AZERFON is an Integral Part of IT Sector Development Azerbaijan
An exclusive interview with Mr. John Armley the General Director of “Azerfon”
AT: Mr. Armley, thank you much for agreeing to meet with us. We would like to start this interview by asking you to tell our readers about your educational and career background. What kind of a corporate culture do you intend to foster among the employees of Azerfon?
My career has been predominantly focused in the telecom sphere. I graduated in the UK as an engineer. Upon graduation from the university I began my career at one of the biggest telecom operators in the UK. However, the overseas career has always been in the back of my mind. So I joined an international telecom corporation and lived and worked in many places around the world. I spent quite a bit of time in the Far East, particularly Japan and China and also in Eastern European and Russia / CIS. More recently I was engaged in a UK government initiated program for broadband designed to bring broadband services to schools, hospitals and other institutions. I have been in senior managements positions different types of telecommunications businesses such as mobile, pstn, international and broadband. This experience helps me a lot in Azerbaijan, in a country where there is rapid development of the telecommunications industry.
As far as the corporate culture part of your question is concerned, I must say that throughout my career I have worked in very diverse places, different cultures and different mechanisms. But everywhere I have been to I have realized that people are people. And like everywhere in Azerbaijan too people have their wants and desires, strengths and weaknesses. So in terms of a corporate culture, what I think is going to work here is to give people the chance to develop on their own. In other words, if people here work hard, they can achieve much and so on. Achievements and recognition is another philosophy I would like to adopt at Nar Mobile. I am a great believer of the concept that if people strive, if they work hard, they should be recognized for that. And I think that last two elements that I would like to foster are the sense of belonging in terms of treating Azerfon as a team, working towards a common goal and finally is the sense of pride, pride in the company, pride in what we do, pride in what we offer and pride in who we serve.
AT: Mr. Armley, prior to Azerfon’s presence in Azerbaijan, there already were two cell operators in the country. There were media reports that there is absolutely no need for a third operator. In this regard, how is Azerfon as a company different from the other two?
In my mind it is very simple. Yes, there were two existing operators and they have been around for over 10 years. But these two companies have been at both ends of the market, completely polarized. Azercell, being at the top end and offering not an unreasonable service but has been able to maintain relatively high prices. Bakcell, being at the other end of the market, has had almost no impact on prices. So quite clearly there was room for a third operator to come in and force competition into a market which has been static for years. If you look at it carefully, you may see a number of elements here. First of all, the mar ket is growing at an enormous rate. At this moment, the population’s penetration figure in Azerbaijan is around 35 to 40 percent. In other locations and Russia would be a good example, the cell phone market is already saturated. So in Azerbaijan there is a long way to go in terms of the number of mobile phones per capita. And I believe the penetration in Azerbaijan will grow rapidly as in Russia, especially as Azerbaijans economy continues to grow with the sale of hydrocarbons. So with this growth in place, if Azerbaijan had only two operators, the market would fundamentally stay the same. So we are here basically to generate the market. In any developing country, in my mind, the market thrives on competition. In Azerbaijan we would like to do it in a strategic way. We want to offer the choice and the competition will naturally bring the prices down.
AT; We understand that starting the race for clients way later than the other two operators is a not an easy task. From this standpoint, what are the major challenges that Azerfon is facing at this stage?
Well, there are one or two common elements in any telecom company. Infrastructure is of course the major element. As a brand new company in the market here we have been building since October last year and we have already accomplished much. We have got our network in Baku and the peninsula and in many other regions in the country, basically all across the nation. Azerbaijan however is a large territory, so at this moment we have concluded an agreement with Bakcell to use a feature, which is called “national roaming” in order to cover the entire country. We know that is not enough. In this regard we have continued building and the program has been very intense and we aim to have our own network in place across the entire country by the end of this year.
AT: It would be interesting to know in what areas/directions Azerfon is planning to invest in the first place? Can you reveal the size of your investment portfolio for the next few years?
There are 3 major investment elements within our development strategy. One is the network build and I have touched upon it earlier. The major part of our investment will go into the network build. In order to be innovative, we need to keep our service platform up-to- date and this is again a heavy capital expenditure item in our investment portfolio. And the third element, which relates to the marketing side of our operation, is our people. We continuously invest in our staff in terms of developing good internal and external training programs and in the future we will be creating links with various schools to link with graduate /MBA programs and expand our educational horizons in general. As far as our investment portfolio is concerned, it will be driven by market needs. We Will of course build our basic infrastructure and where we put the other investments will really depend on the need. My philosophy is to that the company must be market-led.
AT: Do you plan to engage in any sort of social programs? Does Azerfon have a specific budget for these sorts of programs?
Of course we want to engage in projects in the social sphere as well, for, in my view, it is not possible for a company to operate in isolation. My philosophy is that apart from basic sponsorship, which we have been doing already, Azerfon needs to connect to the community in a much more effective way. In order to achieve that, we are developing a Corporate Social Responsibility Program. The idea behind this pro-gram is to engaged Azerfon in certain development programs that are being undertaken in Azerbaijan at this moment. Basically we want to be most effective in the development process as a whole. The youth and education in general could be perhaps the most interesting areas that we would want to support. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies, for example, has already been heavily involved in the creation of “techno parks”, which will provide a mechanism to develop capabilities in the country. These parks, which are very similar to student campuses, are basically open to small entrepreneurial-type companies that have some marvelous ideas and need support and expertise. They are going to incubate companies like that. So we will be glad to engage in projects of this sort.
AT: What kind of training programs do you design for your own personnel? Do you offer jobs to those who have previously been employed and/or trained by your competitors?
Another good thing about competition is that it helps creating a good workforce in the country. For instance, if you are an engineer or a technician at Azercell or Bakcell, you are basically limited to work on the legacy of the equipment that is a number of years old. This is not really interesting. So these people come to Azerfon and here they find state-of-the-art equipments. And I guess this really works because in a very short period of time we have gone from nearly a zero to 300 people in our staff. And think people who come to us from the other two operators basically want to work in a new company and so it is a mostly interest-driven rather than bene-fit-driven shift.
AT: What do you think of Azerbaijan’s intellectual potential? How difficult or perhaps how easy is it for you to work in Azerbaijan? Do you have a lot of cultural barriers here?
This is a very good question. I think the evident development and the growth of Azerbaijan is closely associated with the intellectual capacity of Azerbaijanis. My opinion is that Azerbaijan needs to sustain that and I know it is already happening. From this standpoint, we have been able to find the right people in terms of their education and experience to bring to Azerfon and I hope they will be instrumental in the development of the company and using their knowledge. Within the period I have been in Azerbaijan, I have closely known ancient history and cultural heritage of the country. Ancient historical monuments, mugam music and national customs and traditions arouse feelings of great respect and love for Azerbaijan. In fact, Azerfon’s operation under brand name Nar Mobile is directly connected with above-mentioned national aspects. It means that as a company connected to history, cultural heritage of Azerbaijan we are dedicated to provide high quality services to our subscribers.
AT: What is your message to those in Azerbaijan who have still not sub scribed for Azerfon’s cell service?
Narmobile as a new company is a part of the future and it will become an intrinsic element of the country’s development. You may stay with either of the other two operators and remain static as they are. We offer you to jump on the bandwagon and continue a very interesting journey into Azerbaijan’s bright future.
AT: We wish Azerfon and you personally all the best in your endeavor. Thank you.