Friday, February 27, 2009

Telstra turbulence to subside sans Trujillo

And now... the seamier side of the business world.

Sol Trujillo is departing Telstra's helm after a particularly turbulent four years. He says he's looking forward to "reconnecting with his family" - which tends to be code for being fired (otherwise, he'd already have an announcement on his new position). There had been ruminations in the press for the past few weeks about this, so it's not unexpected.

Although Telstra is no longer in government hands, it is still Australia's largest telco by a good margin. Trujillo's plan was to shake up Telstra's "ossified" structures, but I'm not convinced that he achieved much in the end. Doubtless, obituaries on his tenure will be written in the next few days. These should include the fact that he was a big stakes bluffer - I'd be very surprised if he doesn't play poker.

Throughout his tenure, he was using Telstra's market dominant position to attempt to leverage advantage from the government for the organisation. He drove Telstra into more or less constant litigation to attempt to protect its privileged position. But he didn't seem to understand the political paradigm that had developed in Australia over the past 20 years: that legislation and structures had been put in place to foster strongly competitive over monopolistic practices, and a one-man band wasn't going to change that, even when flexing the muscle of one of Australia's largest organisations.

In reality, now that it is effectively not a publicly-owned utility, there has long been a strong case for breaking up Telstra into separate infrastructure and communications service organisations. Trujillo strongly resisted this, as he would, but I can't see this not happening over time. The synergies of a unified company are only as useful as the competitiveness of the services provided, and there's a good argument that Telstra has effectively held back sorely-needed development of Australia's telecommunications - quite apart from the issue of encouragement/discouragement of capital investment.

Trujillo's last gasp was to put in Telstra's bid for the government telecomms infrastructure spend - a non-compliant bid. Trujillo was gambling that the government wouldn't realistically want to do anything but go running to Telstra.

He lost. I can't see that he'll be missed when he leaves. At a time when the share price is, of course, at a long-term low, estimates of total payment for his time there range from $30m to $40 million. I haven't heard of any intention of his to give any of it away.

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