Outgoing NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley has played down the difficulties of his role, saying he will hand over a company to his successor that is in good shape.
Mr Quigley said on Friday he would step down from the company charged with building Australia's largest infrastructure project as soon as a replacement could be found. But he said the design and the architecture of the $37.4 billion national broadband network were now complete and his job was done.
He also dismissed claims by opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull that his retirement suggested the NBN project was in crisis.
"It's certainly a tough project, we have our challenges," Mr Quigley said. "And by the way, when the vision of the company is a source of debate, it is a hard [job] to do. Having said that, the management team that reports to me is a very good group of people, that work well together and deal with the challenges.
"I believe - and what HR people tell me - is that our retention rate is considerably better than the national average. Our turnover is half of the national average ... that doesn't smack to me of a company in crisis."
A global search by an executive recruitment agency will now begin for a replacement for Mr Quigley in a process expected to take several months. Mr Quigley said his replacement should cover two distinct roles: one overseeing operations and one overseeing construction. "It needs someone with a background in a company that runs 'stuff' and that builds 'stuff'."
He likened the NBN Co's construction role to that of a factory. "We are running a big distributed factory. We are doing the same thing many times over: building 4000 FSANs [fibre serving access nodes] all around the country."
But others say it will be hard to fill the vacancy and questioned Mr Quigley's assessment of the skill set needed.
Barry Lyons, a partner with executive recruiter MFJ Partners, said the role would require an executive with experience in large infrastructure projects and he did not expect it to be filled from the ranks of current NBN Co executives. "The major task is still to build the network and to build the organisation that can build the network. You need someone who has overseen a major infrastructure build, and there are few comparable projects in this size," he said.
Tony Brown, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media, questioned Mr Quigley's assertion that the design and architecture of the NBN were complete, and predicted that the role of chief executive would be hard to fill.
"To say that the foundations have been laid would be a stretch, to say the least," he said. "The fibre network still only passes 1.7 per cent of the total homes and we still don't know whether this is going to be a fibre-to-the-home or a fibre-to-the-node network."
Mr Brown said the NBN Co chief executive was an incredibly tough role, which would be a turnoff for potential candidates. "You are squeezed between two political parties and the media. You would have to be very brave to take this role before the election without knowing who your bosses would be and what sort of the network you'd be rolling out. And it is going to need someone who is willing to go down to Canberra every three months and get their feet put in front of the fire and be publicly questioned [in parliamentary committee hearings]."
He questioned whether any overseas executive with suitable experience would "be prepared to come down there and put up with the kind of stuff that Quigley has had to put up with".