Can electrical engineer put spark back into carrier?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 12:00am

In the 1990s Alex Arena was a key player in one of the biggest shake-ups of Hongkong Telecom's finances by negotiating on behalf of the Government to end the firm's monopoly on international calls.

Mr Arena's appointment yesterday as the chief financial officer of CyberWorks - which bought Hongkong Telecom in spring 2000 - now gives him direct control of the firm's finances.

As director-general of the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta) from 1993 to 1997 Mr Arena pushed forward the liberalisation of Hong Kong's telecoms sector.

Mr Arena was heavily involved with the government side in the negotiations, which concluded in 1998 and resulted in Hongkong Telecom starting to give up its international monopoly earlier than scheduled.

Originally this was to have been done in 2006 but began to relinquish its monopoly in 1999 after being compensated HK$6.7 billion by the Government.

Mr Arena stepped down as Ofta director-general in early 1997 to head the Government's telecoms review team but remained involved in the talks with Hongkong Telecom.

Before his arrival in Hong Kong Mr Arena worked for the telecoms regulator in his native Australia for four years.

While he is widely respected for his knowledge of the telecoms industry there was some surprise at his appointment. Mr Arena's primary degree was in electrical engineering.

One analyst commented that it was strange having a non-accountant in charge of a firm's finances.

'The chief financial officer is probably not the most natural position but with that said he's probably the best person in CyberWorks to do the job,' the analyst said.

'But you do have to wonder about the wisdom of having a non-accountant in charge of the finances.'

During a conference call CyberWorks officials defended the decision to appoint Mr Arena, pointing out he had an MBA and sat on the firm's finance committee.

Mr Arena has also been involved in the refinancing of the US$12 billion used to fund the acquisition of Hongkong Telecom - or Cable & Wireless HKT as it was known at the time of the takeover.

Since joining CyberWorks Mr Arena has been instrumental in several key transactions, especially the firm's ventures with Australian telecoms company Telstra.

He remains a deputy chairman of wholesale telecommunications carrier Reach, a 50-50 joint venture between CyberWorks and Telstra.

Mr Arena's entrance into the world of business deals has been a baptism of fire.

He now needs to prove to the financial community that he can handle the complex circuitry that make up CyberWorks' accounts.