CEO Q&A: Colm O’Neill, CEO, BT Ireland

Interviews | Fri 19 Dec | Author – Niamh Mac Sweeney Colm O’Neill, CEO, BT Ireland

Providing the infrastructure to keep the world connected is mission critical, BT Ireland’s Colm O’Neill tells Niamh Mac Sweeney.

Q: How is BT investing in the telecoms industry in Ireland?

A: The telecoms industry moves at such pace that it requires constant investment just to stay still, so at BT we are always looking at ways to develop our business and stay ahead of the curve.

In the past year we’ve invested heavily in rolling out fibre broadband infrastructure in rural areas across Northern Ireland and in launching the first 100G core network in the Republic of Ireland.

We’ve also invested significantly in our data centre facilities to make them even more power efficient so that they equip us to meet the ever-increasing need for business cloud services.

BT Ireland is an €800m business and is therefore a significant and successful part of the BT Group operation. In addition, we continue to see great potential in the business market here that we have the resources and global network capability to capitalise on.

Q: What are your main priorities and goals in your role at BT?

A: Delivering on our strategy is a key priority and one component of this is supporting the Irish-based global MNC and major indigenous exporting market.

BT is one of only three organisations worldwide that has a truly global network backed up by a large, highly experienced local team. We understand the complex communication requirements these companies have and we have the experience and resources to enable them to base themselves here and meet their needs.

Q: From your previous experience what approach and leadership style do you bring to your role at BT?

A: We have a people-focused business and over the past number of years we have done a lot of work to enhance the working lives of our people and make BT a great place to work.

I want people to enjoy what they do and feel part of a team that has a strong growth plan.

As a leader I feel a huge responsibility to deliver on this goal.

Q: How is the telecoms industry in Ireland performing and what do you attribute this to?

A: Overall there has been an approximate 20% decline in total revenues in the communications market in Ireland over the past five years, so there are real challenges there.

This decline is primarily driven by intense competition amongst the key players, a reduction in volume through the recession and huge price pressure across the marketplace.

Q: How is the BT Group performing overall and how important is Ireland to its global operations?

A: Despite the challenging environment, we have actually performed very well, growing our top and bottom line business through good cost discipline and careful strategic decision-making.

Most importantly, we’ve ensured that we can continue to deliver value to our customers and that we have the resources to invest in the long-term future of our business.

Q: What are the current trends in the telecoms industry in Ireland?

A: There are two major converging trends presenting a major challenge the industry — fixed and mobile convergence and the integration of telecoms and IT services to provide cloud-based services.

As consumers and businesses demand ever more bandwidth, BT is at the heart of this change, with our consumer offerings such as fibre and BT Sport, and our business offerings, such as global network capability, 4G Spectrum and integrated cloud services.

Q: Has BT Ireland experienced any skills gaps in the market and, if so, how has the company invested in its people to meet industry requirements?

A: We employ about 3,000 people on the island of Ireland and require a huge range of skills, from engineering, sales, IT, research and development, customer service and much more.

We believe that we need to equip our young people with the right skills to help them succeed in industry and support Ireland’s economic growth.

This is why we are such strong advocates of the STEM agenda and why we have organised and sponsored the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition for the past 15 years.

Q: How can Irish firms continue to attract IT professionals of the highest calibre?

A: To address future potential skills gaps, I firmly believe that equipping students with crucial STEM skills at a young age and fostering their interest in these subjects will be a major help in providing Ireland with a pool of skilled professionals in key disciplines that are core to the growth of the Irish economy.

Q: What are some of the challenges BT Ireland faces in the industry and what are the driving forces that help you through these challenges?

A: Competition and remaining ahead of the curve in an ever-evolving industry are probably the biggest challenges.

In the communications industry innovation is key and we spend hundreds of millions each year in research and development to future proof our business and to continue to deliver the best solutions possible for our customers.

Q: Do you think the Government are doing enough to support the industry in Ireland?

A: I think the recent the €500m investment in rural broadband is a positive step forward in bridging the digital divide that currently exists.

We have been through this journey in Northern Ireland whereby we have rolled out fibre broadband to over 90% of homes and businesses, and are working to close that gap even more under the current Northern Ireland Broadband Improvement project.

So as an experienced provider, we understand the complexity and challenges involved in a project of this scale.

Maintaining that momentum will be crucial, so I would encourage the Government to move now with pace to continue that step forward in the right direction.

Q: Do you have a leadership style? How do you motivate yourself and your team?

A: I think that my team is motivated by the sense of responsibility that we feel working for one of the world’s largest communication providers.

At BT, we provide mission critical infrastructure and services that keep the world connected; everything from connecting ATMs for financial institutions to operating the 999 emergency call answering service.

We build the high-speed networks that consumers and businesses need in order to access the technology which we all now depend so heavily on in our daily lives, and that is hugely motivating.

Q: How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

A: A business obviously needs to be financially successful in order to thrive, but I don’t believe that it is the only way to measure success.

I think that success should also be based on how you contribute to society, be it through direct investment, through volunteering, or by causing less harm to the environment. I’ve seen first-hand the difference we have made through our Better Future programme in Ireland and achieving the goals we set out in that programme is a real measure of success in my opinion.