Oliver Loomes says customer service issues at Ireland’s biggest telco are a thing of the past
Oliver Loomes knows about the ups and downs of a brand. For three years, the south Dubliner was the global brand manager for Guinness. Everywhere he went, he basked in it.
“In places like Africa and Indonesia, they regard it as a local drink,” he says. “It was incredible.”
But this year, Loomes took the reins at one of Ireland’s toughest branding jobs, when he was made CEO at Eir.
The country’s biggest telecoms firm has had a torrid two years. While it raced ahead with new broadband and mobile investment, the word ‘Eir’ became a byword for bad customer service. From Liveline to Prime Time, the story was of grannies being left on hold for an hour, workers from home stuck in box-rooms on crawling connections, and endless billing errors.
There were also relentless fights with the telecoms regulator, and fines too – as well as accusations of slowing up the National Broadband Plan.
Loomes says that when he took over from ex-CEO Carolan Lennon in January, he had an inkling it might be hell.
“I was expecting that I’d need to do a complete overhaul on customer service,” he says, sitting in a large office boardroom in Eir’s recently-acquired subsidiary, Evo, in Dublin’s Cherrywood business park.
“I thought it would need total fixing, and that would be my top priority. It was only when I got in that I saw the team have been all over this like a rash for the last two years. I don’t think people realise it yet, but it is absolutely in a good place now.”
Loomes says he has the figures to prove it. The regulator, ComReg, now places Eir toward the bottom of the complaints pile. The average answering time is now under two minutes, compared to waiting times of over an hour at the height of the pandemic. Complaints, he says, are at their lowest level since 2015.
But Loomes knows that it will take time to persuade people of this.
“I think the perception and reputation of Eir lags behind what I’m seeing in reality,” he says. “There is a really good story here that I probably need to tell.” That story, he says, includes a huge capital investment plan of €250m every year into broadband and mobile rollouts. So instead of fighting fires, Loomes sees his job now as steadying a ship that’s already well underway.
In some ways, Loomes was a leftfield choice for the CEO’s role. He had no experience in telecoms.
“I’ve had to learn all of these three-and-four letter acronyms,” he says of the transition. “There’s a language all of its own in telcos.”
But in another way, he fits the profile of French owner Xavier Niel – a serial disruptor. With no history in the sector here, Loomes has few axes to grind or scores to settle. There’s no real target on his back, other than the one that comes from being CEO of Eir. He talks without rancour about rivals and regulators.
He seems naturally upbeat, too. In the hour we spend chatting, he is one quarter straight-talking, one quarter seasoned charm, and 50pc unashamed marketing. This may be an appropriate mix for a corporate CEO.
But it’s been a steep learning curve, too. Since Loomes joined, he has been on intensive tours around Eir’s telephone exchanges, customer-care centres, and regional offices to get a handle on how things work and what everybody does.
So does he have any big ideas? What does Eir do to surprise us next? Something to match the radical disruption that Eir’s cut-price GoMo mobile operation introduced? A grand plan to rival the huge fibre rollout Eir is doing in the cities and large towns? Or is the job really now about maintenance of a utility, according to a blueprint already in place?
The last of those, it seems.
“There might be new ideas at some stage,” he says. “5G private networks, for example. But the immediate job is to execute on the core business, get it firing on all cylinders.”
This, he says, means seeing through the fibre broadband rollout, improving their mobile networking offerings, and building its stuttering TV brand.
And what of Eir’s other recent corporate playbook? The one that has seen it sell off bits and pieces of its assets for hundreds of millions?
Since Niel’s NJJ took over Eir, it has cashed in on its tower infrastructure company (€300m), sold a majority stake in the emergency network service Tetra (€76m) and flogged just under half of its fibre network to the French investment firm Infravia for an undisclosed nine-figure sum.
Is this a pattern we can expect to see continued under Loomes’s tenure?
“I wouldn’t think of it as a pattern,”
he says. “I’d think of it as Eir seeing an opportunity to monetise assets, to enable investment back into accelerating growth. Those three [sales] were, in my opinion, smart moves.
“People may not realise that Eir has invested €1bn here in the last four years. And every year we’re investing an extra €250m. It was on the back of some of the funds generated that acceleration of the fibre rollout is happening. That’s a successful outcome all around. I wouldn’t see those as funds out, but investment in.”
Even still, might we see more sales?
“I wouldn’t really speculate on it.”
What about Eir itself? The firm has been bought and sold six times in the last 20 years, drawing comparisons to a cash machine for slick corporate entities, rather than a future-looking piece of national infrastructure.
“I wouldn’t speculate on what will happen in the future,” says Loomes. “But NJJ is a long-term investor in the telco space. It has invested a billion in the last four years and is committed to a quarter billion every year going forward. So my sense is that it is very committed.”
Loomes has joined Eir at a time when the number of telecoms firms in Ireland may be about to shrink. For years, Virgin Media owner Liberty Global and Vodafone have been in reported contact over the possibility of a merger that could see the two units folded into one here. It would be an industry juggernaut. How might Eir respond if that happened?
“If it did happen, then obviously we’d then have to re-evaluate the regulatory environment,” he says. “There’s not really any benefit in me speculating much more than that.”
It’s not out of the question that Liberty might approach Eir, too. Have talks taken place in that context?
“I’m not aware of any conversations in that space, though I’m only just in the door.”
This doesn’t mean Loomes isn’t thinking about regulatory issues. Eir is, by far, the most regulated telecoms company in Ireland – from the provision of landlines and poles to rural homes, to how much it is allowed to charge other firms for its underlying broadband lines in rural areas.
This has led to an unending waltz in and out of the High Court with regulator ComReg over issues varying from inside information between Eir’s two trading arms to billing errors.
Like every Eir CEO before him, he thinks that the regulatory environment in Ireland could benefit from loosening up.
“It’s a very competitive marketplace here,” he says. “But look at what other countries are doing. Look at France [the home market of Eir’s owner]. It has actually eased the foot off regulation to allow competition deliver more benefits to the consumer.
“Maybe there’s an opportunity for the regulatory environment to ease a little bit in Ireland, too? Let competition look after the marketplace.”
Eir’s rivals might have something to say about that. As would ComReg, which claims that the only reason there is vibrant competition in Ireland is exactly because its regulatory rules force the biggest players to grant access to smaller challengers, instead of closing up shop on inherited infrastructure.
But that’s not Loomes’s problem. He describes relations with ComReg as “constructive”, though he admits there are tensions that will probably last.
“It’s probably natural, you know, ComReg and Eir not being best friends. Because if they were, you’d be concerned. But we’re not fighting every day either. I think constructive is a good word.
“I’m coming into it fairly fresh, but my view is that Eir has been very focused on compliance and regulatory governance over the last few years, and I think it’s in pretty good shape.”
What about Eir’s complicated relationship with the National Broadband Plan (NBP)? The telecoms firm has sometimes been accused of going slow on NBP compliance, contributing to delays.
Two years ago, Eir’s ex-CEO appeared before an Oireachtas committee with a mischievously-timed ‘Plan B’, in case government wanted to ditch the €2.7bn rollout in favour of a replacement Eir network.
Loomes won’t comment on whether there’s still a ‘Plan B’ on its books, but he does appear a lot more bullish on the NBP’s rollout and completion.
“Maybe there were some teething problems there, but my sense coming into Eir is that it [National Broadband Ireland] is getting into the groove and is now on track for seven years,” he says. “It takes time to build momentum, in fairness.
“It’s not my job to advocate for them, but we’ll support them in any way we can, to help them succeed.”
Does that mean that the State was right, all along, to create a National Broadband Plan?
“I’m not going to start agreeing or disagreeing with historic arrangements,” he says. “But I do like the idea of Ireland having 2.2m premises across this country connected to gigabit fibre broadband. It’ll be fantastic in terms of attracting foreign direct and direct investment into Ireland.
“It’s expensive, to be sure – maybe 10 times more expensive to get to some of those rural homes. But look, if this is the world that we’re going to be living in, isn’t it great that we’re connecting homes and investing in that so directly?
“I think it’s probably the right thing to do. It sets Ireland up to be a real competitive global player.”
Loomes can’t rule out more price increases, even after its recent €5-a-month hike on most households. But he says that Eir’s own cost increases aren’t putting pressure on jobs in those company.
What about his own prospects? The average tenure of an Eir CEO in recent decades is four years. Does he expect to outlive this?
“I have no idea how long I’ll be in this job,” he says. “Right now, I’m jumping out of bed in the morning. And I think there are massive opportunities here. At some point – in four, five, six years or whatever – I want to be able to look back and say that it’s got a great brand and a great legacy. I want it to have had a good reputation.”
Name: Oliver Loomes
Position: Chief executive officer at Eir
Family: Married with one daughter and twin teenage boys
Lives: Rathmines, Dublin
Experience: CEO and chairman, Diageo Ireland. Guinness global brand director. Marketing executive at Mars
Education: Belvedere College and then to UCD for a BComm and an MBS
Hobbies: Rugby, golf, jogging
Recommended book: ‘Where Is My Flying Car?’ by J Stors Hall
Favourite movie: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’
What’s the best way of dealing with adversity or setbacks at work?
“Remember that focusing on blame is a waste of time. Aim to be rational, not emotional. Learn from it, put it to bed. Don’t let it fester.”
What, in particular, has benefitted you in your business career?
“Knowing that you shouldn’t be afraid to place some calculated bets. Take time and make space to plan and build your future business, explore new ideas.”
Have you any tips on how should you approach management?
“As part of my first 100 days in Eir, I asked my executive team for feedback on my performance. Some might think 100 days in is too early, but my view is if I had waited a year, that may have been a year lost.”