Telecom’s top man bids farewell

Friday May 02, 2014 Written by Published in Weekend
Jules leans backs in the Telecom board room one last time and reflects on five years of service. 14050220 Jules leans backs in the Telecom board room one last time and reflects on five years of service. 14050220

Reclining in a tall leather chair with hands clasped behind his head, Jules Maher looks exhausted but relieved.

After leading Telecom Cook Islands for the past five years, Maher has finally handed over the reins and is heading back to New Zealand.

It’s his third-to-last day and he’s wearing Telecom-branded shorts and a Telecom-branded polo shirt with ‘Maher’ emblazoned on the sleeve.

Bags under his eyes are evidence of the significant challenges he’s faced in his final days.

“It hasn’t been the easiest six months of my life. When you’re trying to maintain momentum and there’s change coming up… has become tricky.”

Digicel, a global telecommunications company, is on the verge of taking a majority stake in the company, which would see the end of the Telecom Cook Islands brand.

Telecom’s 118 staff members are worried about their job security and Maher has been carrying that burden for months.

“I’ve just been trying to say ‘Well you’ve coped with all sorts of changes over the years and this is just another challenge’. I think we have very resilient and highly-skilled staff. The company needs them to continue providing good service. I’d think a majority shareholder will want to maintain that high level of service.”

He says change is unavoidable. “Change happens and I think the staff will embrace change and ride the wave.”

Aside from reassuring his Telecom “family”, the 61-year-old has been pushing hard to launch O3b high-speed internet and 3G mobile before his departure.

Both services went live earlier this year and Maher describes them as his “crowning achievements”.

“With these platforms there’s so much more that can be done. For example, Huawei can easily upgrade the 3G service to 4G or even 5G in the future.”

Some people believe Telecom launched the services before they were ready and that Maher was pushing to have them in place before he left – but he denies that.

“All I’ve been trying to do is get the service to customers as soon as possible. This was supposed to happen in 2012. We’ve had to keep on telling customers, ‘We’re sorry there’s another delay’. There’s no way we’d have launched if we couldn’t guarantee continuous service.”

His wife Katie and two of their four children moved back to New Zealand at the start of 2013 but Maher stayed on to see through the launch of O3b and 3G. He now follows them to take on a strategic procurement role at Telecom New Zealand. 

Maher came to Telecom Cook Islands in June 2009 on a secondment from the Kiwi parent company. He had been acting as Group Insurance and Risk Financing Manager at Telecom New Zealand in Wellington.

At the time of his arrival, he said he was looking forward to returning something of value to the land of his birth, having been born in Rarotonga while his father worked here as radio operator from 1949 to 1953. Maher said his goal was to strengthen Telecom’s commitment to improved customer service.

“We will not be happy in Telecom until our customers are happy with our service.”

The most frequent and enduring complaint from customers has been about the price of broadband and telephone services. A Peer Review of the Cook Islands last October highlighted “the high cost of telecommunications” as a major issue. But Maher has always been quick to point out that while Telecom’s prices may not be the cheapest in the Pacific, they have become among the most affordable in terms of cost versus average income levels.

“I consider the most sensible comparison is the ‘affordability’ because it compares apples with apples,” Maher says.

With pride in his voice, Maher speaks about mobile services being extended to every part of the Cook Islands during his watch.

He has also helped to “drive up wages” at Telecom, which is a major local employer.  

The minimum wage for staff has gone up by 50 per cent over the past four years, to $8.50 per hour. “By the time you add on benefits, its gets closer to $9.50.”

There are some regrets too, he says. “I wish we could have done things more quickly. I’d love to have been able to put 3G on Aitutaki, or O3b in the outer islands, right away.”

He says he loves islands like Mangaia and Atiu but has never once visited the northern group. “I regret that. I’ve tended to put the priority on my own team going to do the work up there.”

It frustrates him that certain members of the political and business community have seemed intent on criticising Telecom, rather than recognising its hard work and achievements.

For example, people have tended to focus more on the dollar costs per megabyte (MB) of broadband services than recognising that those costs are highly affordable compared to other countries.

“We tend to see all the negative elements. I’d rather focus on the positives. I’d have thought they’d say ‘Here’s another feather in the cap to promote ourselves’.”

He says he regrets seeing attacks from one side of the community on another. “Sometimes we seem to be at each other’s throats where we’d be better working collaboratively

As a tiny county, we compete with tourists going off to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. We need to help each other get more competitive.”
Maher says it saddens him to think Digicel would get rid of the Telecom brand if it enters the market.

“You get proud of your own brand but it’s a huge compliment to think a big company wants to come and purchase us. I believe the price that’s been offered is a good one and it’s reflective of what a good company it is.”

He’s confident that the country’s telecommunications needs would be in good hands.

“You’d think they (Digicel) could bring some new perspectives in terms of their marketing and things. You wouldn’t think things would go backwards.”

Maher says his years in the Cooks have been among the best of his life and certainly the best of his married life. But he is now looking forward to being reunited with his wife and kids full-time back in New Zealand.

He may have handed over the burden of Telecom Cook Islands but Maher has no plans to slow down. He’s keen to get back and help Telecom New Zealand as it goes through a major rebranding. Besides, he can’t afford to relax.

“It’s full on again. I’ve got three students to support,” he says.  

One child is studying to become an architect, another is in the last year of school and one is doing her Masters in Psychology.

“They say, ‘Dad we love what you’re doing, just keep doing it’.”

Maher said goodbye to Telecom Cook Islands on Wednesday and was on a plane to New Zealand within 24 hours. Expect to see him on the island next year when he returns for the 50th anniversary of self-government celebrations.

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