Winning the Away Games: Bob Skinstad chats to successful Telecom exec Ettienne Brandt

Join host Bob Skinstad in this episode of ‘Winning the Away Games’ in collaboration with Elixirr, for a captivating conversation with Ettienne Brandt, an accomplished telecom executive who made the leap from the UK to the U.S., now spearheading Frontier Communications in Dallas, Texas. Ettienne shares his incredible journey – from humble beginnings in Port Elizabeth to managing a $10.5 billion P&L at BT and his current role building Gigabit America. Learn how Ettienne navigates the complexities of the U.S. telecom landscape, adapts his South African braai culture to Texas, and his unique insights into Africa’s tech evolution. An inspiring blend of personal anecdotes and professional wisdom awaits!

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Edited transcript of the interview

Bob Skinstad: Greetings once again, I’m Bob Skinstad, and welcome back to our series, “Winning the Away Games.” Today, we have a fascinating example of displaced executives thriving on the other side of the globe. Joining us is Ettienne Brandt, and we appreciate your presence, thank you for joining us.

Ettienne Brandt: Thank you, Bob. Good to see you.

Bob Skinstad: Likewise. Although I’d prefer an in-person meeting, let’s dive into it. Your career trajectory in the telecom industry is impressive, working with giants like Orange, EE, and BT in executive roles. Managing a $10.5 billion P&L and leading 8,000 employees at BT in the UK is no small feat. Just over a year ago, you transitioned to Frontier Communications in the U.S. as an executive vice president, residing in Dallas, Texas, and spearheading the business division to establish Gigabit America. There’s much to explore, but first, thank you for being here.

Ettienne Brandt: Certainly, Bob. Always a pleasure. Looking forward to meeting in person soon.

Bob Skinstad: Absolutely. Our conversation revolves around individuals who relocate from one place to another. We’ve heard from Kiwis, South Africans, and Irish folks, all contributing to a global diaspora. Just like Steven Newton, the Cape Town-born founder of Alexa, your journey is parallel to theirs. Could you share your story of how a South African ended up on the other side of the world? Feel free to be as concise or detailed as you’d like.

Ettienne Brandt: Certainly, Bob. I grew up in Port Elizabeth and attended Stellenbosch University. As graduation approached, my dad offered a unique gift, asking what I wanted. I expressed a desire to travel, having never left South Africa. He provided £700, a one-way ticket, and covered the visa application. Arriving in the UK, I started by crashing on a friend’s sofa, securing my first job in temporary finance work. Joining a major cable company as a temp, my career gained momentum with three promotions in the first year. The company sponsored my visa, leading to naturalisation and British citizenship. I transitioned from cable to wireless with Orange, spent time in South Africa’s private equity sector, and returned to the UK, joining EE, then BT. Reflecting on two decades, I made the unique decision to join Frontier Communications, embarking on the challenge of building Gigabit America. Living in Texas for the past 18 months, the journey has been transformative, echoing the fearless spirit of my younger self who boarded a plane with just a one-way ticket and a dream.

Bob Skinstad: Indeed. Let’s delve deeper into those aspects. You touched on various points in your journey, particularly within the UK telecom sector. Given your extensive experience with different telcos, what were the key factors influencing your transitions from one role to the next? In a field as competitive as telecoms, how do executives discern between a good and bad business strategy?

Ettienne Brandt: Certainly, Bob. Having begun my career as an accountant and spending the initial decade in finance roles, I eventually shifted to business management and overseeing business units. Drawing parallels to sports, much like a rugby coach needing expertise in scrums and lineups, telecom executives require a keen understanding of the business dynamics. Leading large teams in capital-intensive and complex industries demands clarity of thought and direction. It’s about identifying positions of strength, understanding market-winning strategies, and navigating complexities.

In the corporate landscape, creating structures within the team is vital. I often use the analogy of a soccer game where, in times of crisis, people tend to rush towards the ball, lacking structure. Establishing a clear strategy and breaking down the complexities, akin to analysing a team’s offence, allows for effective leadership. It’s crucial to avoid the chaotic approach where everyone chases the ball, and instead, get individuals to play in their designated positions. In essence, success lies in clarity of thought, strategic planning, and achieving a high hit rate.

Bob Skinstad: A compelling approach indeed. Now, considering your evolution from finance roles to managing significant business units, can you elaborate on the principles that guided you? How did you develop a successful strategy for reducing churn in a high-profile telecom business?

Ettienne Brandt: Certainly, Bob. My foundation as an accountant, coupled with a transition to business management, provided a unique perspective. Much like a rugby team needs a playbook, a strategy is not merely a PowerPoint presentation but a dynamic playbook. In the case of reducing churn at BT, we set a vision termed the “1% churn plan,” aiming to bring the churn rate down from 1.8% to below one within 18 months. Breaking down this ambitious goal into smaller, achievable milestones, and creating a clear playbook, allowed us to succeed. The methodology of fast-fail, repeated at a rapid pace, proved effective in achieving seemingly improbable objectives.

Bob Skinstad: Impressive achievements indeed. Moving on, in the corporate world, individuals often reach a stage where they question whether to continue as CEOs or transition to different roles. How does one navigate this dilemma, and is it a matter of character, corporate support, or a combination of both?

Ettienne Brandt: It’s a delicate balance of character and corporate dynamics. Having a resilient mindset, a willingness to persist through challenges, and a proactive approach to problem-solving are essential traits. Fast-fail methodology, not as a license for mistakes but as a strategy of rapid experimentation and adaptation, proves beneficial. Individuals must continuously seek opportunities for growth, adapting to new roles, and evolving to meet the demands of leadership at different levels. The ability to overcome headwinds, embrace change, and focus on continual improvement contributes to success in corporate endeavours.

Bob Skinstad: Well-articulated. On a personal note, being an expat comes with its challenges, especially when moving from a place like Port Elizabeth to regions with different climates and lifestyles. How do you balance staying connected with your roots while embracing new experiences and making the most of your time in diverse locations like the UK and the U.S.?

Ettienne Brandt: Maintaining connections with friends and family in South Africa is crucial, facilitated by advancements in technology. While it’s essential to remember one’s roots, my approach with my wife and kids involves making the most of opportunities for adventure. The vastness of the U.S. allows us to explore different states, creating a sense of excitement and variety in our experiences. We’ve adopted a mindset of enjoying life wherever we are, turning each opportunity into a chance for exploration and discovery.

Bob Skinstad: Great insights, Ettienne. Now, let’s touch on a more personal note. Moving from South Africa to the U.S., your kids had to adapt to a different school system and lifestyle. How has this transition impacted them, especially in terms of sports and entertainment?

Ettienne Brandt: Adapting to a new school system and lifestyle has been challenging, especially for the kids, aged 10 and 7. While sports like rugby and cricket were common in South Africa, the shift to the U.S. introduced them to a variety of sports and entertainment options. It’s not an easy adjustment, considering the presence of established friendship groups. However, sports have played a crucial role in helping them integrate. My daughter has taken up basketball, and my son has embraced soccer, which, in the U.S., is the one played with hands. They’ve explored various sports through summer camps, finding their preferences along the way.

Bob Skinstad: That’s fantastic to hear how they’ve adapted and embraced different sports. Now, let’s switch gears a bit. In Texas, the climate and outdoor culture differ from South Africa. How has the family adjusted to the Texan lifestyle? Also, being a South African who loves to braai, how do you handle the outdoor social scene?

Ettienne Brandt: Adapting to the Texan lifestyle has been enjoyable. The warm climate, although occasionally too hot, provides ample opportunities for outdoor activities. We’ve explored different states, making the most of every opportunity for adventure. When it comes to the outdoor social scene, being a braai enthusiast, I’ve brought a South African touch to Texas. I have three grills – a Traeger pellet smoking grill, a Green Egg, and a gas grill. Whether it’s barbecuing or braaiing, I’m armed for any outdoor cooking situation. The Texan outdoor lifestyle aligns well with our love for exploration and making the most of every moment.

Bob Skinstad: That sounds like a delicious combination of South African braai culture meeting Texan outdoor living. Now, let’s shift focus to your current role at Frontier. As a major player in laying fibre and connecting homes and businesses, how do you navigate the vastness of the U.S., especially considering the diversity among states like California, Texas, and New York?

Ettienne Brandt: Navigating the U.S. requires understanding its unique dynamics, somewhat akin to Europe, where each state functions like its own country. Operating primarily in states like California, Texas, Florida, and New York, we concentrate on major business centres. The challenge arises when dealing with larger businesses that have offices across multiple states. Connectivity solutions become more complex when expanding beyond on-net capabilities. The goal is to build Gigabit America, digitising businesses and consumers by expanding fibre infrastructure. While each state presents its own challenges, focusing on key business hubs helps streamline our operations.

Bob Skinstad: Certainly, managing operations across such diverse states requires strategic planning. Finally, on a broader note, considering your extensive experience in the telecom sector, what’s your perspective on the development of fibre infrastructure in Africa? Is it viable, or does the prevalence of wireless technologies dominate the landscape?

Ettienne Brandt: Africa offers an interesting case study in technological progression. Unlike the traditional path of fixed-line development followed in Western countries, Africa experienced a leap to wireless technologies. The proliferation of cell phone networks and 3G happened rapidly. While fibre infrastructure is crucial for supporting wireless networks, Africa has, in many cases, skipped the initial phase of fixed-line development. The continent is now adopting fibre more directly, presenting opportunities without the burden of legacy systems. Fiber is foundational for supporting high-speed connectivity, and in Africa, it serves as the backbone for advancing technology.

Bob Skinstad: A fascinating perspective on Africa’s technology journey. Ettienne, thank you so much for sharing your experiences, insights, and a glimpse into the intersection of your personal and professional life. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show. We wish you continued success in your endeavours, both in Texas and beyond. Thank you for your time.

Ettienne Brandt: Thank you, Bob. It’s been a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to share my journey and insights. Cheers!

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