Written by: Philippe Riboton & Klára Smolová
Photo by: Petr Poliak
Eight months ago he took over the closely watched top post at Czech Telecom. In an exclusive interview he talks about what he has accomplished so far, his style of management, and his vision for the future.
Gabriel Berdár in the brain of the company, the Network Management Center
Why were you interested in this job in the first place?
What attracted me was that it was a challenge. I knew the company from the other side, being a client and a supplier. The company itself was in a shape that really needed a dramatic change, and that’s what we are doing right now. The challenge was to be able to prove that it can be done, that from a former state-owned organization one can make a proper commercial company.
Don’t you think that the previous CEOs in the past years said more or less the same thing?
Well, I haven’t noticed, actually. There might have been a verbal commitment to it, but certainly not much has happened so far.
Why do you think you’ve been selected for the job?
Frankly, I don’t know. You should raise that question to those that selected me. But from what I know, unfortunately, this has been a very badly managed process. And it put a lot of people into a very difficult position, including myself. It should have been done in a very different way, if it was going to be done professionally.
A lot of people say that politics made the difference. What do you answer to this?
Well, if politics makes the difference then you would expect to see a politician sitting in this chair managing the company – which is not the case.
In which shape did you find the company when you came on board?
From the financial point of view, the company had accelerated a number of negative trends like revenue declines, customer base erosion and other things. From that hard fact point of view, the company was nowhere near where it was a couple of years ago. I looked at how the company works in terms of structure – the internal processes, how people work together, focus on certain priorities. Obviously very bureaucratic, very hierarchical, lots of isolated silos. True integration and true cooperation was replaced with a lot of bureaucratic principles, bureaucratic politics, or absurd policies, regulations, and stuff like that. I would say it was also one of the cornerstones why the company looked the way it did. There was nothing you would call a company culture – the priorities, the need for efficiency, an understanding of customer needs, of business basics in a pure sense – that you are here to make money, to make profits for the shareholders, to be able to stay on the market.
When you got to the job and started to discuss all the details, was it exactly what you expected or were you disappointed?
Well, disappointed…you might be disappointed by discovering that it is worse than you expected. On the other hand, if you do discover it, you have actually more to do. That’s good because it will keep you busy for a longer time. I take the view that the more inefficiency and the more improprieties you discover, the better for you because you can fix it. If it were perfect then I would be useless here.
Is your priority on at least maintaining the market share you have or regaining customers? Or do you just want to prepare the company for privatization, whatever it takes?
What you can do is to slow down certain negative trends, or try to eliminate them. Meanwhile, you install new, better trends that will get you to the next level. This company is going through a typical S-curve, where it is currently in a phase of saturation. Right now we are working towards starting a new S-curve. We all go through a dip, and at Czech Telecom, we are starting to slow the decline and the negative trends, while working on new activities that will take the company to the next level.
How many times do you think a company of that size can be turned around, and what do you think is left from the company after ten years of operations, after it’s been restructured a few times?
How many times can a company be changed, restructured, reinvented, reshaped? Countless times. It depends on how long the company wants to survive. Every company is facing a changing market. How many times have companies like GE, Nokia, AT&T, Ford, and others reinvented themselves? Countless. I believe it is the duty of the company if it wants to survive long term. There are certain basic principles you have to adhere to. What the core business is going to be ten, fifteen, twenty years from now may not necessarily have much in common with the current business. It depends where the technology, the market, and the customers go.
Did you communicate your vision for the company internally? How did you or how will you convince the staff of the necessity to follow your vision and motivate them to go in that direction?
We’ve seen over a thousand people – managers and top performers within the company – in five different locations in the Czech Republic. And when we looked at the feedback forms that we collected, there was a 99% buy-in to it. Statistically that represents a major driving force behind the change. I’m not saying that everyone is behaving that way. It is clear, especially in the Czech culture, that there is a distinct difference between declaring something and following up with actions. But the buying-in is there, people understand the necessity of those things. Also, we keep communicating what we are doing throughout the staff chain. The transformation process is not an isolated activity of a small group of 10-15 or 100 people, while the rest do the business as usual.