Olaf Swantee’s Terracotta Army and the battle to build EE

Alan Burkitt-Gray
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Olaf Swantee, former CEO of EE, has written a book about how the company was created and how it was sold to BT. Bill Boyle spoke to him about why he wrote the book now and why students of business practice will find it useful

Olaf Swantee

Those of us who buy business advice books at the airport because we hope the smiling business hero on the cover will make us a millionaire, will like this book by Olaf Swantee. It falls into only one minor, but irritating, business-advice book cliché and I’ll come to that later.

Swantee’s book does convey a type of breathless enthusiasm for the integration of T-Mobile UK and Orange UK into what became Everything Everywhere and then – mercifully – just EE.

He writes: “We took two great companies and transformed them to become the market leader. It was a huge task delivered by many exceptionally talented people and I wanted to make sure that we captured the good, the bad and the ugly of the journey – what worked as well as what didn’t. We learned many lessons along the way and wanted to share our learnings with other business leaders who may be facing similar challenges in their organisations.”

The publishers Kogan Page say that the book was completed following BT’s successful £12.5 billion purchase of EE this year. After the takeover Swantee stepped down from the top job, taking up the CEO position at Swiss network Sunrise.

When I spoke to Swantee from his home in Switzerland he sounded as enthusiastic over the phone as he comes across on the pages of the book itself which brims with bountiful enthusiasm for the minutiae of corporate mergers.

“I said that I would write the book when I retired, and someone told me that would be very annoying – hearing years later about one of the biggest mergers in mobile telco history,” Swantee explains. “Moreover, when I thought about it, that rang true. I realised that if I did it, properly, many people could potentially learn from it – students, young managers and EE employees.”

Now he didn’t write it to enrich himself – all the proceeds go to charities determined by EE staff – but one of the ironies of the book is that the loyal and hard-working EE staff are certainly praised but not given walk-on parts when they deserve it. Therefore the book has a certain one-dimensional feel to it, and that is my one minor irritation - why not name some of the minor characters who made it possible?

Swantee made the point that he was writing about a successful corporate merger – in a world where most big mergers fail – so why not take the opportunity to tell the story and populate it with the names of those who usually go unmentioned?

Possible deal-breakers

Swantee admitted to me that it was only during the process of writing the book that he learned even more lessons about the merger and sale: “In hindsight, you realise what are the real, really key reasons something works. Some things were not very structured and some things which I now see as possible deal-breakers we did not look upon as imperative. So it is good they did not trip us up.”

Swantee is quite refreshing about his need to push the business forward: “Employees need to know, in this enormously busy and vibrant business world, that their organisation is moving forward. So it is not just the board pushing for better figures, it’s the average employee comparing us as a mobile connectivity organisation to our competitors, who pushed from below. So while we had to persuade our employees that the merger [of Orange UK and T-Mobile UK], then the sale [to BT], was good for them as long as we were innovating as a company – and building the UK’s first 4G network was a big part of that innovation and played its part in galvanising the staff.”

For me, the most interesting stories in the book were the ones around the construction of the 4G network, the selection of great teams, building partnerships and the battles over its existence with the rival networks and the regulator. These alone make the book well worth reading.

As the book details, not only would launching a new network, a new brand and a new presence on the high street require the backing and belief of hundreds of employees, partners and suppliers, it would also require influencing the UK government.

The reason was they were proposing to launch not only a new brand but a totally new communications standard – fourth generation mobile spectrum, or 4G.

EE needed mobile spectrum to launch its 4G network, but, as the book says: “Mobile spectrum is something that governments own – not businesses. A government generally leases these airwaves to a business. In this case, the UK government’s roadmap planned to allow mobile operators to bid for slices of this new 4G spectrum in just over two years’ time (what would be 2014) and would allow the new operators to implement the new services the year after that, in 2015.”

This gave Swantee his biggest headache. The best section is the one which tells the story of how EE cracked this problem.

Doing the impossible

Swantee sets the scene well: “I distinctly remember the day we nailed it. It was a chilly October morning in Paddington, and we were having yet another meeting with the network team, challenging them on how to launch 4G without the required spectrum. ‘It can’t be done,’ was the initial reaction.”

Then one of the engineers in a corner of the room said: “Why don’t we try to use our existing network to launch 4G?” The room fell silent, and people turned to look at him. “I mean, if we re-farmed our existing spectrum, we could still serve the customers that we have now, and also use a bit of it to launch the UK’s first 4G network. Of course the regulator will never allow it, but…”

The rest, as they often say in books like this, is history. The joint venture had brought together the spectrum of two huge 1,800MHz networks. By using a technique called re-farming they would be able to use a portion of that network to launch a version of 4G – a faster, super-powered mobile network years before any other operator.

As Swantee says: “While he had not quite bent the rules of physics, he had bent the rules within which we were thinking. In fact, with this new plan, there were no rules. This had never been done before.”

However, it wasn’t easy. In fact, he admits it was one of the biggest challenges of his time as CEO of EE.

“The problem when dealing with big hairy regulatory issues such as this is that it will never entirely be in your own hands. This makes it by far the riskiest and hardest of situations to control and manage. However, it absolutely can be done.”

Governments and regulators

The section in chapter four on working with governments and regulators is one of the most interesting in the book.

Swantee makes it clear in his book that the UK market is one of the most competitive in the world: “The sale of EE to BT was important because if the UK does not want to be trailing behind all the other countries of the world in broadband and mobile speeds, it needs massive investment. Moreover, those billions of pounds also need to be backed up by enormous technology capabilities and resources – and one of the few companies that can provide that scale of investment is BT.

“Only an organisation the size of BT can implement the UK government’s ambitious plans for smart cities, smart utilities, smart grids and all of the additional infrastructure which needs to be plugged in to the country over the next few years.”

Swantee says: “The sale was good for the employees and the customers. Now you can be connected to a high-speed network at any time no matter where you are. We often forget that clients need the fixed network as well as the mobile one – within BT, EE becomes a much more useful organisation as it moves towards 5G investment.”

I am truly puzzled as to why he does not name the hero engineer who cracked the 4G problem at the Paddington meeting – he deserves at least a footnote in the history of EE.

Despite constantly praising the staff of EE we get to know the names of only some key board members. The great unsung, like China’s Teracotta Army, go about their business unseen. Maybe that’s what has to happen in a book with a cast of thousands but it does, in my opinion, stand out, although I’m equally sure Swantee tried his best to be fair.

As he sits in his Swiss home it is obvious he is a restless soul. “It is great being back in the middle of my family again. And I am enjoying my job with Sunrise.”

I’m sure he means it, but the enthusiasm and sheer energy which shines from every page of this book mark him out as a man to watch – I do not believe he can stay away from the heart of transformation for long. 

Olaf Swantee book

The 4G Mobile Revolution: Creation, Innovation and Transformation at EE, by Olaf Swantee with Stuart Jackson, was published in August by Kogan Page at £19.99. ISBN 978-0749479398

Olaf Swantee timeline

Swantee, born in the Netherlands in 1966, studied economics in Amsterdam and has an MBA from European business school ESCP. He spent 17 years in IT, in Compaq, Digital Equipment and Hewlett-Packard, before moving to telecoms

August 2007 Swantee becomes head of mobile for France Telecom – rebranding to Orange – for Europe outside France

April 2010 Orange and Deutsche Telekom merge UK mobile operations into Everything Everywhere, headed by Tom Alexander, former CEO of Orange UK. Swantee represents Orange on the board

April 2011 Orange and Deutsche Telekom set up joint procurement company now called BuyIn. Swantee is Orange’s representative

July 2011 Swantee becomes CEO of Everything Everywhere, replacing Alexander

September 2012 Everything Everywhere is renamed EE with launch of 4G

January 2016 Swantee leaves EE as BT completes its takeover, to be replaced by Marc Allera

May 2016 Swantee becomes CEO of Sunrise Communications, Switzerland