SingTel is ready to raise the $1.75 million pay packet for the vacant Optus chief executive role as the telco continues its search for a candidate who can handle being on the national stage of Australia’s fiercely competitive $35 billion a year telecom sector.
SingTel’s chief executive of its consumer arm, Paul O’Sullivan, told The Australianthat the company had a shortlist of potential candidates and that “market rates” would be offered if it meant the telco could secure a world-class chief executive.
The head of Optus’s consumer business, Vicki Brady, remains the favourite internal candidate, but the Singaporean telecoms giant is also looking overseas for candidates.
“The sort of person we will bring in will either be one of our own or we will look around to see where the best talent in the world is. But expect that to take up to six months. That’s just the reality,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
The hunt for a new chief has been led by headhunter Russell Reynolds but sources close to the company said the search had been a “struggle”.
One major concern has been the ability for SingTel to match international market rates for top talent.
According to SingTel’s 2013 annual report, former Optus chief Kevin Russell was paid $1.75m last year, less than half the $3.6m that Telstra’s chief financial officer Andy Penn — who has been linked with the Optus job — took home at Telstra.
But Mr O’Sullivan said it was impractical to stick to rigid budgets when trying to attract the best talent.
“Clearly we will bring in someone who will be really good for Optus and someone who will be really good at making a mark in Australia and you pay whatever the market requires for that,” he said.
“You don’t fill a job like this by putting an ad in Seek. Those sorts of people aren’t sitting around looking for a job, so we will have to spend time researching and romancing them.”
Sources also say the search process has been hampered because of the role’s tiered reporting structure, which requires any prospective Optus chief executive to report to Mr O’Sullivan, who in turn reports to SingTel chief Chua Sock Koong. Mr O’Sullivan said such perceptions were “crazy”.
The hunt for a new CEO comes at a critical time for Optus, which over the last 18 months has been outspent and outgrown by its main rival Telstra.
Under Mr Russell there was a push to improve Optus’s standing among customers by offering superior service and overhauling mobile phone plans to increase customer retention.
Mr O’Sullivan said any incoming CEO would not deviate from that core strategy.
“We have a unique opportunity in the year ahead. Not only do we have the strength in terms of the company’s fitness and how it has lifted its performance on customer service, but we also have for the first time a much closer parity with Telstra on network,” he said.
“This has got to be one of the best jobs in Australia. I did it for 8 years and if I could … I’d love to apply for it again.”