Power to the people

15 November 2011

Lebara CEO Yoganathan Ratheesan explains why companies need to focus on growth, human capital and customer service.

Organisations around the globe have suffered significantly as a result of the recent economic downturn and its aftermath. Many businesses resorted to shedding staff and downsizing offices, and some even shut down altogether.

Few sectors escaped unscathed - the telecoms industry included. Many IT companies were forced to cut their spending and experienced revenue declines as customers postponed new communications equipment purchases and service upgrades.

Clearly, the good news has been spread rather thin; however, for Lebara, a telecoms provider focused on the international calling market and boasting a price-driven unique selling point, business has been increasing at an exponential rate. Soon after its establishment in London a decade ago, the company embarked on its worldwide venture. It has now grown fourfold in the past two years and is fast approaching €1bn in revenues.

Lebara has a powerful driving force behind it. The mobile virtual network operator's CEO Yoganathan Ratheesan won the Asian Business Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2010 and under his leadership the company has received several industry accolades. But Ratheesan is modest about his personal victory.

"I have to give the credit to my team," he says. "No entrepreneur is successful without having the right people in place. I truly believe that without talent, there just isn't an organisation.

"This is particularly true for me; I always want to bring in individuals who are smarter than I am so that, even if I make mistakes, they will ensure the company keeps going forward."

Bucking the trend

The global labour market was weakened by the financial downturn, affecting a broad spectrum of industries and occupations. Unemployment rates in Europe and the US surpassed 7% by the end of 2008.

Although some world economies have managed to recover, today unemployment has reached an alarming level. The International Labour Organisation recently revealed that although Western economies constitute only 15% of the world's working population, they accounted for 55% of the increase in joblessness between 2007 and 2010.

Given such high unemployment rates across many leading markets, finding good talent is the main concern of business leaders, according to a recent survey by Deloitte and Forbes Insights. Based on feedback from 334 senior executives and talent managers at large companies throughout the world, 41% revealed that finding high-calibre employees is their top priority.

So, while many companies drove their business and talent into survival mode, others were focusing on growth and innovation. This is certainly true for Lebara: the company's total employee base rose from 500 full-time staff at the start of 2010 to 1,300 across its business by the beginning of this year.

Lebara's sharp increase in staff has bucked the trend: AT&T, the largest telecom services provider in the US, slashed 12,000 jobs in 2008 and, by the end of that year BT, the UK's biggest firm, axed 10,000 workers, 6% of its global workforce.

Winning customer service

But it has not been entirely rosy for Lebara. From its early development as a distributor to its 2004 reinvention as a mobile service provider, the company faced multiple challenges.

"When we started, the first two years were very difficult for us," says Ratheesan. "We came from a calling-card background and in that business you don't even know your customer. At least with the mobile you know who they are, and this is the most important thing. As a company we learnt that there was no point just selling SIM cards to the market; we needed to find a way to keep them for longer.

"We've learnt the true value of a strong internal structure and excellent customer service, which has helped us to accomplish this."

How does Lebara address its human capital requirements?

"When we launched Lebara in London, bringing in talent was one of our primary concerns," Ratheesan says. "That's the reason we're here. Acquiring the right people is much harder in cities outside of the capital. I've worked all around the world and I think that London has so much to offer in terms of the talent pool."

The organisation's hands-on involvement with its customer base is a clear advantage; Lebara employs over 60 different nationalities and there are more than 40 nationalities in its London headquarters alone. It also recently won the 2011 UK Customer Experience Award, which, Ratheesan points out, is testament to the company's focus on creating the right culture and employee practice to provide outstanding customer service.

"That's the other reason why we kept our customer service team in central London even though many people questioned it," Ratheesan explains. "We want to get the right people who can speak multiple languages so we can truly help our customers out. If we were to move this service to some corner of England or outsource it to another country where the employees just read through a script and didn't have a clue what our customers go through day in and day out, I don't think it would work."

Well-motivated staff

While attracting the best people is the concern of most organisations minds right now, finding ways to retain staff is increasingly falling by the wayside. Research by Metlife released earlier this year revealed that only 47% of employees claim loyalty to their companies - a steep drop from the 59% of just three years ago.

The decrease in staff loyalty comes at a time when businesses are also falling short of meeting employees' expectations for development and growth. According to Global Knowledge, an IT and business skills provider, more than half of the 700 respondents surveyed stated that they face barriers from their employers in receiving the training they need to do their jobs. Ratheesan says that the company has a clear strategy for retaining staff and minimising turnover.

"The introduction and training programmes are vital," he says. "What I insist on is that new joiners must have the right attitude - I'm really passionate about this; it's not just about their skill set.

"If the individual fits into Lebara then we identify their key attributes and put them into an area where they can enhance their skill set, rather than pushing them into something they're not good at. We all have many weaknesses and it takes us a lifetime to work on them all, so we want to ensure that our employees focus on their strengths. We also make sure that every person's role is clearly defined and they understand their objectives, and we give them the right incentives to succeed."

Engaged employees are also more likely to put forward ideas that help drive the organisation - and this is fundamental in today's environment.

"Staff need to know how their contribution has shaped the company's underlying aims," says Ratheesan. "They could be anybody - from marketing and customer services to the CEO. Everyone is committed to our growth. If you can show your staff that they have helped achieve the overall goals of the company, then they feel valued, and that way everybody works as a team rather than individually."

Bringing in the right employees and retaining and motivating them are key elements behind Lebara's success. Ratheesan believes that companies need to get this balance right.

"If a company doesn't grow then its people won't be motivated, but if the employees aren't incentivised then the organisation won't become a success either," he says. "This is a chicken-and-egg scenario that we all face."