32 degrees to 2degrees: a tropical odyssey

Sarah Putt talks to 2degrees operations manager Mia Fitzgerald, who until recently worked for Digicel

On a windy Thursday evening five years ago, in the depths of a miserable Irish winter, Mia Fitzgerald took the phone call that would change her life.

She was offered a one-year contract as a travel consultant at Digicel, an upstart mobile phone company that had begun in Jamaica after its founder Denis O’Brien purchased a radio licence from the government. The funding for this came from O’Brien’s sale of Esat Telecom Group to British Telecom for o2.4 billion. Or as Fitzgerald puts it: “The shareholder owned an Irish [telco] company, sold it off, then he started buying mobile licences in the Caribbean.”

In 2005 Irish-born Fitzgerald moved to Jamaica to coordinate travel arrangements for the company’s executives, just as the mobile phone company was taking off. It now has a presence in 26 Caribbean and Central American markets and six Pacific markets, employs 5500 people, has more than 1000 retail stores and has made O’Brien one of the richest men in the world.

Fitzgerald worked for Digicel for five years shifting from travel and HR roles to project managing the launch of Digicel retails stores, before moving here with her New Zealand partner and taking up a role with 2degrees as the head of retail sales channel.

Her job is to select the locations, negotiate leases and arrange for the fitouts of 2degrees stores. There are currently three company-owned stores with another one expected to open in Christchurch before the end of the year.

This is a somewhat different pace compared to her work at Digicel in the Caribbean and later in Papua New Guinea, where the company would acquire a mobile licence, build a network and, once everything was in place, open its doors overnight. There would be no advance marketing. “For the people of the local town, today they don’t see Digicel, tomorrow we are everywhere and to them it was an overnight thing.”

After more than two years in Jamaica, Fitzgerald was stationed in Papua New Guinea, where the company launched with more than 100 points of presence (that is stores and kiosks).

“When I got to Papua New Guinea for various reasons we had to launch ahead of time, the government was threatening to take back our licence,” she says. “So what we did was launch early, because once we had subscribers on the network it would make it less likely they could take it back. So we launched six weeks ahead of schedule.”

Fitzgerald stayed in Papua New Guinea for six months, during which time she travelled the entire country, to provinces such as Mt Hagen where tribal wars remain common. “I rang one of our sales managers one day to ask him how the sales went and he said, ‘I’ve no idea’ and I said ‘what do you mean you’ve no idea, its sales, you’ve got to know’. He says ‘Mia, I was pulling out of the hotel this morning and there are two guys with machetes fighting so I came back and turned on the radio and the town is closed today because of tribal wars’. So I was like, ‘OK, I can understand why you don’t have sales then’.”

Threats of violence were just one of the challenges she faced. “Being a while, blonde haired, blue-eyed female you stick out a bit, so I had to have a security guard that came with me to all the stores,” she says.

Then there was the difficulty of rolling out 100 stores in a country that has little infrastructure.

“You are selling handsets in regions where there are no roads between Port Moresby [the capital city] and the regions, so logistics is a big thing. You are selling to tribes who live in huts, for want of a better word, which basically have no power or electricity. So you have to become a little bit creative in the way that you do things,” she says.

Digicel overcame the problem of no electricity by installing a power board in a shack beside the village chief, so that the local people could go and pay to have their mobile phones charged.

But it wasn’t the tribal wars, or the threat of violence, or the problem of selling mobile phones to people with no electricity to charge them that drove her from Papua New Guinea, it was illness.

A swelling in her leg became a suspected case of elephantiasis. “When my leg started to swell the doctor is like ‘have you been to Madang’ and I was like, ‘yes, what is in Madang, I was there last week’ and he goes ‘Oh we’ve had lots of cases of elephantiasis from Madang’.”

“I walked home, and sat on my bed and started to cry ‘oh my god’. You could never tell your family this is what Papua New Guinea is like because they would be terrified for you. You couldn’t ring them and say ‘I think I’ve got elephantiasis, I’ll know in a few days’.”

It turned out not to be elephantiasis, but six weeks later she caught malaria and that took her almost three months to recover from.

After Papua New Guinea, Fitzgerald moved to Tonga to help with the roll out of stores when the company launched, then to Vanuatu, and finally to Fiji.

“Fiji was my last one. I decided after five years that third world and tropical diseases and challenges of waiting for fixtures and fittings to come by ferry from various places around the world, I just felt it was time for a change and I met my Kiwi partner while I was in Fiji who persuaded me that New Zealand was the place to go next. So I did.”

After a brief stint with a company in an entirely different industry Fitzgerald has returned to telecommunications, which she enjoys because it is so “fast moving”.

There are parallels between 2degrees majority owner Trilogy Group chairman John Stanton and her former boss O’Brien. Both have networks in Haiti to start with, both are self-made men and both became wealthy through investing in telecomms globally, entering the market as a second or third mobile operator in the selected country.

But whereas Stanton keeps a relatively low profile, O’Brien is a something of a mercurial figure on the world stage – revered in the Caribbean, and almost reviled in Ireland where he has major media interests.

So what is O’Brien like?

“He is a very approachable, nice man and very entrepreneurial,” she says. He always made a point of engaging with all staff and, most impressively, he has a huge talent for remembering people. “He will never forget your name.”

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Tags Networking & Telecomms ID2degreesdigicelmia fitzgerald

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