INTERVIEW | Nikhil Patil: The long game

Since April 2018, Nikhil Patil has been at the helm of communications giant GO. BusinessToday spoke to him about his achievements thus far and his outlook on the local telcoms sector in the coming years

 Nikhil Patil
Nikhil Patil

You were appointed CEO of GO in April 2018. What do you consider the company’s greatest accomplishments since then to be?

GO has been operating for the past 45 years. Every accomplishment is the result of the company’s strategic direction, which is driven by a committed board and an excellent team of individuals who strive every day to do what’s right for the company, to add value to customer’s lives and deliver returns for our shareholders, year after year. We do this whilst developing a learning organisation. I am very proud of the fact that we have kept up on past successes and continued to deliver on all fronts over these past two years.

Of most relevance in these times, I think our response to the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly an accomplishment on many fronts. We really obsessed about our customers’ needs that changed as the pandemic evolved. We opened up TV viewing, offered our TV app even to non-GO customers, kept over 6000 front liners connected as their lives were completed disrupted, redesigned processes and products to ensure that all our customers’ needs are met, and in most cases accessible online, and opened up more channels of communication for our customers to reach out to us. As an organisation, we rallied together as One Team to ensure that we were always one step ahead of the game in keeping our employees safe and protected, whilst keeping our complex operations running remotely. We did everything we could to make sure that no one is left behind in these difficult times.

Looking beyond Covid, we have had many other accomplishments as an organisation. We have continued to grow into a more digitally driven, customer-centric organisation. Whilst technology is the backbone of our operations, and continues to drive the innovation to our customers, we have really focused on how we can deliver additional value to customers, and as a result, overhauled our product portfolio, offering complete flexibility for customers to design their own bundles, with our new Mix and Match offerings. We have brought to the market innovative products, such as our SmartHub, that is a hybrid modem that was designed and developed by our own engineers, which promises and ‘always on’ internet connection. We recently launched the Wi-Fi mesh pods, which guarantee connectivity in every corner of one’s home. Our latest milestones was seeing GO become the first provider to introduce a fully flexible Wi-Fi driven TV service in Malta for customers to enjoy the best TV content from anywhere and on any device, without the need for a set top box. Through this achievement, we are revolutionising the way people in Malta get to enjoy their favourite television content. The list is endless. We now have a product portfolio that really caters for everyone’s needs.

Amongst the company’s many accomplishments, I must mention the highly successful IPO of BMIT Technologies. This subsidiary was formally listed on the Malta Stock Exchange after institutional and general investors subscribed to close to 99 million shares valued at €49 million. This is another milestone in GO’s success story which reflects a forward-looking organisation that is building its future growth on strategic investments. Such processes allow us to reinvest in areas that will create greater value, both for our shareholders and customers, and ultimately, the economy.

What are the major challenges the company faces now and in the near future?

GO is a very complex organisation that offers services on which so many businesses, households, individuals, lives, and livelihoods depend. This comes with a great sense of responsibility, whether it is to our employees, customers, shareholders, or the community at large. Throwing Covid 10 into the mix, created a new set of challenges. Whilst we were prepared, well ahead of the outbreak in Malta, our challenges now lie in ensuring the wellbeing of our employees in the aftermath of Covid so that we can continue to deliver additional value to our customers.

The world as we knew it has changed. However emerging technologies will continue to drive growth and innovation. Like every other company, we too are feeling the pinch of the economic downturn. Our challenge is to find ways of ensuring that our past and present investments continue to deliver returns. Considering the environment in which we operate, we also need to keep abreast with technological development so that we can help our customers connect to what matters to them most, without worrying about how they will connect.

Another challenge we face is access to the right talent for our organisational needs. We are a learning organisation that supports a growth mind set. We therefore need to partner with the relevant companies and invest in education and in mentorship and development programmes to create a digitally skilled workforce that matches the demands of the future.

How do you see the media and telecoms sector developing in Malta in the next five to 10 years?

Five to 10 years is a long time in the telecom’s world. Whilst we base our business plan on a five-year view, we are constantly forced to revisit and adapt in line with sectoral and regulatory developments. Technology changes. Customers’ demands change, content delivery can change, and in a relatively short period of time at that. Digitisation has created a natural overlap between the media and telecoms sector. One cannot exist without the other. In telecoms, we provide the infrastructure and technology over which media content is delivered. On the other hand, customers dictate how they consume that content.  So, each sector, in a way, drives and shapes the other. As more and more people and businesses are moving online, media reach is even greater. This will continue to drive demand for capacity and bandwidth. Connectivity and content delivery are merging into a seamless experience for customers as they expect news and other online content to be delivered at a click of a button. As a result, always on connectivity will become ever more critical. This necessitates continuous investment in infrastructure and technology platforms.

As these two sectors continue to converge, the challenge lies in ensuring that no one is left behind, and that everyone has equal opportunity to benefit from, and contribute to, the digital economy, whether it’s a matter of accessibility, skill or affordability.  We will challenge ourselves to find ways to get everyone online and build digital skills so they can do more of what matters to them most. To drive a truly digital Malta, we will not only have to continue to invest in state-of-the-art network and digital infrastructure, but also bring to life innovations that enhance the lives and businesses of our customers.

How is GO gearing up to remain a major player in this future environment?

There is no future without guaranteed connectivity to the rest of the world. I think GO has been exemplary in this regard with its ambitious investment plan in ensuring a truly digital Malta. GO has invested heavily in Malta’s digital infrastructure, it has invested in technology and in its people to ensure that it is always as the forefront in delivering innovative solutions to its customers and the community at large. Our investment goes beyond infrastructural. We have invested in different companies, diversifying our business portfolio to ensure we remain relevant in a fast-changing world. Our aim is to not only continue maximising our impact on the Maltese society but beyond the Maltese shores. Our contribution to the digital economy has supported the growth of other sectors such as iGaming, FinTech and so many other emerging sectors. As these sectors continue to grow, international connectivity becomes even more critical. It is for this reason that GO is investing a further €24 million as it embarks on a project to lay a third submarine cable system. This is a bold move that will reshape Malta’s international connectivity to the rest of the world. Unlike all current submarine cables, this new system will branch out into a dual connection. This means that for the first time in telecoms history in Malta, the country will have an international high-speed fibre connection towards both the Western and Eastern part of the Mediterranean.

But for a digital economy to really thrive it needs three things. First it needs the infrastructure. Secondly it needs the right start ups to drive digital innovation, and last, it needs digital talent. We are experts in infrastructure design, planning and rollout. Through ‘GO Ventures’ we have set up access to capital to fund budding start-ups in a number of digitally driven sectors. We are now looking into investing further in education to create a larger pool of digitally skilled talent on the island.

Our business is a long game. How one plays the game is more important that the short-term results one achieves. If we are to continue being a major player in this evolving environment, our focus is about doing the many things the right way so that the gains add up over the longer term.

Of the projects GO is currently working on, what do you consider to be a personal pet project that you absolutely want to see delivered?

When you love what you do, every project becomes a pet project. It is hard for me to pinpoint one, especially when everything we do is aimed at delighting our customers, driving better returns for our shareholders, and creating more learning opportunities for us as individuals. We are doing a lot of great work in terms of improving our overall customer experience, digitising the company and rolling out our TrueFibre network – all of which I have full faith in my team that we will deliver successfully. One project that I am truly excited about right now is related to remote working. The past few months have been a great test of this as close to 75% of the organisation has been successfully working remotely. The advantages of teleworking are different depending on the individual. However, we carried out an internal survey amongst our staff on remote working.

The results were encouraging. Many reported increases in productivity, the time saved from not having to commute to and from the office, the freedom to work in the hours when you are at your most productive as some of the advantages of teleworking and overall meeting effectiveness, despite not meeting physically. So, this is definitely a great opportunity to offer increased flexibility to our workforce whilst also reducing our carbon footprint as a company.  So whilst I definitely want to move toward a ‘remote first’ way of working, I also want to ensure that we strike the right balance between office and remote working whilst ensuring that our workforce is happy with our decisions and our operations continue working smoothly

GO has invested millions to roll out this True Fibre nation-wide network. Why was that such a priority for the company? And how has true fibre changed the customers’ experience?

True Fibre is one of GO’s largest capital investments and one which confirms our position as the biggest investor in Malta’s digital infrastructure. We are very proud of the fact that we are the only operator that is delivering True Fibre technology straight to our customer’s living room. True Fibre is the best technology available, capable of delivering data at the speed of light and there is nothing scientifically faster than that.  It will set the nation up for its technology needs for hundreds of years to come. But rolling out this technology is not as straight forward as one may think. The complexities are huge as we depend on several third parties for permits and other legalities during the planning stage. Implementation is equally hard.    To give you an idea, the roll-out of TrueFibre in one post-code area takes an average of 100 days, and this after all the planning and coordination with numerous entities across the island to ensure all legalities are in place. We are dedicating every resource possible to expedite the rollout as much as possible.

Rest assured that our customers’ frustrations are our frustrations. In an ideal world, we would have the entire nation covered yesterday, but this is literally impossible. One must consider that this is not just about True Fibre rollout. Concurrently we are also maintaining our existing copper network and fixing faults that on most occasions are caused by third party contractors. So, completing our TrueFibre nationwide network sooner means that more customers can benefit from this technology, and we can start gaining further efficiencies by maintaining less networks. This notwithstanding, we are making significant inroads. The results obtained to date are the result of a passionate and committed team of over 100 individuals solely dedicated to the roll out of the project on a full-time basis.

There is much hype and talk about 5G, with pros and cons highlighted, according to whom you listen to. Where does GO – and you personally – stand on the issue?

5G has been on the cards for some time now. We have been preparing for this eventuality, and our plans are ready to activate when, and if, the time comes. Certain preparations that will support 5G have already taken place, such as investing to have our mobile base stations connected via optical fibre.

However, whether we roll out 5G is dependent on several factors, such as spectrum allocation, network rollout and the availability of 5G compatible handsets on the market. As I explained previously, we want to ensure that our customers focus on who and what to connect to, and not how. Our priority is that customers remain connected, in an efficient and reliable way, at the speeds that match their needs.

What is it that distinguishes GO from other telco providers in Malta?

GO is a company that has its roots deeply engrained in Maltese history. We have been connecting people and businesses for the past 45 years and have been instrumental in Malta’s economic and social development. As Malta’s foremost telecoms company, we are an intrinsic part of Malta’s social fabric and this is what keeps us investing in the nation’s infrastructure. Our purpose is beyond profit. We want to be a company that really leaves a positive impact on society, on our shareholders, employees, and customers. We have been and shall continue to be one of Malta’s largest investors – our aim is to keep striving to take Malta and its digital needs well into the future.

How did GO fare during the COVID-19 pandemic? How did the company reach out to its customers in these difficult times?

COVID-19 was an opportunity for us to showcase what we do best: keeping Malta connected and leaving no one behind in the process. As businesses switched to remote working, schooling went online and families had to ensure they remained safe, everyone had one common need: to stay connected. Amidst all the isolation, technology has been the one driving force keeping the whole community connected and we feel truly privileged that thanks to our technology, we retained and enhanced our critical role in society. Our services allowed people to remain connected to the people they care for, to continue to enjoy countless hours of entertainment from the safety of their homes, whilst having all the necessary means to face the current challenges as comfortably, and sustainably as possible. Our services also allowed businesses to be agile enough to set up remotely and continue with their operations with as minimal disruption as possible.

To encourage people to stay home, GO opened its premium channels to all customers, offering thousands of hours of rich TV content. We also offered free access to our TV App including non-GO customers and to date, close to 6000 non-GO customers have been enjoying live TV, movies, and series on demand.

As a company, we also did everything in our power to keep our employees safe, protected and connected with each other, through regular check ins, online mental and physical wellbeing initiatives and others aimed at connecting them on matters beyond business.

As Malta’s prime telecom’s provider, we also supported Malta’s front liners. Doctors, nurses, medical staff civil protection, police, armed forces and firefighters were given 1000 free minutes and 100GB of mobile data to help them stay connected with family and friends and we also extended our support to customers stranded in travel-banned countries to allow them sufficient means to keep in touch with family with peace of mind through additional credit or discounts on their respective bills.

Covid19 took everyone by storm and will undoubtedly leave a mark on everyone’s life but moments like these remind me how incredibly privileged we are to have such an important role in keeping Maltese society connected. We may not be perfect, but we are fully prepared for what lies ahead and committed to keep delivering more and better.

The company has just announced the AGM will be held on 28 July, and that the Board of Directors has agreed to the recommendation to pay a dividend of €0.10 (net of taxation). Previously, in April and May, the company had already announced that, because of the circumstances brought about by the COVID-10 pandemic, it would be re-evaluating the previous recommendation to pay a dividend of €0.14 What does this mean for the company and its shareholders?

The Management and the Board of Directors have been closely monitoring the impact of COVID-19. Various measures were implemented to ensure that GO continues to provide the best possible service to its customers while safeguarding its employees, shareholders, and the long-term stability of the business.

In the light of a continued positive financial performance throughout the crisis coupled with the recently announced lifting of travel restrictions, the Board of Directors considers a dividend payment of €0.10 to be a prudent and equitable way forward which will enable GO to continue sustaining strategic investment in its network and connectivity, while delivering a solid return on investment for our shareholders. The proposed €0.10 final dividend together with the special interim dividend of €0.41 paid in 2019 from the partial sale of GO’s shareholding in BMITT result in a total dividend return for year 2019 of €0.51.

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