Wednesday 18 September 2019

Ringing in the changes at Vodafone

Anne O'Leary believes a focus on gender balance has been beneficial for all staff, writes Samantha McCaughren

Vodafone CEO Anne O’Leary. Picture by David Conachy
Vodafone CEO Anne O’Leary. Picture by David Conachy
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

Anne O'Leary's mother envisaged a career in nursing for her only daughter back in the 1980s. But the chief executive of Vodafone Ireland knew she had no vocation for the world of medicine and, after secretarial school, found herself working in computer company Nixdorf, the first of many jobs in the technology sector.

Now a strong advocate of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), she recalls: "There wouldn't have been a lot of us in the early days. It was just the way it was.

"And back then I did wear trouser suits," she confesses with a laugh, a reflection of the pressure to fit in with the male-dominated culture in tech in the early 1990s.

These days, O'Leary has swapped the clichéd trouser suits for tailored designer dresses and she wears her leadership role with ease. She has made it her business to bring gender balance to the heart of the telco.

"When I joined here 10 years ago I set up the women's network particularly to focus on supporting other women and younger women," she says. "Because in my time I didn't feel it was discussed enough. Obviously, people supported me, and I had sponsors and mentors. But when I came here I said: 'No, I want to set up a women's network, so women can get together and talk about the issues they have, the barriers they feel they have, how they can help themselves, and how they can learn from women like myself and other women'."

She say the proof of its effectiveness is in the group's numbers. "We have 63pc female now at executive level and 47pc female at management level at Vodafone."

Last week marked five years in the top job at Vodafone for O'Leary, who is also embracing a new challenge - the role of president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. It is an important time for the organisation which is grappling with the effects of Brexit on local companies, as well as the opportunities and potential pitfalls of investment in infrastructure.

O'Leary is basing many of her priorities on detailed research carried out last year for the Chamber. "While economic prosperity and jobs were key, the key thread that actually came back was quality of life, which was interesting. Quality of life for the people living here and the next generation of Dubliners. So we will be really extending that, whether it's on housing, on transport, on jobs, on technology, Dublin being a smart city, Dublin being a safe place to live."

Although O'Leary is employed by a multinational, she is focused on the needs of local employers. "From a Dublin Chamber perspective, the small indigenous Irish companies are key- making sure that they can compete and that they can stay in Dublin and they can do business in Dublin.

"There are 1,300 members employing 300,000 people in the greater Dublin area. Obviously foreign direct investment is going very well, we want to continue that. But the small indigenous Irish companies as well, how do we attract investment in them? How do we incentivise people to invest in them? So things like tax relief and entrepreneurial relief funds so that people will think about these small indigenous Irish companies."

As a Cork native she may well also do her bit to improve the sometimes strained relationship between the capital and the rest of the country.

"What came back is the research is that Dublin isn't just about Dubliners. That there's so many non-Dubliners here as well and that it's a capital city and a shared capital city for everybody. And one of the things I will be working on is going out to some of the other chambers and finding out what is their view of Dublin and what do they want for the future of Dublin."

O'Leary's heart is still very much in Cork, however, and she continues to enjoy spending time there. As a child growing up in Cork suburb Blackrock she says she had no ambitions for a career in business. "I was outgoing. I enjoyed life. And I think I thought the world was my oyster, but I certainly was not saying I'm going to be a CEO of a large corporate."

Others see it differently. "I talk to some of my school friends and they go - there were signs, you know? I used to lead things in school, the school play or whatever."

While working at Nixdorf Computer she studied marketing in CIT by night and went on to take on sales and marketing roles in Western Digital and Reuters in London.

On returning to Ireland she joined the Golden Pages and then Esat Telecom, the telecoms company set up by Denis O'Brien, a shareholder in Independent News & Media, which publishes this newspaper and others.

She has clearly embraced technology but does not profess to be a technical expert. "I'm not an engineer but I do think of myself as a technologist. When I talk to young girls and we talk about Stem, we'd love them all to study things like engineering and physics and maths, etc. We'd encourage them. But if you're creative, artistic, there are many roles within the technology industry that you can do. There's PR and there's communications and there's HR and there's finance. And you learn about technology, and I suppose we're all touched by technology now."

When she took over as CEO in 2013 her focus was on 'the gigabit society'. She sums that up as "equality of access for everyone. High-speed access. And that is whether it's mobile or fixed. Ensuring that we were pioneering that, because the demand for services is ever-increasing and people need a platform to connect."

Up until last year, Vodafone was a front runner for the increasingly troubled National Broadband Plan (NBP) through a partnership with ESB to form Siro. It is investing €450m bringing fibre broadband to 50 towns and villages around the country. But for many, its decision to drop out of the NBP race was the first major blow for the process - and others have followed with Eir also falling away in recent weeks.

"When we looked at the National Broadband Plan, it really wasn't commercially viable for us," says O'Leary from a glass corner office in Vodafone's Leopardstown premises in Dublin. "And we wanted to continue to focus on our strategy to deliver on the 450,000 homes and the 50 towns and we will continue to do that and we're very happy with how that's going and we're seeing the response from these people in these towns, the jobs that are being created and the take-up."

She did not expect Eir to pull out also. "I was surprised. However, there is a bidder left called Enet, and we would support them in their endeavours to deliver in the national broadband area."

Vodafone, which employs 1,200 people here, has invested €2bn in Ireland over the past decade and will continue to invest. "We have 96pc 4G coverage right throughout Ireland. We'll continue to invest in 4G as well, as 5G, and we will continue as well to go to these small towns which we've been doing to support fixed infrastructure competition."

However, she is concerned about the lack of competition for wholesale access. "Ultimately the issue in Ireland is we have only one incumbent for fixed infrastructure and we all have to buy off it, which is Eir. If we had Enet in the national broadband area, Siro in the 50 towns, and Eir, we'd have three independent fixed wholesale providers.

"That will ultimately provide better competition and also better pricing for consumers. At the moment the wholesale pricing from Eir is too high. It's one of the highest in Europe, which is ultimately affecting the consumer pricing in the market.

"Obviously if there was competition, we'd have better pricing, access to it, and ultimately the consumer and the business person would gain. And that's all we ask for, just like mobile, where there's three independent operators, we'd like to see the same." Watchdog ComReg is in the middle of a broadband market review which should be issued in the coming months."It is clear that we're anxiously waiting for it," says O'Leary.

Meanwhile, Vodafone is pushing ahead with 5G and held a demonstration in Trinity College last week. "The speeds were 15 gigs per second and with a latency of less than five millimetres, which really means that it's really fast and will allow us to do things like driverless cars, if you think about that. Virtual reality and augmented reality and amazing things in real time."

After five years in the top job in Vodafone, O'Leary must surely be thinking of her next career move. Her name has already been linked to some high-profile media jobs.

"I still have more work to do here," she says when pushed about her career plans. "I want to continue with Siro. We're also in the middle of a big IT transformation: €120m in our core billing and customer relationship management which provides a converged offering and a better customer experience. We're moving to a much more digital environment. I'm excited as well about 5G. So I've more work to do and we'll see what that brings - and I have my Chamber presidency."

O'Leary remains very much a company woman and very proud of the company's rugby sponsorship. But she is particularly proud of what she has achieved for the workforce at Vodafone.

"It started on gender and now it's gone much more - we've an LGBT network and we look at age, diversity, culture, background, because we want to ensure that Vodafone reflects the customer base we serve now.

"So I've had, I suppose, 10 years of really focusing on supporting women and understanding diversity, understanding the biases that are there, the environment, the flexible work environment we need to provide," she adds. "And not only have the women benefited but men have, because it's the same rules for everyone."


Anne O'Leary




Chief executive of Vodafone Ireland




Ursuline secondary school in Cork; Skerry's College course; marketing qualification from Cork Institute of Technology

Previous experience

Nixdorf, Reuters, Golden Pages, Esat Telecom


Married to Nick


For my mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, I try and exercise every day. Do something. Whether I go for a run or a swim. At the weekends I run outside, and I cycle on a Sunday.

Favourite book

I'm in the middle of The Muse, Jessica Burton but I love Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor.

Last movie seen

I just saw The Greatest Showman. I went with my friend's two daughters. It was a musical with Hugh Jackman - it was beautiful.

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