Will nice guy Thodey finish last?


opinion David Thodey was dressed conservatively in a dark suit and grey tie as he took the stand in Sydney last Thursday morning to face the impertinent questions of a pack of reporters and a separate phalanx of analysts.

He wore a fashionable set of the slightly elongated rectangular glasses that became the height of style in eyewear in 2009, and his shirt was pristinely white. A touch of frost greying his temples was the only real sign that the CEO was in his middle-50’s, as opposed to being ten years’ younger.

The unusually tall and thin Thodey (pictured) towered over the room from the right of the raised stage Telstra has constructed deep in its corporate centre at 400 George St. The overall impression one first gets of the CEO, I have heard various people mention, can be a bit spooky as he darkly looms over you with his piercing eyes.

Thodey’s dress sense in general contrasts subtly but importantly with that of his predecessor, Sol Trujillo.

The former Telstra CEO often wore different coloured ties with varying patterns, and he had a wide reportoire of flambouyant suits ranging from light gray to blue, pin-striped, black and more. Even the colour of his shirts changed to match the rest.

Trujillo’s attire, combined with his shorter but bulkier stature, his power moustache and his highly expressive bushy eyebrows (just check the multitude of photos out there if you don’t believe me) tended to give you the impression of an executive who was a combination king-hit prize fighter and a some form of insurance salesman.

And their personalities match. Trujillo’s tenure at Telstra was characterised by his bombastic, take no prisoners nature, while Thodey’s much more reserved nature wouldn’t seem out of place visiting his aged grandmother — with flowers in hand.

However, ironically given Trujillo’s extroverted approach, Thodey’s performance delivering Telstra’s half-yearly financial results last week revealed the executive’s growing level of comfort in a forum that so often appeared to play to his predecessor’s weaknesses.

Trujillo never quite mastered the business and technology press, and his appearances at Telstra’s question and answer sessions were peppered with antagonism and hostility as his American brand of humour and propensity for answering legitimate questions with marketing guff fell flat in front of the critical fourth estate audience.

Thodey, by comparison, last Thursday charmed the pants off Australia’s press and analyst corps with his oh-so-Australian brand of understated humour.

Where Trujillo might have gotten defensive about the dozens of questions asked about Telstra’s ongoing and highly secretive negotiations with the Federal Government and National Broadband Network Company, Thodey played honest and to the heart. The negotiations were “very complex”, he repeated gently over and over again, attempting to coax the press into believing there was nothing worrisome about them.

Asked whether the talks were distracting Telstra from its business, he quipped that Telstra did have some staff working on it, but “thankfully, we have another 35,000 people in the business”.

Later on Thodey joked about Telstra’s customer service that he would love to have customers delighted with the telco. “I am sure there are some out there,” he chuckled.

And the CEO’s honesty was at times startling — at times he simply admitted he was in the dark. “I do not know the answer to that,” he said in response to a question about pending Government legislation.

The remarkable thing about Thodey’s charm offensive — witnessed up close — is that it appears to be genuine. The CEO had many journalists in the half-yearly results session chuckling along with him, where Trujillo’s brash jokes and back-slapping camaraderie with his frequent guest star partner CEOs might have won him a few forced smiles at best.

Journalists loved to poke fun at Trujillo — as the many newspaper cartoons featuring his face attached to unlikely circumstances will attest. But Thodey has the sort of charm that makes those questioning him feel as though he’s letting them be part of his crowd. You’re not supposed to be too harsh on me, his beguiling smile appears to suggest, because after all, we’re all insiders, party to the same secrets.

And it bodes well for Telstra in some regards.

As Thodey has been at pains to point out, Telstra desperately needs to move its customer service into the twentieth century and stop ending up on the front pages of newspapers for botches like sending bills to deceased former customers.

The gradual exit of several of the telco’s more publicly rambunctious staff from its ranks over the past year has no doubt been due to Thodey’s influence, as has the commencement of the healing process with Telstra’s unions.

And of course, the exit of Trujillo and then-Telstra chairman Donald McGauchie from the telco last year was emblematic of the fact that Telstra was fighting a losing battle with the Federal Government over regulation — and consequently getting punished more than many of its shareholders thought necessary. Thodey has already done much to heal that rift.

From this, one thing is clear. Thodey’s natural inclination is to be the nice guy.

But one other thing remains in question. With declining revenues and earnings, limited growth opportunities in a market that is rapidly becoming commoditised and subject to huge levels of government intervention, an inevitable separation of its wholesale and retail operations looming and a need to plough its growing cash pile into investment, Telstra is currently facing a raft of challenges the like it has never known.

For all the charm, Thodey did, after all, deliver a mediocre half-yearly financial result last week that led many analysts to question where growth in the telco’s businesses would come from. It’s a question that Trujillo always had an answer to.

But with the NBN negotiations being the elephant in Thodey’s room, it’s currently hard for the CEO to take charge of Telstra in the way he would like to. The future is just too uncertain.

Meaning that the question for Thodey will eventually become — will simply playing the nice guy be enough?

Image credit: Telstra