BTC’s privatisation ‘a colossal failure’


Tribune Business Editor

The Bahamas Telecommunications Company’s (BTC) privatisation “has been a colossal failure”, a union leader blasted yesterday, adding: “Aliv’s eating our lunch with ease.”

Dino Rolle, the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union’s (BCPOU) president, told Tribune Business that all BTC staff - not just his members - viewed as “extremely offensive” warnings by the company’s chief executive that unproductive employees should be “anxious” over their job security.

The line staff union’s chief argued that Garfield “Garry” Sinclair lacked sufficient evidence to judge which BTC employees were failing to add value because the carrier had lacked performance management metrics “for the last three to four years” prior to the recent introduction of its Pearl system.

Mr Rolle, who yesterday received backing from Bernard Evans, his predecessor as BCPOU president, blamed BTC’s plight on Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) failure to properly prepare the incumbent carrier for competition and find new growth opportunities since acquiring a controlling interest in the company via its 2011 privatisation.

He added that CWC had “shrunk not only the workforce but BTC’s ability to compete” with upstart rival Aliv, which has already seized more than one-third mobile market share in just two years since its November 2016 launch.

BTC and CWC are now both on their fourth chief executive since the former’s privatisation, with the latter now owned by Liberty Latin America (LiLAC), and Mr Rolle said this had resulted in a constantly-changing strategy just when it needed continuity/stability to ready for competition and the loss of its mobile monopoly.

Disclosing that Mr Sinclair had made no secret of his intentions to “cut dead wood” and “share the costs” of BTC’s call centre with other such CWC facilities in the Caribbean, the BCPOU chief argued that meetings with the new chief executive had “not been productive”.

The union, given that its industrial agreement expired 20 months ago, wants Mr Sinclair to “bring to the table” a realistic proposal for a new deal - something it says he has yet to do.

And Mr Rolle argued that, rather than reverse top-line decline, Mr Sinclair has to-date followed the same cost-cutting strategy that CWC has pursued since privatisation, which is “not what BTC needs”.

While Bahamian mobile consumers will likely argue that BTC’s privatisation, which paved the way for mobile market liberalisation, and reduced prices, increased choice and improved services, has been beneficial, current and former employees of the former state-owned carrier may well have a different perspective.

“This has been a colossal failure,” Mr Rolle told Tribune Business of BTC’s 2011 privatisation. “The company has not grown since then. We’ve seen this company shrink, not only in workforce size but its ability to compete.

“When CWC came in there was no serious injection of capital into infrastructure. Had they been doing that while we were anticipating liberalisation of the market, we would be on a better footing to compete. With little effort Aliv is eating our lunch. We’ve been struggling with that.”

BTC’s subscriber numbers at September 30, 2018, support Aliv’s claim to have seized more than one-third of all Bahamian mobile market subscribers. BTC was shown to have 228,300 total subscribers at that date, with 89 percent of 203,000 of that client base concentrated in pre-paid customers.

Damian Blackburn, Aliv’s top executive, pegged its subscriber base at 125,000 which, when combined with BTC’s numbers, gives The Bahamas’ second mobile operator a 35.4 percent market share - placing it on track to hit its target of 39 percent share by end-June 2019.

BTC’s once-lucrative mobile monopoly generated almost three-quarters of its annul revenues, along with the bulk of its profits, and it has been unable to make inroads into Cable Bahamas’ TV and Internet dominance to compensate for the market share loss to Aliv.

This is in spite of the build-out of BTC’s Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) network infrastructure, which passed 128,900 Bahamian homes at September 30 and is designed to deliver TV/video and broadband Internet services.

To-date, this has translated into just 80,200 customers or RGUs outside of BTC’s mobile client base. It is said to have 6,800 TV/video and 26,400 Internet customers, plus a further 47,000 fixed-line voice subscribers.

“CWC has taken the approach to run certain projects from Miami, for the most part, to the exclusion of local employees,” Mr Rolle complained yesterday. He identified the FTTH roll-out as one such project, adding that this took too long along with the “ill-advised approach” to it.

Repeating calls that BTC needs “a full-time chief executive”, given Mr Sinclair’s responsibilities across CWC’s Caribbean network, the BCPOU chief said the rapid turnover of chief executives - from Geoff Houston to Leon Williams, Dexter Cartwright and now the latest incumbent - had disrupted continuity just when BTC needed it most.

“The quick turnover has certainly impacted the growth of the company,” Mr Rolle told Tribune Business. “It appears that every time a new chief executive, management team comes in, they come in with a different agenda.

“We’ve seen them change programmes, take out stuff the previous chief executive invested in, and there doesn’t seem to be cohesion from one team to the next. There seems to be a new strategy, recalibration when a new chief executive comes in, and that’s really negatively impacted the growth of BTC.”

Mr Rolle said Mr Sinclair’s warning to unproductive BTC employees came as little surprise to the union, given that he had made similar indications in meetings with it, but he questioned how the chief executive was able to judge who is underperforming.

“The BCPOU and, as a matter of fact, all the employees of BTC find Mr Sinclair’s comments extremely offensive,” he blasted, “coming from a chief executive who made the same remarks two weeks into his job in The Bahamas.

“He said to the unions that BTC has some dead wood that he intends to get rid of. It was his first or second meeting with us. All this came in the face of the company having no performance management tool for the last three to four years.”

Mr Rolle said the previous performance management system had been “discarded in anticipation” of it being replaced with CWC’s own Pearl system, but this had only been installed months before Mr Sinclair’s arrival as BTC chief executive.

“The current tool has not been up and running sufficiently for Mr Sinclair to make that determination [on who is unproductive],” he argued. “We find Mr Sinclair’s statements very offensive, and say to him that he is not in position to make that kind of determination. You don’t have that right.”

Concerns over the outsourcing of BTC’s call centre, and its 50-670 jobs, to other countries in the CWC network were among the issues that sparked last week’s demonstration outside the carrier’s head office.

Mr Rolle said Mr Sinclair had “made certain remarks about sharing costs of the call centre across the region”, sparking union and employee alarm - especially since the BCPOU believes the 2011 privatisation agreement prevents such outsourcing.

“We advised Mr Sinclair to go back to his employer and familiarise himself with the agreement they signed,” he added. “Calls that should have been directed through our call centre are already being responded to and answered in other parts of the region.

“The staff are completely demoralised. After the last chief executive, Mr Cartwright, we were looking for a new, fresh energy that Mr Sinclair would bring; a new set of ideas to get the business moving and put us on a footing to compete with Aliv.

“Mr Sinclair, it seems, came with no new vision. Nothing to expand the top-line. His focus is on chipping away at expenses, which is not what BTC needs right now. BTC has been going through that since privatisation. His first order of business was to go to the bottom line.”

BTC’s chief executive and its line staff union appear to have different priorities, with the former focused on transforming the company and the latter seeking a new industrial agreement to replace the expired deal.

“Mr Sinclair likes to talk about how he met with us on several occasions,” Mr Rolle told Tribune Business. “Yes, we met, but those meetings were not productive. We’re looking for Mr Sinclair to bring something to the table, and he has yet to bring anything sensible to the table that we can discuss.

“That’s what we want. Let us get over this hurdle so we can focus on what’s best for our customers. A lot of them do not want to go over to Aliv. We need to bring something to the table that satisfies our customers, rather than be insulted by Mr Sinclair saying some of us are dead wood. We find that counter-productive to the argument.”

Mr Rolle and the BCPOU received backing from their fellow BTC union yesterday. Ricardo Thompson, president of the Bahamas Communications and Public Managers Union (BCPMU), which represents BTC’s middle managers, said: “BTC has not had a functioning performance management system for over two years.

“So, I’m curious as to how the chief executive is establishing a ‘baseline’ to measure and determine who are the productive employees. There is no objective metric in the company for doing so. This statement by the BTC chief executive underscores our concerns about the subjectivity and victimisation that our members endure daily at this ‘new’ BTC.”

Mr Thompson’s comments came as he and Mr Rolle met with Opposition leader, Philip Davis, to seek his and the Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP) support as tensions rise at BTC. The Opposition will also likely use the situation to gain political capital, given that the Government retains a substantial 49 percent stake - and three Board seats - at BTC.

Mr Evans, the former BCPOU president, who now heads the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU), also expressed concern about Mr Sinclair’s ability to measure and determine employee productivity.

He told Tribune Business that during his nine years as BCPOU head, “more than 99.9 percent of staff” met or exceeded their personal targets and earned the necessary “increments”. And he suggested that 40 percent of employees performed well enough to earn annual bonuses.