‘Insanity’ ends for Telecom chief

No one in their right mind would want to put a company through what Telecom has been through the past five years, says outgoing chief operations officer Ben McMillen.

“Only an insane person would have tried to do what we did, unless they had to. You don’t voluntarily have open heart surgery. The thing is, we had no option.”

McMillen had been on the verge of retiring in 1992 after 40 years in the US telecommunications industry when he was asked to head a joint taskforce being put together by Telecom’s new owners, Ameritech and Bell Atlantic.

The task force’s job was to work out how Telecom could prevent losing out to newcomers following the deregulation of the New Zealand telecommunications industry.

“From 1991 to mid- 1992 Telecom was losing substantial market share in all areas — 1% per month, sometimes 1.5%,” says McMillen. “Clear was being far more successful than any company entering into this kind of competition in the world.”

And with further competitors coming in, Telecom faced the prospect of being everyone’s target. While revenue was running down, costs were staying the same and the company’s share price was, at best, stagnant.

The task force came up with a raft of radical changes, and it was then that Telecom ceo Roderick Deane asked McMillen to stay and help implement them — “a temptation I couldn’t refuse”.

The hardest part of his time at Telecom was the layoff of several thousand staff announced in 1993.

“We went to every workplace and told them what was happening and why. It wasn’t easy, and I think it made it worse that I’m a foreigner.”

That aside, McMillen has no regrets about his decision to succumb to Telecom’s offer three-and-a-half years ago.

“I’ve sincerely appreciated being a guest in this wonderful country,” he says.

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