More choices. Higher quality. Lower prices. Keeping up with Caribbean telecommunications customers’ changing demands is getting harder. Tasked with servicing a region whose technology needs range from the very basic to the increasingly sophisticated, Caribbean telecommunications companies have struggled to stay ahead of themarket’s steepening demand curve. These islands, long known as a bejewelled attraction for vacationing visitors, are now catching a different kind of attention, holding the gaze of multinational investors. But with Caribbean consumer tastes constantly evolving, the competitive challenge is becoming stiffer for those who dare step into the arena.
Brendan Paddick, chairman and CEO of Columbus International, a major player in the region’s dynamic landscape, is convinced that his company is up to the challenge. The key to success, he says, is the company’s corporate culture.
“We like to say, culture is not the most important thing at Columbus; it’s the only thing,” he told me when I sat down with him at the Hyatt, Port of Spain in November 2013. He shared three guiding principles—he actually called them Golden Rules—that drive the success Columbus has so far enjoyed in the region.
1. Don’t predict the future; enable it.
That’s not just Columbus’ mission statement. It’s actually the first of Paddick’s proverbs, birthed in the company’s early days as a small-time cable provider in the rural backwoods of Canada, when they competed against major international players like Rogers and Bell Canada. It was there, in the late nineties, as an industry underdog, that Paddick learned a valuable lesson.
“We were the rural cable TV operator, 1200 small towns, not in the big guys’ league at all. And it dawned on me that with a company our size, we were never going to dictate technology trends like the next set-top box, or cable modem technology or wireless technology. Our company strategy had to be one based on very quick product adoption,” he said.
“When we moved to the Caribbean, we thought that would be even more strategic because we felt that many of our competitors were very good at studying things to death but not that successful at getting things to market quickly.”
That personal philosophy explains why he is “agnostic” about which of the region’s service providers or technologies wins the so-called broadband war. It doesn’t matter, he says, whether it’s 3G, 4G, LTE, WiMax, Gig-E, Fibre-to-the-Home or Fibre-to-the-Curb or some technology that nobody has even dreamed of yet.
“At Columbus, our job is not to dictate to our customers how they access their information or source their entertainment Our job is not to gaze into the crystal ball and develop the next killer app.”
Nor does it matter whether that next killer app is disruptive or complementary to Columbus’ business, he said.
Columbus is the parent company of Flow, a cable TV provider with operations in several Caribbean territories including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada and Curacao.
“We just have to make sure that we have the network in place—reach, scale, redundancy—to ensure that whatever that next killer app is, it works best on our network.”
Paddick cited the example of Netflix, a US-based provider of on-demand Internet video streaming, available in the Caribbean.
“Many people say, what are you going to do about Netflix, because it’s only a matter of time before they eat your lunch. I don’t see Netflix as being a threat to Columbus at all because ultimately Netflix will only work over a very robust network. So let’s build that network.”
In a sense, Paddick’s confidence is well placed. Columbus’ clients are not just retail residential customers like me, who get starry-eyed over slickly marketed packages, only to find ourselves standing in long lines to pay hefty monthly subscriptions; or taking half-days from work to get helpdesk assistance when some faulty equipment breaks down and the technician tells you they’ll be at your place to repair it “before lunch”.
Columbus, through its subsidiary, counts as its big-money clientele some of the major players in the market for wholesale Internet bandwidth. The list includes global content providers like Netflix, as well as regional Internet service providers like LIME who are competing against Columbus’ own Flow residental subsidiary. Another subsidiary, Columbus Business Networks, provides Internet and consulting services to corporate clients. So from wholesale internet bandwidth to corporate networking services to retail triple-play services, Columbus has the Caribbean market covered.
2. Build it once; build it right.
And from the looks of it, Paddick and company have no intention of letting up. The word “rebuild” isn’t part of the company’s vocabulary, Paddick said.
“We’ve had lots of technical consultants come in to look at our network, and every time they come back, in their reports they say, ‘These guys are crazy. They’re building far in excess of what the market needs, what the market demands.’ I love reading those reports because that’s exactly what we set out to do.”
He explained that Columbus’ philosophy is to solve-and-evolve rather than rip-and-replace.
“Our network wasn’t built on duct tape and tie wraps. This is the most advanced core network we can build anywhere, so that as those killer, bandwidth-intensive apps come along, our network can handle them,” he said.
“And that’s not anything overly prophetic. It’s not because we were visionaries. It’s because when we came to the Caribbean in 2005, we had the option to do it right from day one and build a brand new network.”
The company’s vision and philosophy are long term, he said, which is why their investments don’t always have quick paybacks. Columbus is working hard to associate its brand with innovative social projects in the Caribbean. The company’s longstanding support of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union’s Caribbean ICT Roadshow, for example, has bolstered its image as a force for good in the Caribbean market space.
More recently, the company supported BrightPath Foundation with the launch of TechLink, a region-wide initiative focused on building local capacity and Caribbean digital content. But there are some who feel that the company can do still much more to give back to the region.
3. Permission to fail
“At Columbus, we don’t really reward success, as much as we reward hard work.”
Paddick told me that an employee who takes risks and makes efforts to improve the customer experience is appreciated much more than one whose efforts are focused solely on trying to boost revenue or cutting costs or driving sales. His is a company that rewards effort then success, he said.
“Usually when we enter a new market, my first address to the business community is to ask for forgiveness, because we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to make lots of them. And we’re going to be proud of making them. You know why? Because if we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not trying hard enough.”
Failing to do, he said, is better than failing to try.
“I hate meetings,” he added, “because meetings are moments where minutes are taken and hours are wasted. We never speak disparagingly of our competitors but our competitors spend a lot of time in meetings. I want to spend a lot of time doing stuff. And if we get it right ninety-five per cent of the time, then we’ll fix the five per cent while our competitors are still forming a sub-committee to decide what to launch next. You know? Let’s just do it. Get it launched.”
Paddick paints the picture of an agile and dynamic corporate environment in which effort is demanded but failure is seen as a necessary, even valuable part of the company’s progress and success. The jury is still out on how much the company’s activities in the region supports his view, particularly in the eyes of telecom regulators and even ordinary consumers. But one thing is certain. The region’s Internet and cable market bears the indelible imprint of Columbus’ presence, and things will never be the same.