deliver those fast. And you need to be ready to accept mistakes along the way, because if you don’t, there is no way you can adapt and learn from them.

What is your management style?
Gone are the days when you could be directive – it doesn’t work. I’m trying to build a business across 15 countries. There’s no way in hell I can achieve that single-handedly, so I’ve got to really build a star team around me – a star team and not just a team of stars. We do have very heated debates between us and I think it’s healthy.

What character traits do you think are most important in achieving success in today’s business world?
You’ve got to be adaptable. You’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to be resolute, resilient. You’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to be bold in your convictions but bold enough also in recognising your mistakes. And learning – learning, learning, learning. If you take all of this into account, I guarantee you, you will never be bored.

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