Keeping Singtel in constant evolution

Ms Low sees technology disruptions and shifts in customer behaviour as Singtel's biggest challenges.
Ms Low sees technology disruptions and shifts in customer behaviour as Singtel's biggest challenges. PHOTO: SGX

Group CCO Jeann Low is aware that the company must morph in tandem with changes or risk being left behind

When she's not managing operations, assessing risk or evaluating strategy and deals, Singtel group chief corporate officer (CCO) Jeann Low finds strength in solitude.

"Often, solutions to work issues emerge when I'm just running or walking, not actively seeking answers. I find I'm able to think more clearly and can take the relevant course of action."

Having spent nearly two decades of her career in South-east Asia's largest telecoms operator, Ms Low is no stranger to the complexities of corporate dynamics.

She joined Singtel in October 1998 as group financial controller, and was named executive vice-president of strategic investments six years later. In 2006, she was appointed chief financial officer (CFO) of Singtel's Australian business, Optus, before being promoted to group CFO after two years, overseeing the financial affairs of the Singtel group.

In April last year, she was named group COO, handling Singtel's corporate functions, including strategy, mergers and acquisitions, corporate communications, legal, regulatory and procurement.

"It's not about my individual contributions to the group. In Singtel, we operate as a team," Ms Low said.

Other core values that she tries to cultivate include integrity and customer focus.

CATALYST FOR GROWTH

With more than 130 years of operating experience, Singtel is Singapore's largest listed company with a market capitalisation of more than $68 billion. Listed on Singapore Exchange in November 1993, it is a component stock of the benchmark Straits Times Index (STI) with a 13.2 per cent weighting.

Singtel is also the third-best performing constituent of the STI, generating a total return of 17.2 per cent in the year-to-date.

Looking back on her 18 years with Singtel, Ms Low finds great satisfaction in the group's track record and pan-regional presence.

"If you look at Singtel today, it's recognised as a leading regional telco, with an enviable footprint. The operations of Optus, our regional mobile associates and Singapore are all profitable,"? she said.

The group derives more than 70 per cent of its net profit from overseas operations, which span India, Africa, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.

Two decades ago, Singtel's decision to venture abroad for growth was a catalyst in the group's development.

"In those early days, Singtel took stakes in European telcos as they were first in the industry to liberalise. But later, we decided to focus on Asia, because we are based in the region, and we do know and understand Asia better," Ms Low said.

Strategic investments were subsequently made in the Asian countries. "Optus was burning close to A$1 billion (S$1.01 billion) of cash when we acquired it, but we helped to turn it around with the management team in place," Ms Low said.

And Singtel has invested in the right places, she added. "Our mobile associates are in emerging markets, where the majority of the population access the Internet and social media through mobile devices. Fixed-line infrastructure is underdeveloped, so there are opportunities for mobile growth."

Singtel holds 32.9 per cent of India's Bharti Airtel, 35 per cent of Indonesia's PT Telkomsel, 23.3 per cent of Thailand's Advanced Info Service, and 47.2 per cent of Globe Telecom in the Philippines.

All the wireless operators are leaders in their respective markets except for Globe Telecom, which is the No. 2 operator.

The regional mobile associates currently account for nearly half of the group's net profit.

EXPANDING FOOTPRINT

Looking ahead, Singtel will focus on a few priorities in the area of mergers and acquisitions, Ms Low said. One of them may involve supporting in-country consolidation.

"For telcos which we've already invested in, if there are opportunities for consolidation within that market, we would carefully consider that," she said, referring to Globe Telecom's recent acquisition of a 50 per cent stake in San Miguel Corp's telecommunications business.

MORPH AND EVOLVE

In the digital arena, Singtel has transformed itself into a communications powerhouse with the ability to successfully navigate a data- centric world.

Its three-pronged focus on digital marketing through its Amobee unit, over-the-top video entertainment through its HOOQ mobile streaming service, as well as data analytics via its DataSpark unit, is complementary to its core and infocomms technology businesses.

Cyber security is another case in point. In April last year, Singtel bought 98 per cent of US-based managed security services provider Trustwave, a move which boosted its portfolio of cloud-based services and enhanced its position within the managed services market.

Meanwhile, trends in the infocomms industry are constantly evolving, and Singtel must morph in tandem with changes or be left behind.

"Our biggest challenges are technology disruptions and shifts in customer behaviour," said Ms Low.

As telecommunications is a highly regulated business, the regulatory environment is another challenge, she admitted.

HEALTHY COMPETITION

Meanwhile, competition in the domestic market is heating up, with Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority planning to auction additional mobile spectrum for use by a fourth carrier this year.

MyRepublic, a local Internet service provider (ISP) backed by Indonesia's Sinar Mas Group and French billionaire Xavier Niel, as well as regional wireless solutions company Consistel have thrown their hats into the ring.

Bidding for the mobile spectrum will start in the third quarter, and the licence is expected to be awarded shortly after that.

Singapore has a population of more than 5.5 million, and its mobile penetration rate stands at about 149 per cent, which means many carry more than one mobile device.

Ms Low believes there is already healthy competition in the domestic telecoms sector. Currently, Singtel has a 49.8 per cent share of the mobile market, while StarHub holds 26.7 per cent, and third- ranked M1 has 23.5 per cent.

"All three players are listed companies, and are subject to market discipline. If you look at the network quality, pricing packages and handset subsidies available, one cannot argue that this is not a competitive market."

•This is an edited excerpt from Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew column that features C-level executives of firms listed on SGX. A longer version can be found on SGX's My Gateway website: www.sgx.com/mygateway

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Keeping Singtel in constant evolution'. Print Edition | Subscribe