It was hardly the first day Kelly Bayer Rosmarin had imagined when she agreed to take on one of the biggest jobs in Australia, the chief executive position at telecom carrier Optus.
The 44-year-old former Commonwealth Bank executive had spent a year in a fast tracked apprenticeship, working under former chief Allen Lew and learning about the telecommunications industry – which she had not worked in before she joined.
But after her elevation to CEO was confirmed, months of mapping out the first day in the role last April were thrown out the window as the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly across Australia. Meet and greets and visits to Optus stores across Sydney turned into a crisis meeting from a spare room in her home in Vaucluse in Sydney’s east.
“We had such a good plan. You could have made a documentary,” she says. “I ended up spending my first day – because it happened to work out on the rotation – at home. When I woke up in the morning my kids had written me a nice card that they posted on the door of the spare room that I was going to use. They tried to make it at least feel like it was something special.”
It was a taste of what was to come for Bayer Rosmarin, who joined Optus as deputy chief executive in 2019 a year after her resignation from CBA. As she prepared to take the top job, circumstances were quickly changing, so much so that Bayer Rosmarin kept singing the Cold Chisel song Khe Sanh to her predecessor Lew as he prepared to leave for Sydney for Singapore. Lew was worried he wouldn’t make it back to his home country in time before the borders were shut.
Bayer Rosmarin has always enjoyed a challenge but in steering Optus she faces an exceptionally difficult task. The highly regarded executive is a newcomer to an industry that has struggled with profitability as value drifts to internet giants such as Amazon, Netflix and Facebook. Optus is now battling not just its perennial foe Telstra but also a reinvigorated TPG Telecom, which merged with Vodafone Australia last year to create a formidable third player in the market.
But Bayer Rosmarin hasn’t wasted time in stamping her mark at the Singtel owned carrier. She is about to complete a key $250 million acquisition of low cost mobile carrier Amaysim – a deal that won a tick of approval from shareholders on Thursday. She aggressively freezed Optus’ prices on mobile plans to help customers during the pandemic and is also preparing to sell the telco’s tower infrastructure later this year.
Bayer Rosmarin’s move to Optus surprised many in both the banking and telco industries. But long-serving former Optus boss and current chairman Paul O’Sullivan says she was the right choice for the role.
“Optus is a challenger brand as we have to compete with a company more than twice our size,” Optus chairman Paul O’Sullivan tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “Kelly really stood out as the next leader for Optus: she has a great business brain and also a strong track record leveraging digital technology to innovate and disrupt traditional markets. That’s a rare but powerful combination.”
“It was clear she would be the right leader to take Optus to the next level.”
Rapid rise to the top
The daughter of an engineer and draughtswoman, Bayer Rosmarin was born and raised in Johannesburg with her two brothers.
Bayer Rosmarin completed two degrees – one in industrial engineering at Stanford University in California – before beginning her career in Silicon Valley where she worked at a start-up. She joined Commonwealth Bank in 2004 after a stint at Boston Consulting Group, and held several roles before she was elevated to lead the institutional banking division and markets in her mid-thirties.
She was widely considered as one of former Commbank CEO Ian Narev’s rising stars. And when Narev left in the wake of the damaging revelations of the banking royal commission, she was also considered a possible successor.
“I immediately saw her as exceptionally smart, brave and focused on the best interests of the business rather than her own ambitions,” Narev, now chief operating officer of online recruitment platform Seek says. “This combination gave her rare leadership potential. When Ian Saines, who was highly regarded, let me know of his intention to step down as head of the institutional division in 2013, I ran a global search for his successor, which included an evaluation of Kelly as an internal candidate.
“There were more qualified ‘ready now’ candidates, but none with Kelly’s potential. At the time, aside from being very young for such a broad role, she became I think the only woman leading the institutional business of a top 20 global bank.”
Bayer Rosmarin’s ascent at CBA raised eyebrows among some peers and subordinates. But Narev sought out Bayer Rosmarin because of her ability to disrupt and transform legacy businesses. He says she has a “unique intellectual capability”.
“Kelly is a disruptive thinker,” Narev says. “I recall well her first proposal to me regarding ‘Albert’, which at the time was among the leading POS [point of sale] terminals in the world. The idea of a bank making its own hardware would have been crazy to many, but she took it on, delivered it and as usual deflected most of the credit to her team.
“CBA’s innovation lab was a passion of hers. And I recall walking around the lab with Kelly and Gladys Berejiklian, who was then Transport Minister, hearing Kelly talk about how CBA would support the NSW government’s initiatives in contactless cards.”
“Whereas historically institutional client events were heavily skewed towards sports personalities and sports events, Kelly changed the paradigm and organised a series of client events with Garry Kasparov, which were extremely effective.“
Few dispute the idea that Bayer Rosmarin is a passionate executive. An indication of this was her frequent use of exclamation marks during emails to staff at Commbank.
Bayer Rosmarin was passed over for the CEO role at CommBank by Matt Comyn. She left CBA in March 2018 shortly after that decision was made, and resurfaced at Optus in the newly formed deputy CEO position about a year later.
It was an open secret in the telco industry that she was being groomed to take over from Lew, who led Optus for five years and spearheaded its push into online streaming of sport.
For Bayer Rosmarin, joining Optus provided the chance to work in a sector that she considered non-substitutable and one that she believed lacked new ideas and profitability.
“Despite [the telco industry] being so fundamental and despite it being something that people actually love and use every day – it’s a sector that globally is struggling for profitability,” she says.
“I started looking at different examples of different telcos all around the world and speaking to consultants in the industry. And there was no example that they could provide of a telco who was doing it differently and doing it well and bucking the trend. I looked at it and said ‘here’s a great space where no one’s really cracked the answer to how we breathe life and profitability back into it.’”
Bayer Rosmarin also has a strong passion for sport and her competitive nature is replicated in the workplace. She told The Weekend Australian last August she was sure the telco could unseat Telstra as the number one player in the mobile market.
Since the COVID-19 crisis meeting in April a lot has changed in the telco world.
Optus’ half year results revealed a nine per cent drop in revenue to $4 billion, while earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation were down 30 per cent to $997 million.
“We’ve done a lot of stuff but it will never be fast enough for me – I want to get to be the most loved everyday brand”
Kelly Bayer Rosmarin
At the telco’s fourth quarter results in May, Bayer Rosmarin blamed negative consumer sentiment and freight delivery provider Toll Group’s cyber security woes on an 84 per cent slide in net profit for the quarter year on year.
Other strategic changes such as a decision to freeze prices on mobile phone plans also impacted income, but she says the pandemic had very little impact on long-term strategy.
“While it was challenging and unexpected, there are also some things that made it a very smooth and better transition. I’m very calm in a crisis – I’m used to dealing with all sorts of ups and downs. We worked on the purpose of the company, the vision – all those things were already done and ready to go. I think there’s a lot to be said for companies having these organised orderly CEO successions.
“Donate your data, the family plans, the launching our own second brand, doing the [Amaysim] acquisition, these were all things that were part of the strategy,” she says. But some plans, such as a bid for the broadcast rights to the rugby union, did not go ahead. Other strategic changes including a shift to a “team of experts” model in call centres were accelerated.
The Amaysim deal will give Optus a further 1.1 million mobile customers and a stronger foothold in the budget end of the market. Under Bayer Rosmarin, Optus has also announced the launch of digital-only brand Gomo.
“We’ve done a lot of stuff but it will never be fast enough for me – I want to get to be the most loved everyday brand,” she says. “The teams will tell you what I’ll say to them is ‘we’re not going fast enough and consistently enough’ even though what we are delivering is great. We are getting through a lot but there’s just so much more we can do.”
Despite the initiatives, Optus has been criticised for dragging down mobile prices across the market. Veteran Telstra shareholder Anton Tagliaferro blamed poor mobile margins across the sector on Optus in December, a claim which the telco disputed.
This year, Bayer Rosmarin will turn her focus on opportunities with superfast 5G technology.
“This shift to 5G is an opportunity to re-establish connectivity in a new way that resonates with consumers, small businesses and large enterprises,” she says. “A lot of the thinking that we’ve been doing is heading in that direction.
Any changes Bayer Rosmarin plans won’t be without internal headwinds. It is widely known in the industry that it can be challenging to implement changes at Optus without the approval of parent company, Singtel.
“I do think that the telco industry structures may have been developed in a time when it was all about landline voice calls. But I’m not sure that all the policy settings are right and all the right players are in the right sort of dialogue and that we’re working together enough as an industry to make sure that we have a strong fundamental industry structure that will unlock better success for every player in that industry.
“That’s a fundamental question in the national interest that needs to be addressed. And so I’m trying to initiate that dialogue. It’s hard to do as the new kid on the block.”
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
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