Michael Foley, CEO, Grameenphone Ltd.

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In a conversation with Asif Tarafdar, the CEO of Grameenphone Ltd, Michael Foley divulges on what it takes to stay ahead in the ever-evolving telecom industry, the delights of working in Bangladesh and the things that keep him awake at night. 

The Telecom industry is a dynamic and rapidly evolving sector, what challenges does this pose? What are the strategies that help you to ensure the ship is guided in the right direction?
That’s a wonderful question and a great topic to start the conversation because our industry and the world is becoming much more complicated. In the past, in telecom, the only real evolution was in technology, and you could predict the path of progression. Now, the transformation has become multidimensional; every other aspect of the sector is evolving, including the regulatory environment and international competition. Concurrently, new players are entering the market like OTTs (Over The TOP), cross-platform messaging and VoIP platforms like WhatsApp and Viber. Most importantly, consumer behaviour and preferences are constantly evolving.
Consequently, the future is no longer predictable; therefore, we have to allow ourselves to perceive/predict and react, which is not easy for big companies. To make that happen, we have had to change the culture of not just Grameenphone fundamentally, but the entire Telenor Group over the last four years to become much more supple. It allowed us to adapt quickly and look for opportunities where otherwise we would not have searched before. The process stipulates making the organization leaner. It also involves removing layers of management, automating and replacing outdated systems. Instead of using massive system developments and releases once every half year, or every year, we now have a customer-facing tool, MyGP, which we do releases every two weeks. Therefore, we moved to a completely different operation from where we were before.
So, the answer to dealing with an uncertain future is to give yourself the tools to be much more flexible. And we call that “Agile”; we have to react quickly. But we also have to predict and move fast while being in touch with the market by using tools like Big Data and AI.

How has GrameenPhone incorporated the use of Big data and AI in its operations?
We use Big Data, Machine learning, and some AI to design promotions. They help us to understand the consumers by Upazilas, or even smaller groups and design promotions accordingly. Grameenphone can modify the offers that consumers get, based on their usage almost in real-time.
We are also using more and more of these tools for management of networks because they are becoming very complex. Modern networking technologies require incredibly sophisticated tools; we augment human intelligence and effort with these advanced technologies.

Your consumer base is incredibly large and diverse, does that make predicting even more challenging?
We have roughly 76 million customers right now, and that scale allows us to do very significant analysis. For example, GP serves up 400 million minutes of voice services per day. In every one of those calls, there are multiple interactions. These interactions allow us to create models of how our customers and the economy behaves, which eventually enables us to start crafting services and products that meet the needs of clients. And that the ability of computing power today to crunch this amount of is such that the scale of it gives us an advantage rather than a deficit. 

I usually tend to be very deeply hands-on, involved in every aspect of the business. From working on promotions to setting up towers in various districts, I prefer to be engaged in every operation.

You have previously worked as CEO of Telenor Pakistan and Bulgaria, are there any specific challenges that you had to overcome in Bangladesh?
I’ve previously worked in markets similar to Bangladesh, including Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. Like any other market, Bangladesh has some specific challenges. For us (Telenor Group), Bangladesh has been one of the most successful ventures, and we’ve been here for more than two decades. It is the cornerstone of our activities in Asia.
For Bangladesh, some obstacles are very distinctive, for example, I’ve been here for 36 months, and we have already had three cyclones. These are obstacles that you don’t have in other parts of the world. But we have become good at dealing with these things. So eventually, we get good at dealing with the challenges that exist in specific markets.

Do you have to make any adjustments to your style of leadership depending on the country you are working?
Yes! I usually tend to be very deeply hands-on, involved in every aspect of the business. From working on promotions to setting up towers in various districts, I prefer to be engaged in every operation. However, this business has become so massive and complex that it doesn’t allow me to do that anymore. Likewise, our corporate strategy of “Red way of work” and “Agile” makes the leader play a different role. So the leader plays two particular roles now; it includes setting clear objectives and managing the results closely.
And in the middle, you let people within broad guidelines find their way. My job as a leader is to set those very clear objectives and to manage the results at the end, and then facilitate the way they do things, but let people find their way.
George Patton, the American general in the Second World War, said to let people do their job the way they want to, they might surprise you with the results. And this is what happens in GP, we have a fantastic team of people, the best in Bangladesh work for us, and they do amazing things.
My leadership team and I do not need to tell them how to do something. We only explicate our expectations in the end.
There are some exercises where I’m on the team but not leading. My office doesn’t have a big wall around it and has a desk like everybody else, and anyone can walk up to me. I am also part of some business teams only to provide guidance rather than being the final decision-maker.

Are you satisfied with the rate of 4G adaptation among Bangladeshi consumers?
Yes! The adaptation rate is admirable. There are challenges, and most of them have to do with handset availability. Smartphones are expensive in Bangladesh, but there’s a reasonable good reason for that.
Right now, we cover 71% of the population with 4G. And by the end of next year, we will have all our sites under 4G coverage which amounts to approximately 95% of the population.
We have 30-40 million people in our country who still use 2G handsets, for them migrating is more difficult as 4G smartphones are expensive.
4G handsets are costly because the government has put taxes on its import. In my opinion, its (taxes) pretty reasonable and it appears to be a successful policy for the government actually to encourage manufacturers to build manufacturing facilities here in Bangladesh. And the government of Bangladesh has put in the right pair of barriers at the border. If you’re bringing in parts, the tariffs are more, if you’re bringing in components, they are lower. So the more you get into field manufacturing, the less expensive it is to build a headset here.
And while it may have caused a bit of a challenge for people to adopt, in the long term, this is an excellent decision. As the handset prices come down, people will eventually migrate 4G handsets.

Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is targeting to commence 5G mobile network by 2023? Do you believe we are on track to achieve that target?
Well, the good news is the equipment that we’re installing right now is essentially the last generation of 4g equipment. And it’s all designed to be somewhat compatible with 5g. So when 5g happens, we will be able to launch in pockets 5g where it’s needed. But 5g will not bring a revolution of new equipment. There might be some new antennas, spectrum and baseboards in our equipment, but it will not be a massive revolution.
There are three primary services for 5g. One is ultra-high-speed mobile services; the second thing is this massive machine type communication. So, MMPC, this requires very, very small bandwidth. Many devices around the world, for example, metering, electrical grid monitoring, water grid monitoring use this technology, this can be done partly on 4g as well.
And then there’s very fast, very highly reliable low latency, 5g services for gaming or autonomous vehicles or telerobotics. So, a doctor or a surgeon doing surgery remotely over a wireless network, those things are further down in the future for us in Bangladesh, although some of it might come, some specific applications might come early like robotics, manufacturing controls or so on. Although, the business cases are further out at this moment. Eventually, every application will happen in Bangladesh as well, and it will happen pretty quick. 

Right now, we cover 71% of the population with 4G. And by the end of next year, we will have all our sites under 4G coverage which amounts to approximately 95% of the population.

How do you deal with cyber security concerns?
There are a few things that keep me awake, and I spend a lot of time worrying about, cybersecurity is one of them. The devices that we have in our hands today are the supercomputers of a decade ago. We now operate on IP networks, just like computers do. So the risks are not only from handsets but for from other entities as well. Criminals might want to get in and play games with the networks for industrial espionage or for hacking information about customers. We have a fundamental responsibility to ensure the safety of our networks for national security reasons. So it’s something we spent a lot of time on.

Grameenphone has committed to the UN SDG #10 – (Reduced Inequalities) in Bangladesh, what are the aspects of inequality does GP want to address? What are the activities you have undertaken to serve this objective?
I want to open this by saying one thing, over the last decade, the growth of the Bangladeshi economy has been about 6.5% on average. In 2018, the growth was 7.3%, and hopefully, we will surpass that rate this year (2019). It is the result of policy, vision and execution of the government and people of Bangladesh. This incredible economic growth has raised millions of people every year from poverty towards the middle class, playing a significant role in reducing inequalities. Three key technologies facilitate in reducing inequalities are medical services, electrification, and mobile telecommunications.
When you put in mobile services into a community, you end up with people having access to trade, commerce and education and security. You also ensure access to essential services like medical care, information and connectivity with your friends. And it is in itself a form it is a form of socio-economic development.
So the very nature of what we do in the industry, not just myself but my colleagues in the telecom sector, contributes to reducing inequalities from the technological aspect.
We are also moving to get more women into management, it makes the company more productive. The decisions are more robust, and you represent the client base that you serve because 40- 50% of our client base are women. We’re also developing female managers for every one of the leadership teams in the company.
Thirdly, by the end of this year, we will have trained about 300,000 adults, and a million children face to face on how to use the internet safely. We are teaching them the importance of having strong passwords, dangers of sharing real-time location and securing private information from strangers — Simultaneously, guiding them on how to use the internet responsibly.

When you put in mobile services into a community, you end up with people having access to trade, commerce and education and security.

You have been in Bangladesh for three years now.Are you having fun?
So, does it look like I’m having fun? (laugh) . I’m very passionate about being here. It has been a humbling privilege to lead a company like this that does so much good. Grameenphone pays more corporate tax than about five next companies combined. We are fully aware that 70% of daily traffic goes through our networks. In places like Sylhet and Rajshahi, if our network goes down for 10 mins (it doesn’t), the economy stops because we have 80-85 market share. So this is a privilege.

How do you like to spend your free time?
Free time!what’s that? (laugh), we have a hectic schedule but my free time is mostly spent with my family. I have two daughters in Canada who are in university, so much of my time is spent sending them money (laugh). I have remarried, my wife is a Kenyan national, she’s from Nairobi. We have a four-year-old daughter, and they share their time between Nairobi and here (Dhaka). When they are in town, that’s 100% of my time.When they are away, I spend most of my free time reading. Most of the books that I pick up now have to do with international economics or internet or international politics. I usually use the reading List of Fareed Zakaria, host of GPS on CNN. I don’t miss this program, and I like watching what he does. And so I usually pick books out of his reading list. For fiction, I’m a huge Star Trek and Star Wars fan. I’ve read 400 Star Trek novels in my life. So I know everything about Star Trek you want to know about.

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