In a wide-ranging interview with CNC3's Judy Kanhai on Friday, TSTTS CEO Dr Ronald Walcott said the company was "heading down the path of insolvency" and had no choice but to cut staff. The company served retrenchment notices to 503 employees in the first phase of its transformation thrust last week and 197 more will get their retrenchment letters in the coming weeks and months.
Walcott also revealed that at one the shut down of the company was considered—similar to what was done when BWIA was replaced with Caribbean Airlines
Here is the full interview:
You have just sent home 503 employees and you have indicated that it is just the first phase of this critical transformation exercise at TSTT. It is ongoing right now. The second phase, TSTT has said, will include non-unionized employees, which also includes those at the executive level. How many employees do you plan to send home at the end of all of this?
RW: Well, it’s going to be 700 employees but I don’t want to start there and that’s fine because that’s what is topical and what’s in the public domain. I prefer to start if you will allow me, to talk about the fact that this is a phase of a process of transformation. We started this exercise in 2016. When I took over as CEO in 2014, I indicated to everybody at that point in time that we have some fundamental challenges both as an organisation because we had been constructed in a legacy way and the telecommunications industry is changing rapidly and if we don’t transform ourselves, we are going to become irrelevant, insolvent and continue to be a going concern.
That was the early message. So we started this transformation in 2016 and developed a five-year plan. We have four things . . . we have to evolve our technology which we have done, for the most part, we have to look for new lines of revenue because traditional revenue is going away, we have to improve our service delivery customer service and our employee costs and efficiency have to be adjusted. Our employee costs are 30 per cent of revenue which is twice times the industry standard—sometimes more than that—and our efficiency is half of the industry standard, so this phase of what is a greater part of a strategic plan that was a $4 billion undertaking that we started in 2016.
Now how long have you been dealing with this issue of high employee costs?
RW: I’m in TSTT for 12 years now and since I started in this organisation that is one of the conversations. In fact, in 2008 there was a plan that was called the Gigabit Plan. That plan was a similar plan to the BWIA to CAL model. It was essentially to shut down the organisation and restart with new rules, business contracts and so on. This has been a perennial problem. That’s the point that I am making.”
TSTT rolled out this five-year strategic plan back in 2016 and we are wrapping up 2018. Why did you take so long to cut back on employees costs?
RW: Because you have to put the systems in place first if you are going to move towards digital transformation, you have to put the automation in place because what would happen is that you remove people. But if you still have manual processes, then you are still going to have someone do the processes. Our customers must always be first, so in order to not impact the customers, we had to build the technology, build the system, put in the business support systems and then when it is all automated and digital, then you can act on the employees.
Before you sent home that 503 employees, how many employees did TSTT have altogether?
RW: Around 2,000 employees. We started in 2013 with about 2,500. We had a voluntary separation exercise in 2014. We’re down to about 2,000. We want to get to where we know we need to be at around 1,300 employees and that will take us to the optimum employee number.
Your annual wage bill of $768 million. By the end of this exercise, how much do you expect the annual wage to be?
RW: It’s going to go down by about $300 million, so it’s going to be in that range.
Are you considering other ways of cutting costs at this stage and also other ways to generate more revenue?
RW: Absolutely. Now you see, that’s an important point. When you look at a telecoms operation and you look at the efficacy of what they are doing, there are five metrics you look at generally for all telecoms, that’s how you would get the parity. You look at gross profit margin, employee costs as a percentage of revenue, maintenance as a percentage of revenue, operating expenses as a potential revenue, and you EBITDA margin.
You really want to get to a profit before tax of ten per cent or greater. If you look at our margins, our gross profit margin is 85 per cent, which is well above the industry standard, so we are doing some good work there. Operating expenses at 17 per cent within industry standard, maintenance costs at 16 per cent, 15 per cent, within industry standard. So the point that I am making is that we will always be—and that is a board-mandated policy—we will always looking for ways to reduce costs but we are at a point where . . . and that is actually what’s been happening for these years as we are trying to mitigate against the impact of the existing employee costs.
Now in 2015, TSTT made a profit of around $225 million. By 2016, you are looking at a loss of $300 million and for the six-month period April to September in 2018, you have recorded a loss of $478 million. How?
RW: There are a couple of things. Again, one of the challenges with an organisation like ours is that there are these one-off transactions. If you go back to 2016 numbers, at that time we had made an accounting provision for the voluntary separation and then we also did an impairment exercise. We had close to a $600 million impairment of legacy assets, so that would have caused that.
One of the big issues we have with the six months just concluded is there is a new financial reporting standard, IFRS 9, which has a very specific way in which you treat with debt. We have some existing government debts that we have to provide for. We had to impair it, which we would not have normally done in the normal course of business except that IFRS 9 insists that we must.
Outside of that, the challenge we have is employee costs. If you remove the $336 million which is the impairment of government debt, that is a one-off. The existing challenge continues to be employee costs. Now my view is that the traditional revenue is also eroding and that is part of why we actually have to make this move to develop new lines of business.
When you say traditional revenue areas, what are those areas being eroded?
RW: That is being driven by the new technology now—over the top solutions. So what’s happening is that when you are able to send messages via WhatsApp or Facebook or instant messaging and so on, SMS revenue goes away. When you can make phone calls via WhatsApp using wifi, voice revenue goes away, oversea revenue goes away, roaming revenue goes away, international direct revenue goes away. So those are all traditional lines of revenue that are being eroded by this new way of communication. And then on the entertainment side, whereas before people would take cable television and so on, now you have Netflix and all the other ways of accessing via the internet, so it is just the reality. It is a new way of doing things.
How do you transform your business so that your revenue is not eroded or what new areas are you going to tap into to get more revenue?
RW: That’s why we created what I call a primary mandate. The mandate is we need to transform from a legacy telecoms to becoming an agile broadband communications company because we saw where everything is being driven by broadband and is an app off of broadband, so we are in that mode. For example, what we are doing with copper is we are removing our entire copper plant and replacing it with an entire wireless network that is best in class and is going to go to 5G because 5G standards are written for six fixed wireless access. We are well in train, we have built the network already and our vision is that every household in Trinidad and Tobago should have affordable broadband, we are working towards that and that is how you build new lines of revenue when you are able to provide ubiquitous broadband.
Is that enough to get TSTT out of the red right now?
RW: Our employee costs, getting that in line will take us out of the red immediately.
So by the end of your financial period, which will be March 2019, and after you have cut back staff by 700, do you expect to turn things around and record a profit or even break even? What are your projections?
RW: Absolutely. Our first year of operations, we expect that we will get profitability back to over $100 million and we will build from there. Revenue growth is important. The thing with revenue growth is that you have to put systems in place so we actually had to reorganize our business to be able to take advantage of the opportunities.
That $768 million in annual wage, how much of that is linked to executives?
RW: Let me put it another way—82.3 per cent of that is junior and senior staff and $135 million or so combined, including executives, makes up the rest. So when you look at the revenue per employee, the monthly revenue of junior and senior staff, the total is around $40,000 per month. The non-unionized staff is around $35,000 per month, so we actually have in TSTT a compression challenge where we have senior staff employees who are earning more than professional staff and that’s one of the challenges we have.
Did TSTT pay out bonuses to its executives in 2017?
RW: TSTT, in 2017, paid around $4 million in bonuses to non-unioned employees that merited a bonus payment. What we did at that point in time is we designed a full pay for performance system. Let me go back one step first. Non-unionized employees don’t get salary increases. We don’t do that, there are no merit increases like with unionized employees. Every year, either through negotiations or through a court award, they get these five or seven per cent salary increases because COLA is consolidated. That is not so with non-unioned employees, so because we didn’t make our financial targets we weren’t able to execute a full bonus system but there were persons within the organisation who provided yeoman service and performed excellently and management and board felt that they should honour that and they did, in fact, pay out some bonuses.
Did this include junior and senior staff?
RW: No. Junior and senior staff are governed by the collective agreement, so any payments to them must come through that mechanism.
So this would have been just executives?
RW: No, this was non-unionized employees. There are 369 non-unionized employees.
Are some of those non-unionized employees junior and senior staff?
RW: No. All junior and senior staff are unionized.”
Who are the non-unionized employees?
RW: We have professionals in IT, we have section managers, we have senior managers, we have professionals, we have analysts in finance and others parts of the organizations. Those kinds of positions are considered non-unionized.
And those are the kinds of positions that would have gotten bonuses? Are you planning to pay out bonuses at the end of 2018?
RW: No. That’s the short answer to that. What we are going to do post this transformation is, of course, have a new business metric. We are going to have new performance criteria, we are going to decide new accountability targets and based on that, we are going to design a comprehensive pay-for-performance system that we will implement.
Your line minister had said that TSTT cannot continue to operate in its’ present form. If you did not make these cutbacks right now, what would have been TSTT’s position in a year’s time?
RW: We would be looking at insolvency. As I said, what’s been happening over the years as we tried to deal with employee costs, we have been meeting with all stakeholders, including the union. We’ve had no end of discussions with the union on all the possibilities and realities of what’s happening. You just have to look around at right here in Trinidad, regionally and internationally. You are seeing where there is a fundamental change and if we didn’t adjust the way we operated, we would be challenged. But as revenues begin to fall now with the movement away from the traditional communication methods, you have declining revenues and increasing costs. You are heading down a path of insolvency.
You have a debt of $1.8 billion of which $700 million includes settlement of back pay to junior and senior staff. Where is the rest going to?
RW: That was the technological upgrade. In order to evolve our technology, one of the challenges we had is that we were not building out the network properly in years gone by, so we took a decision. We had an end of life network. We upgraded our mobile network, website, access, aggregation, all of that.
In 2017, TSTT indicated to the Public Accounts Enterprise Committee of Parliament that the company incurred a liability of approximately $91 million for vacation leave. What is that figure today?
RW: It’s around 70 million. That’s part of the challenge we have with employee costs and it’s important to know that those are conversations we had with the union. Our employee costs are comprised of salaries and then all of these other emoluments such as pension, overtime, vacation leave. Most of our employees get four, five, six weeks vacation and that’s a liability.
What benefit has TSTT derived from the Massy acquisition so far?
RW: The Massy acquisition that’s been talked about—and maybe I can put this to rest. At the time Massy was a competitor. We were in a phase of building out our fibre technology. Our plan was to pass 150,000 homes in a particular time period. We were challenged for a number of reasons, not the least of which was access to foreign exchange. At the same time, Digicel had already passed over 100,000 homes and Massy had passed 35,000 homes and was adding customers faster than we were able to because of some of the legacy challenges we had.
So when the opportunity presented itself to acquire Massy, it meant we were able to get 35,000 homes passed immediately, add 6,500 customers, not look for the US$20 million it would have cost us to build out that part of the network, remove a competitor, get synergies of the two businesses and continue to add. What we have done since we acquired Massy is we have passed 130,000 homes and we have over 25,000 customers. That has been an excellent deal, not to mention that it’s been audited and we have paid around $40 million less than the value so it’s been an excellent deal.”
So if you look at the revenue generated by that particular acquisition, do you have a figure for that?
RW: It would be somewhere in the region of $40 million for the past year. We acquired Massy in July 2017.
When you launched the $3.8 billion five-year strategic plan, funding was supposed to come from the local banking sector of which $1.9 billion was underwritten by Republic Bank. How much have you spent so far?”
RW: We have done most of what we needed to do in terms of the technology because it was a front-loaded plan. We need to build out the technology first before we could move elsewhere, so we have actually done that. We spent the $1.8 billion on what we needed to do but remember $700 million was for back-pay. That was one payment.”
What do you say to Trinidad and Tobago? You are sending home employees at this particular time. It's a difficult time for TSTT. What’s your plan going forward and what do you say to Trinidad and Tobago about the future of .