When Alan Whelan is in Jersey, it’s a safe bet that he probably holds more experience in the telecoms industry than anyone else on the island. Today, he is Group CEO of Batelco and a board member and trustee of Bletchley Park, a position that in itself suggests that telecoms is more than just a job for him.
His career in the industry began straight out of university and has encompassed major multinationals including BT, AT&T, Cable & Wireless, Reliance and now he leads Batelco, which is he believes, an organisation that is ideally suited to working with the Channel Islands and Isle of Man.
“Bahrain is an island with a strong financial services community, so there’s an affiliation with both the environment and the economic challenges and opportunities,” he says. “We understand what it takes to run a successful business in a small but highly competitive environment.”
In terms of doing business, Bahrain has a similar profile to the UK and, by extension, Jersey. It comes 13th in the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, one position better than the UK in 14th. Financial services is the second most important pillar of the island’s economy (behind oil), with 20% of GDP being generated through the sector. Similarly to the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, the limited size and natural resources of the island mean that economic diversification is a priority for Bahrain’s government.
As a company that was previously restricted to operating in the Bahraini market, Batelco has also sought to diversify its revenue streams and has looked abroad to do so. This search for new channels has seen the firm engage in a number of overseas acquisitions, one of which was the purchase of Sure from CWC. So far, the strategy is proving fruitful.
“We were looking to diversify and now more than 50% of our revenues come from external sources.”
Such significant acquisition activity brings with it a range of new responsibilities including the need to invest in the new companies, something which Alan Whelan sees as vital to their success.
“In these geographies, we have the capability to invest and we will continue to do so in these jurisdictions. Since we bought Sure, we’ve invested significantly in the acquisition of Foreshore and the development of our 4G mobile network.”
Of course, if they are going to invest, the board needs to feel confident that it will get a return on its investment and all the indicators show that Sure deserves such confidence.
“We reviewed the year-to-date performance in the board meeting and Sure is performing well and importantly, Foreshore is performing even better than predicted. The combination of these two businesses is very exciting and puts Sure in an excellent position for the future.”
Batelco may have no qualms about making investments that will bring new services and the latest technologies to their customers but Alan Whelan makes it clear that investment will only be made in the right environment.
“The more level the playing field, the more appetite we’ll have to invest. We’re all competing and have an obligation to grow the market otherwise Jersey will fall behind. Jersey needs a world class infrastructure to attract investment in the financial and digital sectors and we are very willing to play a role in creating that environment but to do so, we need a level playing field and regulation that supports competition.
“If those elements are in place, then there are no limits to how far Sure can go. It has an owner that is prepared to invest and a very capable management team, if a truly competitive environment is also in place, then Sure really can do well.”
The delivery of the Channel Islands’ first 4G network is definitely Sure’s focus at the moment, something which Alan Whelan sees bringing enormous benefits.
“Our customers will find 4G a lot more responsive and usable in terms of being a data access mechanism, than 3G is at the moment. The speeds we’ll get over 4G will be really high, making it a viable competitor to fibre. Inter-modal competition is something we’re seeing in Bahrain at the moment as customers increasingly move to mobile networks for all their broadband needs.”
If 2014 has been about investment in Sure, 2015 should see the first rewards of those investments Early in the year, 4G will be launched alongside new 2G and 3G networks that will mean Sure having the most up to date networks in the islands. Competition will finally come to the landline market in the CI, giving challenger operators the opportunity to bundle service packages together so that customers can reap the benefits of an openly competitive market place.
If all goes well and Sure continues to grow on the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, then it surely won’t be long before Batelco looks to make even greater investments in the islands.