Digicel in mourning after sudden death of CEO Alex Matuschka

02 January 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The group CEO of Digicel, Alex Matuschka von Greiffenclau, has died – just days after completing a refinancing agreement with the company’s lenders.

Matuschka (pictured), only 47, died while on holiday with his family in Germany.

The group’s owner, Denis O’Brien, has taken charge of Digicel as interim CEO. “No words can adequately express our sadness at Alex’s passing or our gratitude for having worked with him,” O’Brien, who is also the group’s chairman, told staff. “Digicel has lost a committed hard-working and exceptional chief executive.”

Former Veon CEO Jean-Yves Charlier, who became executive vice-chairman of Digicel just days before Matuschka’s sudden death, told Capacity: “We are obviously deeply saddened by the sudden and unexpected loss of Alex, particularly for those like me who have known him and worked with him for years.”

Matuschka worked with Charlier at Veon – formerly VimpelCom – as its group chief performance officer: he was in charge of driving the company’s successful restructuring, transformation and integration programme.

Charlier – who has been CEO of Colt, SFR and Veon – is a clear candidate for the CEO role at Digicel. When he left Veon in March 2018 he indicated he was looking only for non-executive roles – and later he became a non-exec on Digicel’s board, but that changed in early December 2018 when he became executive vice-chairman.

It is too soon for Digicel to appoint a successor, Charlier told Capacity: “We are focused now on commemorating his memory. It is really too early for the board to consider at this stage any long term governance structure.”

Digicel owns networks in central American and the Caribbean as well as the Pacific. O’Brien founded the company after he sold Irish mobile operator Esat to BT in 2000. He planned an IPO a few years ago but abandoned the plan because of market conditions. The company is still privately held by O’Brien, but heavily in debt. O’Brien is also backing the Caribbean subsea project Deep Blue Cable

Matuschka became Digicel’s group CEO only in February 2018, when he replaced Colm Delves, who had stepped down after 13 years. Before Veon, he spent four years with Nokia’s networks operation, first as chief restructuring officer and latterly as chief transformation officer.

His full name was Alexander Graf Matuschka von Greiffenclau – which is how he appeared on LinkedIn. “Graf” is German for “count”, and the Greiffenclau family dates back to the Emperor Charlemagne, who died in the year 814. The Greiffenclau family vineyard in Germany dates back only to 1210.

At Digicel his main task, completed days before his death, was to renegotiate a large part of the group’s $6.7 billion debt in the face of concern that it would default.

He succeeded in deferring payment of $2 billion worth of debt due next year for two years, and in moving repayment of another $1 billion due in 2022 until 2024.

Matuschka’s next task would have been to continue the transformation of Digicel, with a target of boosting earnings by 10% to $1.1 billion and of selling $500 million worth of assets. In October 2018 the company sold 451 of its towers in Jamaica to a US company for $90 million. Digicel told analysts in November 2018 that the sale of assets was taking longer than expected. Digicel wants to cut the ratio between debt and EBITDA to 5.7, an improvement of the 6.7 at the end of the last financial year in March 2018.

Group CFO Ray Leclercq left at the end of September 2018 “to pursue other interests” after a quarterly report showed falling earnings. At that point the $2 billion worth of bonds due to be redeemed in September 2020 were trading at only $0.671 to the dollar.

Digicel announced in early December that a former BT executive, David Lomas, is to become CFO.

However its immediate task is to appoint a CEO so that it can pursue its planned asset sales and boost its earnings.