With the resignation of Mike Quigley, the challenge now for NBN Co’s board and the federal government is to find someone brave enough to pick up the baton as his successor.
While there’s a wide range of candidates, it’s unlikely any of them would be in a hurry to fill Quigley’s position.
Quigley's resignation last week, ahead of the fourth anniversary of his appointment and the next federal election was not unexpected. Having handled the mammoth task of establishing the company charged with upgrading Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure, Quigley has picked a fair milestone to hang up his boots. If nothing else, the decision allows him to make a gracious exit rather than an ignominious departure the Coalition had planned for him.
At a press conference following his announcement, Quigley said his successor will need experience in building and operating an infrastructure network; “I think it would be very useful if someone coming into that job has that particular skill," he said.
Those skills are going to be severely tested as the incoming CEO will need the people and contractual skills to overcome the dysfunction at NBN Co and the gumption to deal with board, media and political interference.
The internal choice
For the moment, the man touted to get Quigley's crown is Kevin Brown, however, the former Qantas and Nortel Networks executive clearly lacks the operational experience identified by the retiring CEO.
Brown's role in NBN Co’s original failed tender in 2011 further blots his suitability for the top job. In announcing the rejection of all 14 submissions, Brown claimed the company had found a “different route” to deliver better value for money.
With contracts being handed back to NBN Co and various contractors struggling with the rollout it’s clear the “different route” has failed.
This alone should be enough to disqualify Brown.
Return of the prodigal son
A few days after the company announced the tenders had failed, NBN Co’s head of construction Patrick Flannigan resigned amid allegations he had been over-ruled by Brown on the construction contracts.
Flannigan, who is now CEO of infrastructure maintenance company Utility Services Group, has the qualifications and experience required to run the company although he may choose not to revisit the project. Still, Flannigan’s return to NBN Co can’t be ruled out for the time being.
Former Service Stream boss Graeme Sumner is another name being touted to replace Quigley and, having been the chief executive of both Transfield’s and Siemens' New Zealand operations, he has the required background.
A major strike against Sumner is Service Stream’s current problems, having been suspended from the stock exchange for the last six weeks and being in breach of its banking covenants.
All of these problems developed during his tenure at the company and it’s difficult to see how these could be overlooked should the board consider him.
With a number of fibre rollouts underway overseas there are a number of suitable, experienced candidates available with the skills NBN Co is looking for.
Across the Tasman, Chorus is the company charged with building New Zealand's Ultrafast Broadband Network and the company’s CEO, Mark Ratcliffe, and General Manager of Infrastructure Build, Ed Beatty, could both be possible candidates. However, both are long serving NZ Telecom veterans whose experience may not translate to Australia.
Google’s vice president of Access Services, Milos Medin, is responsible for the company’s US fibre rollouts. It's difficult to imagine how NBN Co will be able to match the attractions of working for one of the world’s leading companies to attract either Medin or one of his managers.
There a few viable candidates from the UK, BT Openreach’s Liv Garfield would force a major change in NBN Co’s culture which is described by many staff as ‘blokey’. Meanwhile, the company’s managing director for Network Investment, Mike Galvin is another qualified candidate, who also happens to have a fan in Malcolm Turnbull.
However, the lack of local knowledge is almost certainly going to hinder the possibility of any overseas talent taking the helm at NBN Co. And again, one has to ask just how willing any of these candidates will be to take the job in the first place.
A poisoned chalice?
The major problem in attracting a new CEO to lead NBN Co is the nature of the job. The political and media pressure on Mike Quigley has been intense and many good candidates would understandably baulk at the unwarranted personal attacks Quigley has suffered during his tenure.
An additional problem facing the board of NBN Co is that a Coalition win will lead to a re-evaluation of the project, which in turn would change the scope of the CEO’s mandate.
That leaves Quigley's successor with the unenviable task of implementing a new NBN plan while dealing with a board that is clearly not as qualified as it should be.
Without a strong engaged board to support senior management, it’s more than likely that any qualified successor to Quigley would think twice before signing the dotted line, irrespective of the salary or the opportunities on offer.
All of which means that Mike Quigley may yet regret committing to staying on until his successor is found.
Alan Kohler will be debating Malcolm Turnbull on Coalition NBN policy at a business lunch at the Sheraton Wentworth in Sydney on August 1. To book a ticket click here.
Paul Wallbank is one of Australia's leading business and technology bloggers, his business Netsmarts helps organisations adapt to the new ways of doing business online.