The C-Suite Hotseat

CFO Hotseat: Telstra's James Lester talks investment and what new CEO, Roary Stasko, might bring to the table

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CFO Hotseat: Telstra's International CFO, James Lester, has been with the company since 2003. He leads an international team that works with the business to serve customers, with revenues in excess of AUD$2.5 billion per annum.

Earlier this year Roary Stasko took the Telstra reins from Oliver Camplin-Warner to become the new CEO of International Business. As former finance and strategy executive director, Stasko has extensive experience in the international marketplace.

But Lester doesn’t believe the change in leadership is likely to result in a change in priorities. “The business has had amazing success over the last few years and has continued to meet all our growth objectives at the top and bottom line. I think we may see a slightly different focus from Roary (Stasko) and he’ll evaluate where we're up to and really look at where we can further invest to accelerate the success that we've had before, not that he's going to completely change directions. I'm sure that there will be some changes along the way, as it's inevitable as you try and grow that something will change, but I don't think we will see a change in direction after what has been a very successful few years for the international business.

Telstra recently announced that it has teamed up with Starlink to offer customers in rural Australia voice-only and voice plus broadband. Whilst it sits outside his remit, Lester believes that understanding ‘How LEO is going to play out across the Pacific Islands for Digicel and across Australia and Asia is a really important topic for us, particularly as we operate in large and challenging geographies’.

Lester says. “The rapidly evolving regulatory environment is another very hot topic for me. And understanding the risk profile within which we want to engage with that. We want to comply with all legal and regulatory requirements, but we also have to understand the financial impacts of that.”

Investment

Last year Capacity reported on thetwo major infrastructure projects that Telstra had in the planning. Lester says that investing in infrastructure remains a key focus.

“We continue to invest in infrastructure and building out our capacity to maintain our position in relation to the subsea markets in Transpacific. It's super important to us. And we continue to ensure that we drive the value from that into the international business and then back to the shareholders in Australia.

“But equally given that we're developing our enterprise business, there is investment in expanding some of our product capabilities. And back to my earlier comment, really aligning with some of the customer needs because customers don’t buy products, they buy solutions to their problems, and we cannot be out there just trying to sell our product and tailoring it to them. We need to solve their problem and that’s where a lot of our investment is.

“At a macro level, we invested in Digicel and we continue to invest to help improve connectivity for people in the Pacific markets.

“Given the three different pillars, it is critical for Telstra that all of those stand up by themselves and are not being materially subsidised. Each of these areas are growing year on year at this moment in time at both a revenue and an EBITDA level.”

Capacity quick-fire questions

If you didn't do your job, what would you do and why?

“I’d probably be a history teacher. If I'm going to read books, they're going to have a historical bend to them and it's fascinating as we try and explore a greater understanding of how history works because most history, even when I studied it, was written from the perspective of the ruler. There's a lot more history now that's written from the perspective of the bottom up, which is really fascinating to understand.”

What would you say your professional strengths are?

“I’m super curious and I don't like not knowing, so I would say that I have a breadth of knowledge that is not remotely linked to finance. I really like to understand a bit more about how all things work.

“I’m also really balanced and extremely calm. So, I don't get flustered very easily and I really try hard to see things from as many angles as possible.”

What’s the best career advice you have ever received?

“Always ensure that you have some sort of goal that you're working towards that takes you forward. They don't need to be life goals. They don't need to be 10-year goals, but they do need to be focussed on how you’re taking yourself forward.”

If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently in your career?

“Yes and no because I've ended up in an amazing role really enjoying what I do. I'd love to go back and tell my early 20s self you know it is not a meritocracy and you should network more.”