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“Excellent, caring and pleasingly different”

Interview - May 3, 2012
Nawras hit the ground running in 2005 when it began operating as Oman’s second mobile operator. CEO Ross Cormack discusses the company’s growth over the past years and the potential it has to continue expanding in this dynamic market

Next week you will be attending the GSMA Mobile World Congress 2012 in Barcelona, the most significant international gathering in telecoms. What are your expectations for the event?

The GSMA Mobile World Congress is the largest annual event in our industry. Ours is one of the few sectors that actually get together for meetings of this scale. It underlines the very nature of our global business. Some time between last year and this year’s GSMA Mobile World Congress, we have actually welcomed the 6 billionth mobile customer in the world. When you know that there are over 6 billion people on Earth, it is safe to assume that statistically, nearly everybody can talk to anybody on the planet. It may not be 100%, but we are staggeringly close to it.  

I expect to discuss the global trends and the massive convergence between all the different industries. This includes content, be it Bollywood or Hollywood, Australia or Africa. As you know, the content of the world is becoming available to everybody through handheld devices like smart phones. Not only can you phone whomever you need to on the planet, you also get to share information through various forms of media. It started with messaging, and consequently branched out into other platforms such as Facebook, which today has a population that is bigger than many countries. For many people, their primary communication platform is through social media networks.    

In terms of financial convergence, in some parts of the world, a number of unbanked people in the world are transferring value from one mobile handset to another. This value can be converted into real money. Technology is allowing SIM cards to register data such as credit card details. In a retail environment, there are some countries where you can actually have the device scanned by the till to purchase items.

Other spheres of convergence include health, education (the very practical distance learning), and so on. All of these industries coalesce at the same scale as the penetration of these devices that support them. 

Drawing on your international experience, how do you view the ICT sector in Oman?

The Omani telecommunications sector is a very vibrant industry. Liberalization only began about seven or eight years ago, with the second mobile license which Nawras was fortunate enough to be selected for. We created a new way of providing telecommunications services all across the Sultanate through the combined efforts of a highly energetic new team of people, mostly from outside of the industry. We established a different point of contact, be it in terms of what you buy, how you get help or where you pay.

Penetration went up from 30% to about 170% with many people using more than one SIM card. I remember when we were doing the initial surveys asking why 70% did not want mobile phones. The feedback that we got was that they did not think it was relevant. That has all changed now, partly because of trends, expectations, education, and so forth. Mostly it is because we brought telecommunications to the people by establishing independent distribution centers in the country. There are now 15,000 locations where you can buy recharge cards, and about 2 million customers to whom you can transfer value. You can share value across the sultanate with whomever you have to, provided that he or she has a mobile unit. We have seen a huge growth in that.

We won a fixed license in 2009 and launched our services in 2010. This was not about classic telephony where you sit at a desk and you have a phone tied to a cable. This was about delivering broadband services to businesses, residences, and people on the move. This is the current growth market. The three areas of major growth are broadband, broadband and broadband!

Last year alone, from January 1st to December 1st, the data on our network grew 18 times over. It is an astonishing growth. Some 25% of our customers are using a large quantity of our data services, such as messaging, e-mails, music/movie streaming, YouTube, Facebook and other forms of social media. There is a huge opportunity for mobile growth in terms of the remaining 75%. Of course, we have never really distinguished between fixed and mobile because the point is moot. We deliver our services through a mixture of fiber and wireless networks. We built a third one to reach over 86% of the households in the country. For most people in Oman, their first chance of getting broadband is through the home. When you compare the reach of this wireless network to the government’s objective of providing broadband services to over 90% of the population by 2018, we have already gone past the target in 2011. You can see the industry’s ability to quickly meet the government’s goals, help accelerate other sectors, and keep people in touch with each other.     

Upon entering the market in 2005, Nawras hit the ground running with exceptional results and a growth rate of 20%, even 30% in profit and client base. How was 2011 for Nawras?

2011 was another year of growth. It was all about attracting the group of customers whom we have found most elusive. This included ministries and government-related companies. With our new infrastructure, we were able to attract some very prominent ministries and companies, such as the Ministry of Finance, Oman Airports Management Company, etc. In the past, with only the mobile services, that would have probably been an impossible proposition. Now, we provide them full services that allow for incredible capabilities.

Last year, we were busy creating some new market leads and consolidating on the signed contracts. We have also rolled out our home broadband network. We have increased out Home Broadband customer base by 250% largely through an increased focus on customer requirements. Before that, it was all very complex. They would call to install a new line, or to add functions to an existing line. We have simplified that. Customers can buy a modem, take it home, and use it via plug-and-play. The feedback was positive. They loved it. The functionality has really caught public imagination. At the same time, we added new mobile functions and capabilities. Rather than focusing on distributing new SIMs to the market, we worked on getting existing customers to use more of our services. This meant providing more services that people found relevant.

In the corporate market, we extended a control and monitoring facility for functionalities that the corporate market can have for its own internal mobile customers. This allowed them to have provisions for those customers (e.g., telecoms managers, desk managers, etc.) instead of having to ask the telecom company to do it. They could offer international access, and even send credit to certain internal customers in their corporate network. That functionality is unique from Nawras. It came about because corporate customers asked us to provide that.

Equally, we started bundling some of the fixed and mobile services for corporate customers. Because these packages were something they requested of us, they easily found these bundled services attractive.

We have this great facility called the “Business Group” where all the registered lines in the company can contact each other for free. All they have to do is pay for the fixed monthly charge, which they can easily budget for. This means that when they have a PABX system in the company, they do not have to pay for every call. It was something that our corporate customers really loved. We eventually included unlimited communications between registered fixed lines and registered Nawras mobile lines, both postpaid and prepaid, for a fixed monthly fee.

These were the sort of things that we worked on last year, and it was easy because we only did what the customers asked us to do.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is currently evaluating the potential for a third mobile operator in Oman. In your opinion, how would the entrance of a new player impact the market?

We only concern ourselves with our customers. If we look after our customers properly, I imagine that it would make it difficult for a third operator to get a substantial share. Of course, that is their problem, not ours. We are focused on customers.

In 2010, as part of your growth strategy, you launched the biggest IPO in Oman since 2005. Did the results of the IPO meet your expectations?

Yes, we were very happy with the outcome of the IPO. Somewhere toward the latter days of August 2010, we had a briefing with the sales desk of Morgan Stanley and as we were coming to the end of the call, the VP from Morgan Stanley asked if we knew the number of people that we were addressing. Apparently, apart from the sales desk, we were addressing the rest of the floor—some 500 to 600 people handling deals on a global scale. Their interest largely had to do with the fact that ours was the only IPO in the world for that week. When we went to London for the road show, we met the 500 to 600 people that we had inadvertently addressed during the August 2010 briefing. It was fantastic. It was another Nawras first.

We were delighted with the IPO. As you know, we were not raising funding for the business itself. At that time, we were already financially solvent, generating enough cash for our own needs. It was more about the selling shareholders making transactions with the buying shareholders. As such, it was very important that we struck a fair price. Together with the CMA here, Nawras launched Oman’s first bookbuilt IPO.

The CMA embraced this because they understood the notion of the “fair sale and fair buy”. It meant that we had to substantially educate the market because people were used to getting stocks below the so-called fair price just to allow people to get the premium on the first day. We had to make it clear to the people that this was a fair price. We had to look after the selling shareholders and the buying shareholders. It was not about giving the farm away.

We were thrilled to bits by its success. This gave us further stability and expanded our secondary market (for people who wanted to trade in or trade out). It gave us an international investor base. We were less than six years old; yet, we launched as the fourth largest company by capitalization on the stock exchange. That is something that all our shareholders, employees and customers could take pride in.      

In April 2011 Nawras celebrated the successful landing of its first sea cable in Oman. What are the main benefits from your partnership with Tata Global Network?

Yes, it was all very exciting. Last April, a large ship managed to precisely lay these cables on the seabed. They know to the nearest centimeter exactly where they plan to land these cables which were dropped from the ship onto the surface of the water. As smaller boats bring the cable back to shore, it is held up on the surface of the sea, attached to a whole series of buoys. They attach the cable to a rack on our onshore facility and splice the cables together. Then the divers cut the buoys so that the cable sinks to the bottom, almost precisely where it has been planned on the map. It was truly amazing.  

Our submarine cable goes from Oman to Mumbai, where we meet the rest of Tata’s international connections. This means that we have a direct connection to nearly every city on the planet. Of course, it is all about data, but it includes voice. We were very excited about that. We switched on the services and enjoyed the fruits of all that labor in November, last year. We began connecting people with our own submarine facility. 

Are there any plans to further extend Nawras' connectivity with the rest of the world, so that you do not depend only on one cable in the future?

Yes, there are definitely plans to extend our connectivity. Right now, we are in the early stages of the discussions on installing alternative submarine cables to give us further capacity and diversity.

When it comes to the human capital, Nawras has an excellent record in terms of the Omanization, which is currently around 90%.

For our mobile license, it is 90%. We account for the mobile lines slightly separately, but it is actually 87% overall (so it is nearly 90%). We are really very proud of it.

We are also very proud of our international employees, as well. We work as a family. There is a sense of fun when going to work. Last I checked, we had 26 nationalities represented in the workforce. Everybody here gets to meet somebody from another part of the world (from places that they might never have been before). They can build friendships, work together and share meals together. Our expatriate workers are very readily invited by host families to weddings and other get-togethers. They enjoy a fantastic reach between regions and nationalities. I think that it is such a brilliant part of Omani hospitality. We love all that, and we are also very proud of the Omanization percentage. Of course, it is not all about the percentage. We started building this company with two people, and today we have more than 1,000. That is more than double of the number of Omanis required.

We had never envisaged building independent distribution centers, but now we have well over 1,000 outlets which are nearly 100% Omani. That means employment for maybe another few thousand people. Then if you look at the 15,000 places where you can buy recharge cards, a vast majority of those are Omani-owned. That creates further employment. Roughly several thousands of people, both directly and indirectly, have jobs because of Nawras. We are just playing our part in society and helping the government achieve its goals.

Nawras is also very active in the field of corporate social responsibility (CSR). What areas do you primarily focus on?

We are involved with the community, at large. The national community is where a lot of our activity is focused. The Nawras Goodwill Journey is probably one of the most famous programs that we do on an annual basis. It takes place in the middle of Ramadan. Our people give up their days and nights fasting and traveling around the country to visit those who are less fortunate. It allows them to do something really useful, and leave a lasting impression. It is a fantastic sight to see people getting along, traveling some 5,000 kilometers to help others. Our employees do this in addition to their day job. They give back to the community and generate a lot of good will.  

We also get involved in local sports events (e.g., beach soccer, football matches in remote parts of the country, etc.). We supported a summer sports program in Salalah, which was great fun. We have been active in various other communities too (e.g., Indian, Filipino, South Asian and Southeast Asian communities). We have sponsored sailing and racing events. We get about 100 requests a month, and we do about 50 or so. There is something going on every week. That is what Nawras does. We want to get close to our customers and we try to do what people ask us to do. That is the story of our company. We built an organization that meet people’s telecom requirements. These requirements change all the time. People demand new things all the time. Right now, it is all about broadband and nobody even knew what that was several years ago. What we do in our core business is the same thing that we do for our sponsorships and CSR programs. We listen to what people want and try to deliver this to them.      

With the increasing level of globalization, branding is a vital aspect of every company. What values would you like to be associated to the Nawras brand?

We already established values when we created the company. We actually said that we would be excellent, caring and pleasingly different. We said that we would be the communications provider and employer of choice. Notice that we said “communications” because our plan has always been to be a full communications services provider. These things still hold true to this day. When we hire people, we make sure that we get those who are excellent in caring and are pleasingly different.

Excellence is something you get when you strive for and focus on it. The very nature of our industry (specifically, in terms of the speed to which it addresses customer concerns) requires us to make allowances for unique circumstances.  This means that our people, in the urgency of trying to serve customers, may make mistakes, but they learn from these mistakes. We have capability and expertise building all the time. Caring is all about the customers, but the less obvious, perhaps, is the aspect of caring for each other. This is very important in a family. If you see somebody struggling, you give them a helping hand. You show them the ropes. That is very much an innate part of how we do things. It comes with tolerance for mistakes (because at the pace that we do things, such things do happen). We just have to make sure that we offer the necessary coaching and training to help people improve. This means that we give the people who have chosen to work with us the caring that they need.

“Pleasingly different” is a concept where we do things in a totally unique way that delights our customers. We try and provide a little bit of delight; whether it is through having a sense of humor, or going the extra mile when dealing with customers at the store. For our contact centers, it could be that additional time on the phone to make sure that everything is understood and the customer got all the information that they needed.

Prior to Nawras, you were stationed in Qatar. As Nawras’ CEO, what are your personal ambitions for the company?

I was working in Qatar for Qtel till 2004, when I began to work for Nawras, full-time. Back then, when journalists asked me about what I wanted for the company, I used to say that I wanted Nawras to be the most recognized operator in the Gulf. Two years later, we won the award for Best Mobile Operator for the Middle East. It was amazing. I had to come up with a new ambition for the company.

My ambition is to turn Nawras into the kind of company that everybody would love to work in. I want Nawras to become the employer of choice, a really cool company with a brilliant corporate identity and a great sense of family. After all, the notion is very simple. If we can get really great people who love working together, and if we can come up with great products, and look after the customers really well, the customers will enjoy using our services. This gives us a fantastic virtual circle because by looking after our people and customers, we look after our shareholders.

You were named Outstanding Leader of the Year at the 3rd TMT Finance & Investment Awards Middle East in Dubai. What can you say about your leadership style?

My job is to support the people who look after our customers. My leadership style includes making sure that we have the right environment, people, information and training systems in place. It is about stimulating and motivating people to work together, and getting them to focus on customers. Think of a pyramid the other way up.

From your experience of doing business in Oman, what advice would you give to potential investors looking to explore opportunities in the Sultanate?

Historically, Oman is a very secure market. The financial and regulatory environment operates on a highly consensual basis. This means that the decisions made are both pragmatic and wide-reaching. International laws and the laws of commercial arrangements are very well understood.

In terms of industries, such as health, education, tourism, infrastructure, etc., His Majesty clearly laid out his vision for the country. Things have been arranged in a way that allows people to enjoy this wonderful country. Now is a very good time to invest in Oman. It is attractive and secure. It has great people and a good education system. A lot of people in the education system, for instance, would be glad to work on internationally funded projects. I think now is a great time to do it.

As a world traveler, what do you think is important for the international community to understand about Oman today?

It starts with the people. They are fantastic, warm, welcoming and multicultural. They have a very rich and diverse heritage, coming from South Asia to the Middle East, and East Africa. You have all those cultures coming together. It is among the least homogenous of all the Gulf states. This is the kind of thing that you can expect to experience from the people here.

Secondly, there is the culture and heritage of the country itself. You have fantastic fine arts, architecture, stunning landscapes, and a billion other things to see. The blue seas, white sands, green trees, white villas, black mountains, and clear skies above get most people on the first plane to Oman. And when they come to Oman, they should all switch to Nawras!