Women in charge
Ellie Sweeney, the new CEO of Vocus, tells Alan Burkitt-Gray about her plans for the Australian telco and its work in the area of ESG.
In February, Australian operator Vocus announced that it promoted Ellie Sweeney, who had been its chief operating officer (COO) for the previous four years, to chief executive. A couple of weeks after starting her new job in March, Sweeney agreed to an interview with Capacity, her first in her new role.
Before Vocus, Sweeney was with Telstra for 11 years, latterly in charge of enterprise services. She took over as CEO when Vocus began an A$1 billion (US$700 million), five-year investment programme to upgrade and expand the company’s fibre infrastructure.
The first time I met Sweeney was at Capacity Europe in Paris seven years ago when she was on a panel I chaired about women in telecoms. She was then a year into a global sales role with Telstra, and now she’s leading one of Telstra’s rivals in the Australian and Asia-Pacific market.
The world has changed a little for women in telecoms since 2016, more so in Australia than in most countries. Sweeney reels off a list of women in senior jobs in the sector across Australia. Three of the country’s four telcos are run by women: Sweeney, Vicki Brady at Telstra and Kelly Bayer Rosmarin at Optus. In addition, Australia’s federal minister for communications is Michelle Rowlan, and on the regulatory side, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is chaired by Gina Cass-Gottlieb and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) by Nerida O’Loughlin.
Vocus itself is chaired by Penny Bingham-Hall, who said Sweeney’s appointment reflected her contribution to Vocus as COO, and her leadership role in developing Vocus’ strategy and strong momentum.
“Ellie has proven her credentials as an outstanding business leader throughout Vocus’s turnaround phase and into the current stage of investment and growth,” said Bingham-Hall.
Sweeney notes that Vocus’ board consists of one man and four “incredibly impressive women, smart and well briefed” women.
“There are only two blokes left at the top,” of telecoms in Australia, Sweeney tells me in a call from Sydney.
At Vocus, Sweeney replaced Kevin Russell, who decided it was time to for him retire. During his career Russell worked for Hutchison, Three UK as CEO, Optus and Telstra.
A few years after Sweeney moved from Telstra to Vocus, after a sabbatical in which she walked the Camino de Santiago (a 30-day hike covering 500 miles), the company was taken over by a consortium led by the Australian financial group Macquarie and Aware Super, a pension fund that has A$150 billion of assets under management. (Incidentally, the CEOs of Macquarie and of Aware Super are both women.)
Form a queue
Vocus supplies the large-scale customers with transmission, voice, universal communications, wide-area network (WAN) and cloud services.
“Our customer base is right across enterprise, government, wholesale and international,” Sweeney tells me. “We have separate businesses in retail and consumer.”
“I came in four years ago as part of the turnaround of the whole business,” she told me during our call.
Sweeney didn’t say so, but before she took control, Vocus was in a mess. And people knew it, so the company was surrounded by potential bidders. In 2017 two private equity firms, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) and Affinity Equity Partners submitted separate offers, but withdrew them after Vocus – a public company – missed its profit guidance. EQT, which owns 50% of Zayo among other telecoms assets, also made an offer in 2019, but the deal fell through. A little later AGL submitted a bid, and then promptly withdrew it.
Initially Macquarie and Aware Super made separate offers, but came together to make a joint bid in 2021 that was eventually completed for A$3.5 billion.
Under its new ownership, Vocus has started a number of ambitious projects, including Project Horizon, a new 2,000km fibre connection from Perth to Port Hedland, the first competitive fibre backbone through Australia’s mining and resources region. And, just before Sweeney’s appointment as CEO, Vocus announced it planned to acquire Challenge Networks, a provider of 4G and 5G private mobile networks.
Sweeney was responsible much of this development when she was Vocus’s COO, including its digital and network transformation programme, the expansion of its reach and network capacity to establish a highly secure national fibre backbone, and a significant uplift in customer experience.
Moving into private hands has “been very positive for the business”, she tells me. “It’s a challenger business in the Australian market. We are careful where we play and make money – choosing where we do have something to offer.”
This role “sets us apart”, says Sweeney. “We have a bias for action and a passion for action. Our focus is on delivery.”
The company has “a flat structure that lends itself to people delivering to customers”, she adds.
One of the transformation projects with which Sweeney has been concerned is a Salesforce-based plan “to give a 360-degree view of the customer”, says Sweeney.
“We’ve been working on a large transformation project over the last three years and building a new layer 2 and 3 edge network, integrating our business suport systems (BSS) and operations support systems (OSS) stacks.” That’s business support systems and operations support systems, essentially IT for telecoms operators.
“That’s been focused on rationalising and consolidating our business,” she adds. “As a result, a lot of people have been talking about the business benefits. In fact, it’s been a transformational benefit.”
Space and subsea
Vocus also provides a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite ground station network and has partnerships with Starlink and OneWeb. A lot of Australia is remote. “We’re investing with Starlink moreso from a retail perspective.”
The company also provides backhaul for Starlink’s Earth stations. Like other LEO networks, Starlink needs a dense arrangement of earth stations to beam signals up and down, and each of them requires a good fibre connection.
It is not just in space though. Look at a map of Australia and the western Pacific Ocean and you can see that the northern Australian city of Darwin is 3,330km from Singapore, around 200km less than Canberra, Australia’s capital, is from the city, while Perth, on Australia’s west coast, lies 3,900km from Singapore.
“The great southern route from Singapore to Perth is important,” says Sweeney. Perth is “a critical access point” to the Australian market and also to a transpacific connection to the US.
That’s only one of the subsea ambitions that Sweeney and her team are developing. She’s planning a cable system along the east coast of Australia, linking Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. “We’ve broken ground on that. We are through the planning stage.”
What’s top of her agenda now? “Making sure I do deliver,” she smiles. Especially on that A$1 billion investment programme.
“And making sure we are helping to close the digital divide in Australia, by building a secure, reliable and ubiquitous alternative to some of the other carriers.” She wants “a level of differentiation” for customers, including enterprises and over-the-top (OTT) service providers.
Sweeney stands out as a leader in another way. “I’m very focused on people, and the culture and the environment, to ensure we deliver that ‘challenger’ ethos. I want us to focus on where we can create market share,” she says.
While at Telstra, between 2002 to 2018, Sweeney worked in Telstra, she worked at a company that had public shareholders. The federal government held 17% in 2006, but that reduced its holding over the following five years.
What’s the difference from working in privately held Vocus, with only two owners? “We’re fortunate,” she says enthusiastically. “It’s a good time to be privately owned.” The shareholders are “very focused, as we are, on ESG [environmental, social and governance standards], and on work health and safety”.
This is the first time, in decades of interviewing CEOs in the telecoms and technology industry, that any of them has mentioned health and safety in the workplace to me. Sweeney does it not once, but four times during our long conversation.
So what does she mean by that? “Our key assets are our human capital,” and “work health and safety is critical”, she says.
“We have 1,500 people in Australia and more than 1,000 outside Australia. Their physical and psychological safety is really important,” she explains. “We have a field workforce, contractors, people in data centres, and they’re going through a major transformation.”
With some of its projects, “we have people in the desert”, she notes. “We are very conscious of their work health and safety. In the past the [key performance indicators] would be about making money. Now, with ESG and modern slavery concerns in particular in our industry, we take it really seriously. I want to make sure it’s a safe environment.”
In particular, Sweeney is tackling the gender pay gap. “As Covid hit, we were seeing women exit the workforce. Now, we are making sure women are supported, that we don’t want to see them leave, that we are here to help.”