All work, no play for Mr Hands-on

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2006, 12:00am

Steve Lowe's love for telecoms makes Asia Pacific AT&T's top growth area

Steve Lowe's life has been one steeped in telecommunications. The vice-president of AT&T Asia Pacific has done little else since he started his career in New Zealand as an engineer for the post office, now Telecom New Zealand. He made his mark on the fast-changing industry from early on.

'I was responsible for building New Zealand's first digital microwave radio trunk network,' he says.

His career included stints with New Zealand's Tranz Rail and GEC Plessey in Britain in 1987, after winning the Telecom New Zealand overseas fellowship. He joined IBM in 1994, becoming New Zealand country manager of its network services division, which he set up in 1996.

Two years later, AT&T bought IBM's global network business and Mr Lowe along with it. As managing director of AT&T Australia and New Zealand, he launched the AT&T Australia subsidiary in 2002, shifting the business model from serving customers through a channel partner to direct sales. In 12 months, he more than doubled the company's revenue in Australia.

By 2003, when he moved to Hong Kong, AT&T's regional hub, Mr Lowe was in charge of building the global network infrastructure and service platforms, as well as new services and an Asian team of network solutions engineers.

Recently, AT&T has been a hive of merger and acquisition activity. With the US$16 billion SBC-AT&T deal now complete, the company has just announced a US$67 billion merger with BellSouth, pending regulatory approval. Once complete, the combined market capitalisation of the new AT&T will be US$160 billion, making it America's largest telecom company.

The global financial results for last year showed revenue of US$43.86 billion, up 7.5 per cent from US$40.79 billion in 2004, with global income of US$4.79 billion. Revenue for the Asia-Pacific unit grew 11 per cent last year, making it AT&T's fastest-growing region with three international network hubs, two customer operation centres and four Internet data centres.

The company is busy in China, holding a 25 per cent stake in Shanghai Symphony Telecommunications, a joint venture with China Telecom and Shanghai Information Investment. Hong Kong is their second largest market in Asia, with 45 per cent growth in new sales revenue last year and 14 per cent growth in total revenue.

Gartner has just positioned AT&T in the leaders' quadrant in the 'Magic Quadrant for Asia/Pacific Network Services Providers 2005' report, which evaluates 13 regional network service providers on their 'ability to execute and completeness of vision'.

Whatever credit Mr Lowe takes for his region's performance, he is discovering the advantages and disadvantages of running Asia-Pacific business for a New York-based company. His realm covers 12 markets - excluding Japan - with 800 regional employees. He manages the direct and channel sales teams and field services with 240 staff. 'It's not that big a number and I've got eight directly reporting to me,' he says. But he and his counterpart in Japan report to AT&T's president of sales in New York.

His personal contribution to leading AT&T's regional sales organisation is his extensive knowledge of strategic engineering and telecommunications, he believes. 'I bring a strong passion and enthusiasm for the industry and what I'm doing and what we do for our customers. Most days I'm excited about that.'

The company's biggest global customer is IBM; in New Zealand it is Fisher & Paykel, in China, Cosco and Air China, and in South Korea, Hyundai.

'My satisfaction is in AT&T's fastest-growing business in the world. We've demonstrated our ability to be rated highly by customers and independent analysts with the strong year-on-year growth we're able to accrue in this region.' This year, AT&T adds Vietnam to its operations.

Mr Lowe likes the rapid changes in technology. 'There's always a new feature, capacity or service, but it's not without challenges and that creates a lot of energy.' On the question of how much autonomy he is allowed by New York, he replies 'sufficient'. 'We're part of a global enterprise, but I have sufficient autonomy to drive the business in this part of the world.'

As a 'pretty hands-on guy' he gets involved, especially in sales and all business aspects, playing a key role in strategy and sitting on two boards. He is also active in India as the industry deregulates, leading to new projects this year. 'Being hands-on is the way to drive things with speed and success.'

Hong Kong is Mr Lowe's third country in six years, so does he expect another transfer soon? He admits it is the first time he has made it to the three-year mark in one place, but this is fairly academic because he spends so much time travelling. This means he often runs the Asia business on his Blackberry for days at a time.

He says he has 'no views' on where he will end up next. 'There are no plans for me to go anywhere different [this year].'

Not that he has time to do much besides work anyway. By his own admission, most of his waking activities are AT&T-related, with the magic of telecommunications and conference calls ensuring he is always available. 'Working for a global company means it never sleeps. There's always someone to talk to and when you're focused on growth, the tendency is to work constantly.'

His face initially goes blank when asked about his other interests. 'Most of what I do is work, I'm not a good advertisement for the work-life balance,' he admits. Then, after a pause, his face lights up. He explains he and his wife are involved in building an orphanage in southwest India.

'That gives me an interest outside work, giving something back to the community,' he says, looking suddenly animated.

'It's an exciting project, a brand-new orphanage and centre for unemployed adults. They run tailoring classes to help women become self-sufficient.'

Then he checks himself, flipping back to AT&T and its many public-spirited deeds. But just for a moment, there was a flicker of a life beyond the corporate grind.