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UPC makes huge strides to build its brand value

DANA STRONG likes to keep the temperature warm in her Dublin office. The head of UPC's Irish operations is still acclimatising to Ireland's unpredictable weather and preparing for her first winter in 13 years in the northern hemisphere. She is hoping to be spared a particularly harsh one.

Unlike the thousands of people who are emigrating to Australia to find work, this 41-year-old American has found a job that was attractive enough to her to uproot her family and move to bankrupt Ireland.

She thought long and hard about the UPC offer, she says before deciding it was a great opportunity. "It was a big decision. We lived in Australia for 13 years. Our children are Australian. But I looked at the business and became very optimistic about what it can achieve in the next three to five years."

Ms Strong can trace some Irish roots going back three generations but doesn't have any family or other links here. "I wanted to make sure my husband was part of that decision," she says. "It was a much bigger decision than moving from the US to Australia. He loves change and has moved across many oceans with me. We have been together since we were 18."

The reason for her optimism is that a lot of heavy lifting has been done at UPC, the company owned by Liberty Global group that has evolved from a merger of NTL and Chorus.

Today, UPC offers cable television, broadband and telephone services around Ireland. In recent years, it has invested heavily in upgrading its network and, with one of its main broadband rivals, Eircom, in deep trouble, it is reaping the benefits.

It is a counter-cyclical business, she says, that is thriving despite the harsh economic conditions. "People are spending more time at home," she explains.

"They value their subscription to television, broadband and personal phone packages."

This is borne out in NTL's figures for the third quarter of 2011 that reported more than 858,000 customers -- a 32,000 increase and the biggest three-monthly rise in the company's history in Ireland.

The biggest surge in new customers is coming from those who are signing up for television, broadband and phone packages. UPC has recruited presenter Craig Doyle to promote its product bundles in a high-profile advertising campaign. "The new UPC branding was only launched 18 months ago so we are delighted there is big awareness of the brand," says Ms Strong.

NTL hadn't always enjoyed a strong reputation when it came to providing customer service and the UPC boss is aware of its legacy. She insists much has now changed and that improving the customer experience is a priority.

"This is one of my special areas of challenge," she says. "We want to excel in how we deliver customer experience and, while that takes a while, we are seeing the fruit is bearing out."

UPC has been amongst the few companies that has been investing in Ireland and has created new jobs this year. Ms Strong says it has recruited more people to work at its call centres and other customer centred areas of the business.

"We have made very big improvement in customer service. Most people talk about our customer service history but great leaps have been made. We are going from achieving an average performance to a good performance for customer care," she says. "We are making huge strides. Within UPC, there is a lot of enthusiasm and energy for what we do."

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This chief executive has been keeping a close eye on the level of bad debts as people are struggling to pay their bills, but this has not become a significant problem for UPC so far, she says.

"We are working with a number of customers who are not able to make their payments but, overall, our bad debts are stable when compared to last year and 2009."

One of the key factors that convinced Ms Strong to accept the job, she says, was the potential that exists to transform the UPC brand and its corporate reputation.

Ms Strong has been struck by the resilience of Irish people to the dire economic circumstances here. "I am surprised with the absolute resilience of the Irish psyche and culture," she says.

"This should be the most downbeat time. And while many Irish people have a lot to say about how Ireland has found itself in this position, there is enormous stability here." The Irish have endured numerous recessions in the past, she says, so culturally have a certain facility to deal with it. "A sense of humour provides proportion and balance," she suggests.

This compares to the endless discussions about the global financial crisis, known as the 'GFC', in Australia. "There was no recession there but there was a greater degree of fear than there is in Ireland about it. You couldn't escape hearing about the GFC in a conversation in Australia."

Ms Strong is also impressed with the degree of political consensus in Ireland about resolving the crisis, unlike in the US where politicians are tearing each other apart.

"Ireland is moving forward and making progress. I wish that could occur in all the other countries," she says. "It is a particularly troubling time for the US now."

Ms Strong is one of two female chief executives in the UPC group and came to the company from AUSTAR, a satellite subscription television provider in regional Australia she joined in 1999.


She has previously worked as a management consultant and was a director of media and telecommunications companies in Australia and New Zealand.

She has been busy networking in Ireland, she says, and is trying to meet directly with as many people as she can in the cable industry and politicians. The criticism of the extent of the rollout of broadband in Ireland is something Ms Strong is familiar with, but is keen to emphasise that things aren't as bad as they may appear.

"Today, 550,000 Irish homes can have 100mgs of broadband, while 700,000 households can have 30mgs," she says.

"It is important to build confidence. We are doing pretty well. Compared to the EU league tables, the Netherlands is ahead of Ireland but we are significantly ahead of France, Italy and Spain and on a par with Germany. We are making good progress and I am certain more will be made."

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