Sol Trujillo. Photo: Kate Geraghty
HISTORY has probably dealt former Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo an unfair blow. For years he has been considered one of Australia's great economic vandals - the bloke that was so unreasonable and unwilling to play ball with the regulator, competitors and legislators that the government took the decision to build a new national telecommunications network.
Only three years ago it looked like he had blown up billions of dollars of Telstra shareholders' capital. But a lot has changed since then.
The juicy compensation payments that the government is now paying to Telstra shareholders is the primary reason the company's shares have strongly outperformed the market.
The other reason Trujillo's Telstra reign should be celebrated today is that he created a mobile network that was vastly superior to its competitors. While Optus and Vodafone are struggling to grow revenue in the mobile market, Telstra (for now at least) is still managing to do so.
But more on that later.
Let it be said from the outset (and before corporate historians set to sending abusive emails) that Trujillo could not have foreseen that the arrogance of his stance in not playing ball with the government and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission would have led to the outcome we have today. His strategy could have and probably should have turned to custard for Telstra shareholders.
He left the company in a horrible negotiating position - one that was ultimately turned around by some fine work on the part of successor David Thodey and Telstra chairman Catherine Livingstone.
The $11 billion payment that Telstra ultimately negotiated as compensation for the use of its infrastructure and the migration of its customers has been the company's financial saviour.
It has ended up being paid handsomely for a copper network that was losing customers and in need of heavy capital expenditure.
The decision by the government to compensate Telstra shareholders is the equivalent of paying top dollar to the biggest supplier of horse and buggies when the car was introduced.
For Telstra shareholders it was nothing short of serendipity. Having said that, history cannot deny the outcome had its genesis in Trujillo's decision to snub the chance to participate in a $4.7 billion fibre to the node network.
Which brings us to Trujillo's other big strategy decision - the building of a wireless network that is today the reason the company can boast market-share gains and better coverage than anyone else.
For 10 years mobile telephony has been the growth engine in telecom. But it is only over the past six months that this has ground to a halt. While usage has continued to rise, the revenue is now ex-growth.
Voice and text have moved into decline in a revenue sense - they are now the industry's commodity products. Telstra mobile revenues remain on the ascendancy because it has been soaking up market share thanks to its superior network. Telstra says its potential to continue on this trajectory will be assisted by improved customer service, but most would say that this is not part of its competitive advantage yet. The network Sol built and Thodey retained and improved is its point of difference.
Again arrogance and cultural insensitivity resulted in some problems for Trujillo. He initially overpriced his superior network, which led to a decline in market share. But for the past two years, under Thodey, the mispricing has been rectified and Telstra has in effect bought back customers by a combination of repricing and retaining the high ground on network service. The fallout continues to haunt Optus and Vodafone, both of which have released lacklustre mobile financial performances.
Optus said mobile growth rates in Australia have slowed as a result of price competition and mandated reductions in termination rates. It reported a 4 per cent fall in operating revenue for the September quarter. Vodafone's recent performance has been even more troublesome, and both of these have provided Telstra with a free kick.
While Telstra sits in a superior position, it has the challenge of staying there. Optus has vowed to improve its 4G network and Vodafone has enunciated its strategy of cutting costs in Australia and ploughing the proceeds into improving the network. Over time the second and third players in this market are going to stage a fightback.
CommBank Global Markets Research analyst Alice Bennett sees the dynamics thus: ''VHA [Vodafone] is not forecasting positive subscriber momentum until mid-2013. It is focused on margin improvement and seems resigned to a market No. 3 position. Optus is putting revenue growth secondary to 'profitable growth', while Telstra expects to continue winning share. In our view, Telstra is well positioned to do so until at least mid-2013.''
The more worrying point for all three is that they need to find a new source of growth from mobiles.
Telstra is playing the network solutions card - using the network to offer extra bells and whistles to its small to medium-sized business customers. This is clearly a plus, but in the short to medium term it won't be enough to stem the decline.
Pushing and repricing data we use on smart phones is a much more realistic source of mobile income. But this is a sector in which we will see more intense competition and some seismic shifts in usage and pricing, and new product will hold the key to whether performance comes on the back of legacy decisions and payments.