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Curiouser and curiouser: Telenet’s CEO John Porter on staying wide-eyed and full of wonder in a fast-changing industry

08:59 04/09/2019

An element of fun and humility in Telenet’s working culture was partly responsible for enticing John Porter to move across the world to Belgium and take up the role of CEO. So it’s perhaps fitting that he marks his sixth anniversary at the company on April Fool’s Day. After a career spanning three decades, including nearly 20 years building up a telecommunications company from scratch in Australia, he’d imagined he might take a step back from the helm. But after experiencing a ‘gap year’, it was clear he needed to grab the tiller again, he says.

He’s now back in his comfort zone, steering the Mechelen-based firm with its millions of internet, phone and cable customers in Flanders and Brussels, and around €2.4 billion of revenue a year. Originally from the US, he began globetrotting with his parents at the age of eight, and has had a taste for the international life since. He talks to ING’s Dave Deruytter about creating adventures, embracing change and why he’ll never stop having his mind blown by technological advances.

Where did your career take you before Belgium?

I was working at Time Warner in the US when, in 1994, I was recruited to start a business in Australia called Austar. I’d been doing assignments in Scandinavia and Japan that stimulated my desire to work more internationally. I went from the world’s largest media company to the smallest, with a blank sheet. It almost failed during the ‘dot com’ bust, but ultimately we sold it to NewsCorp/Telstra for a couple of billion.

By then I was 53 and thought maybe I wouldn’t lead a big company any more, but would angel invest and manage my own book. I did some interesting stuff, but quickly became quite dissatisfied with my work life. I worked with a mentor, a very senior woman in Australia, who did a 360-degree review. The day she gave me the results, she walked into the room and said ‘you have to go back to work’. She said I was good at managing big companies with lots of complexities, and was too good to stop at 53. I’d lasted 12 months – I call it my ‘gap year’.

I found out during that process that my real passion was in leadership, and that’s managing change and growth of real scale companies. I put my hand up and, fortunately, Liberty [which part-owned Austar] owned 56% of Telenet. When they pointed out this opportunity, I embraced it.

What sealed the deal?

I watched YouTube videos and thought ‘this is a company with a special culture’. There were things that obviously ran deeply into Telenet’s DNA – it was a challenger, it valued innovation but wasn’t afraid to make fun of things. There was a level of humility and fun about the company that came through, and we’ve tried to preserve that.

When I arrived in 2013 [having replaced previous CEO Duco Sickinghe], a journalist said to me, ‘you’re just like Tim Cook following Steve Jobs because your predecessor was a genius’. I’m happy to be Tim Cook… I saw it as interesting. I’d experienced most kinds of challenge a CEO can have. The one thing I hadn’t done was to walk into a really good company and find a way to make it great. There’s a famous quote from a World War Two movie when a guy comes in to replace a famous general and they say ‘how can you improve on what he did?’, and he says ‘I’m just standing on the shoulders of giants’. 

Is Belgium’s telecoms market in good shape?

Belgium has excellent telecoms infrastructure so it’s one of the best countries in Europe – probably on a par with the Netherlands – in terms of quality, speed, competitiveness, innovation and product leadership. We, along with Proximus and Orange, have been investing well above the average of capital investment versus revenue into our networks, products and services.

I often say this infrastructure is like the canals of the 21st century. What made this part of the world great in the 1600s was the transportation over water, which underpinned the whole economy. In the same way, having gigabit infrastructure in 2019 is what’s going to propel us forward. It’s no secret that I feel the sector is over-regulated, but I don’t want to dwell on that.

What does Belgium need to do to stay competitive in the employment market?

I’m no expert in this field… but I think Belgium needs to be open to evolving its labour and tax policies. But change in Belgium requires a lot of consensus, and that can be elusive. Sometimes when you are trying to move things forward you just have to put a stake in the ground and say ‘we’re going here’.

Where do you see artificial intelligence going within the industry?

Our approach to AI starts with the customers, who are evolving in terms of their expectations of service quality. We used to be able to segment them by demographics – now it’s really about a ‘segment of one’. Customers want to be dealt with much more intimately. AI can help us do that in a cost-effective way. We’re already quite lean – this can help us be a better company, but not necessarily a smaller one.

Also our employees’ skills and abilities need to continue evolving. We’re already using AI to train people internally on new installations. Fred – our internal bot – has gotten thousands of questions and can answer virtually all of them.

Can you still have your mind blown by new tech ideas?

I just had my mind blown yesterday. We have an ‘innovation sandbox’ called Matchbox. Any employee can put their hand up and go through training on the innovation. We have kind of a Dragon’s Den to see what goes to the next stage. I think we looked at 16 pitches and moved 10 of them forward. There was some really exciting stuff in there. We also have a graduate recruitment programme. Young people keep us wide-eyed and waiting for the next big thing because they don’t have the same boundaries and they’re a lot more agile.

Do you enjoy the constantly shifting landscape?

The very nature of what we call entertainment is changing all the time. I think everyone needs to be open to change, I don’t care who you are. The workforce in Belgium has this combination of well-educated and passionate people, with a humility that means they’re open to learning. Not everybody, but the vast majority. If you’re not excited about evolution and growth then you’re probably not working at Telenet.

In the beginning, did you imagine how this sector would explode?

I had no idea. I can remember first learning about the internet. I also remember learning DOS on a Microsoft computer, on a huge screen. When I moved to Australia I followed sports in America, and I would get a fax of the results. Anybody who’s lived in the period I’ve lived in has an incredible story to tell about the acceleration of technology.

How has this move been for your family?

My wife and I have three sons and a daughter, who’re now 28, 25, 21 and 18. I’d advise anyone with a 13-year-old daughter not to move them! When I told her I was thinking of this move she did some research and made a PowerPoint presentation, including facts about the beer and chocolate. One day, after we arrived, she said I’d ruined her life…

But she came around. She’s having a gap year before university, and has been teaching in Thailand. That which did not kill her made her stronger, and she’s a very capable young lady now. When people tell me they want to take their family overseas I say ‘go, do it’. If you take them on that journey they realise the whole world is available to them.

How do you spend your free time?

Holidays are special because our children don’t live at home now. So if I want to get my family all together, I throw a really good holiday. We try to pick somewhere warm at Christmas – after 20 years in Australia, that’s summer for us. In summer we do things around Europe because it’s magical then. The boys are very athletic so we need active holidays. I love pretty much anything on water – sailing and water-skiing – and also snow skiing.

One thing I’ve done with my management team is that every other year we have a physical challenge and adventure. We went to Lapland and trekked 115km on skis from the Russian border to Saariselkä, Finland, and camped out. We also hiked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, which was 130km.

What do you like and dislike about Belgium?

If you ever wanted to live in continental Europe, you can’t pick a better place. From my experience, in Brussels you’re often in the ‘expat ghetto’. But now we have moved to the Antwerp area and we’re much more integrated with the community. I’ve been studying Dutch harder recently. I love Belgium’s culture around gastronomy and the fine things in life. You could ask for a bit more sunshine and a little less traffic, but otherwise I have no complaints.

What tips do you have for newcomers?

I think the biggest mistake people can make is getting caught up in cultural stereotypes. Just take every person as they come and every day as it comes and be wide-eyed and curious about new things. In work life too, I would avoid generalities. It doesn’t do justice to the environment you find yourself in.

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time. Photo: Bart Dewaele

Written by Paula Dear