Olaf Swantee: Leader of the 4G revolution
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Olaf Swantee, former CEO of EE, recently co-authored a book on EE’s creation and the launch of its 4G network. Land Mobile hears his advice on managing mergers, getting people on board, and what the future could hold for the firm

It’s not every day you get to talk to someone who presided over the creation of a company that gets snapped up by BT for £12.5 billion. However, Olaf Swantee comes across warmly over the phone (these days he’s rarely in the UK) and before long it feels like more of a relaxed conversation with someone you’ve known for a long time than an interview.

Not one to sit idly, Swantee has kept himself busy since leaving EE by co-authoring The 4G Mobile Revolution, which (for a book about a large-scale joint venture) is something of a page-turner. Despite being a book about the telecoms sector there’s more business jargon than RF acronyms – but don’t let that put you off. Swantee and co-author Stuart Jackson’s insights into how EE launched its now near-ubiquitous 4G network are revealing.

So what surprised Swantee most about how EE’s competition responded to its 4G roll-out? “[Our competitors] tried to delay the launch... through legal routes and I think that didn’t work very well. Afterwards they started to compete with products and technologies and their rollouts…. In the beginning they said 4G was not very important, and then when they had their own network they switched gears and said that it was very important.

“The transition from 3G to 4G was so much more important than from 2G to 3G, because it was really delivering on the promise of true internet connectivity. 3G came to the UK with the promise of providing internet connectivity but it was very cumbersome and didn’t work very well. 4G was the first time that [mobile] network technology truly enabled a great internet experience on the go,” he adds.

With the benefit of hindsight what would he would have done differently as far as the merger of Orange
and T-Mobile and the launch of EE was concerned?

“I would have stepped in earlier on customer services,” Swantee replies. “The customer services side took longer to get absolutely right and I think I should have started earlier. The other thing is that we could have done more to really demonstrate breakthrough applications from the start and we only did that a few months in. Initially we left it a little bit up to the first users to demonstrate what they could do with it and I think we could have spent more time on that.”

If Swantee could give one piece of advice to a CEO handling a joint venture or merger it would be to ensure their people are on board with the vision. “I talk about three things in my book, which are probably the most important [things to consider]: people, processes and purpose. But of the three, the people part is the most important. Start with your own organisation and make sure your people are not just equipped, but really ready to put their heart into what you want to achieve and that comes to purpose. The people have to understand and be as excited about the transformation that is ahead of the company as you are.”

Speaking of which, one of the topics Swantee’s book touches on is how to approach IT transformation.

“I’m often asked to advise on digital transformation,” he explains. “I find it very interesting to ask the people asking the question, who [they] judge [to be] leaders in digital transformation. Companies like EE, Google, Apple and Amazon are mentioned. The way [these companies] became digitally-savvy is not because of the technology but because of incredible customer focus. If you sit in Google’s boardroom they will not discuss technology too much, they will really discuss how people use the service and how they can get better.

“A lot of companies will need to learn to become more customer-centric, before they can be technology-centric or digital-centric. In particular, when you think of the financial services sector but also other more traditional industries, many of those companies who act in those markets think that digital transformation has something to do with technology but [at the beginning] it [is about] customers.

Swantee says it’s important not to make piecemeal changes to IT systems when trying to transform your business. “Build up the capabilities on the new technological architecture [in parallel] so that you can switch over as soon as you understand the implications [of doing so] and you understand the cost behind it... Just try to build [your] future world correctly, and then you can build a road inbetween.

“That’s a much faster way of transformation. Think of all the companies that spend millions of pounds to transform their IT over a three- to four-year period,” he points out. “It always takes so long because they try to link the past with the future, when really you can just go to the future and let the past fade away.”

Despite being about telecoms and joint ventures, Swantee’s book isn’t without its fair share of drama. One particularly tense point was the description of how his team broke the news of the launch to Orange and T-Mobile’s employees and the fear that it would leak. So how did they succeed in keeping it a secret?

“It comes back to the very first point I made,” responds Swantee. “If you can motivate people about how incredible it’s going to be when you ask them to keep it quiet and they believe that it is important for them to do so, they will do it.You can sign as many legal documents with your employees as you want. At the end of the day, the biggest protection for non-disclosure and confidentiality is passion and excitement about the work that is ahead and the project itself.

“It’s culture really, it’s about the cultural elements you build around the project. If people really feel part of it and that they are as important as anyone else in the project they’ll keep it quiet,” he adds.

EE’s network reach and 4G penetration aren’t the only things Swantee has to be proud of. The company’s successful bid to provide mobile services for the Emergency Services Network (ESN) is also a major win. Swantee describes it as “the crown of an incredible amount of work”, and adds that for EE “it was incredibly important because it was proof of the power of its network”. He also highlights the potential benefits for the UK as a whole, given the need for EE to provide geographical coverage as opposed to population coverage.

Perhaps the best proof of the power of EE’s network, however, was being purchased by BT. The telecoms giant isn’t one to invest idly after all. Combination of the two powerhouses will provide a huge push to 5G network rollout in the UK.

“One of the reasons the combination of EE and BT makes so much sense is because 5G requires a tremendous amount of investment,” Swantee explains.

He adds that another reason the merger will help make BT/EE a leader in 5G is that the technology requires a “strong combination of fixed and mobile assets”. Swantee sees 5G as being most relevant to the UK’s large metropolitan areas and that it will be “more about machines than human beings”. He also notes that while it will be some time before the standards come out for 5G, “that doesn’t matter because 4G has incredible mileage”.

Having left EE in a fantastic market position, Swantee has moved on to other things. However, he hasn’t left the telecoms sector completely, and is now CEO of Sunrise Communications, a Swedish MNO.

He says several things attracted him to the role. “It’s a publicly quoted company, which is interesting for me. My previous company was a joint venture and not quoted on the stock exchange. The second is that I think it has what it takes to be successful in the future communications world; it has internet, TV, fixed and mobile communications. Thirdly, it’s [about] trying to turn a challenger into a leader and that’s not going to be easy – that’s what attracts me about it.”

CV Olaf Swantee
Olaf Swantee became the CEO of Sunrise Communications Group, the largest private telecommunications provider in Switzerland, in May this year.

He is also a member of the board of directors of Telia, a telecommunications company with headquarters in Sweden.

Swantee was previously the CEO of EE in the UK, where he was responsible for launching and running the mobile network operator, before preparing it for sale to the BT Group. During this time he also served as a non-executive director at insurance company Legal and General.

Prior to this, Swantee headed the Orange Group’s Europe division and the company’s global purchasing and supply chain function.

He started his career and spent 17 years in the IT industry, latterly as Hewlett Packard’s EMEA SVP for enterprise sales and software.

Swantee studied economics in Amsterdam and has a European MBA from business school ESCP Europer in Paris. He currently lives in Switzerland with his family.

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