Communications: Where CFOs face an uphill battle in an ever-changing industry

Communications: Where CFOs face an uphill battle in an ever-changing industry

BT and TalkTalk are two very different results of the communications revolution – one, a reformed dinosaur still finding its feet in a heavily regulated market, the other, a young upstart with the capability and fleet of foot to take advantage of new opportunities.

But both, while very different, have many things in common – a requirement for large-scale capital expenditure, which has a relatively slow payback; the need to constantly innovate in order to stay competitive and being part of an industry that's forever changing, both in terms of technology and competitive landscape.

Take BT. Recent acquisitions include online retailer, internet service provider PlusNet, South American network service provider Comsat and video-conferencing company Wire One, to name just four.

Meanwhile, TalkTalk - itself demerged from Carphone Warehouse in March 2010 - is no slouch, with the likes of Tele2, One.Tel, Tiscali and the UK ISP business of AOL all acquired over recent years.

It is, in short, a dynamic and ever-changing industry.

Jonathan Stone, former CFO of TalkTalk Technology and its current group change director, says: "Earlier this year, we did a fundamental reorganisation of the group after Dido Harding, our new CEO, implemented a programme to look at our structure, vision and values.".

"It's a project that I came out of my day job to lead. In January this year, we implemented a new structure which made us more of a holistic, single organisation."

Stone describes how the company grew very quickly to become the £1.7 billion business it is today, both through the series of acquisitions and organic growth. It meant the focus was firmly on growth with integration and structural efficiency put on the back burner.

But now, the consolidation and centralisation of business functions has made the group far more efficient and cohesive. "It's a very different structure and we have significantly reduced the headcount in the finance function," Stone says.

Craig Forrester, CFO, UK commercial & products at BT Global Services, agrees that the industry looks very different to how it once did. "The landscape has changed quite considerably," he says. "What it adds into the environment is a level of uncertainty."

Shifting sands

But dealing with the fallout from a seemingly never ending surge of mergers and acquisitions isn't the only challenge faced by CFOs in the communications sector. Nor is it the biggest. That dubious award probably goes to the difficulties CFOs face when making investment decisions in an economy where large-scale capital expenditures are proving more difficult to justify.

"It's what I would call shifting capital investment," TalkTalk's Stone explains. "We have a firm commitment to the City as to the level of capex that we will incur as a percentage of our revenues and we don't want to go above that. What this does is focus the mind on the important ways to utilise your capex to the best advantage."

That figure is 6 percent - or around £100 million, based on the company's 2010 revenues. And it's amazing how quickly even £100 million can get swallowed up in the communications industry, where investments usually mean digging up roads or buying extremely expensive technology.

"If you look at our history, we've expanded quite rapidly in terms of local loop unbundling and going into BT's exchanges," Stone says. "Over the last few years, we've put quite a lot into that, which means we are unbundled in more exchanges than anyone else.

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Tags change management

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