Head of newly-formed Telenor Asia shares his ambitions for the region

Just last month, Jørgen C. Arentz Rostrup assumed the new Head of Asia position at Telenor Group. The group’s Asian businesses, previously grouped into two clusters, were unified into a single Asia unit on 1 May 2020. The new setup marks Telenor’s renewed focus on developing its growth and modernisation agenda in the region, while also positioning itself to capture new opportunities.

To better understand those ambitions, dtacblog spoke to Mr. Rostrup. But with travel restrictions still in place, our hopes of a lunch date were dashed. Instead, we called his house in Oslo, Norway, where it was 7am, and apologized for catching him so early.

“Oh, don’t apologize! I wake up at 5am these days to try be somewhat on Asia time,” Mr. Rostrup indicated. He will not only arrive in Asia with minimal jetlag, but also armed with a firm grasp on his surroundings, “I lived in Asia in the 90s, in Singapore, and was traveling throughout the region. It was and still is a very vibrant region. I love how diverse it is and I’m excited to be closer to the business. Oslo and Norway are fine but looking back, I had the best times abroad.”

Although Mr. Rostrup joined Telenor in 2016 as Chief Financial Officer, the time he spent in Asia prior to that coincides with the start of Telenor’s long history in the region. In 1997, Grameenphone was the first Telenor venture in the Asian telecom market, followed by successful entries into Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar.

“I think we are fortunate in Telenor coming from a culture and mindset where we have seen the market potential in Asia for many, many years. Telenor was an early mover and we have stayed the course over time in good times and less good times,” said Mr. Rostrup. “At our core, we are half Nordic and half Asian.”

Nordic countries, however, represent a much more homogeneous market than the Asian continent. We asked Mr. Rostrup why Telenor now saw fit to bring the whole region together into one cluster.

“On the one hand, Asian markets are interesting for the same reasons as before. GDP growth will come back. There will continue to be a rising middle class. There is a young population. And although there are fewer new users to capture, there is data growth and more advanced use. All this will continue,” he replied. “At the same time, we see the markets converging as they mature, as do their customer bases, with high rates of digital adoption and data usage. I’m not saying it’s one market yet, but ASEAN is converging towards that and having a pan-Asian position is beneficial for Telenor. My task is to build on that.”

dtac, which turned 30 in 2018, is nearing another major anniversary. Telenor became a shareholder of dtac nearly 20 years ago, in 2001, and Telenor Group’s current President & Mr. CEO, Sigve Brekke, was CEO of dtac from 2002-2008. We asked Mr. Rostrup how he views the Thai market.

Mr. Rostrup’s arrival and the creation of Telenor Asia is closely watched for signs of mergers and acquisitions. Last year, he led talks about a potential merger between Axiata and Telenor’s Asian business units. Although talks in the end were not successful , Telenor remains interested  to grasp opportunities in the region.

 “Globally, there’s a mismatch in the telco industry with too many players struggling to get results on their business. In my view, there  is opportunities for the industry to consolidate for the benefit of government, society and the industry itself. And that also goes for Asia,” he said.

Thailand’s population (69 million) is a long way from Bangladesh’s (161 million) and Pakistan’s (212 million). But dtac ranks first in terms of revenue compared to Telenor Asia’s other business units.

 

“dtac is a very important company for Telenor due to its size and the market in which it operates. Telenor is very proud of its history with dtac. But being an important business in a large and significant market also means new challenges every day and tough choices to be made. Change never stops. It’s part of being in business.”

With the COVID-19 outbreak, that change has further accelerated, with dtac’s digital channels experiencing double-digit growth from January to March 2020. Mr. Rostrup is quick to stress that while we have to adapt and change the way we do things, Telenor’s  current priority is to look after its customers and employees.

“Both in the new normal, post pandemic, and in the old normal, our first aim and responsibility as a company, as individuals, as leaders and as employees is to take care of each other and make our business as solid as we can, based on the right principles. The new normal doesn’t take away the fundamentals,” he said.

The new normal has also highlighted the critical nature of mobile connectivity. And Mr. Rostrup credits years of network modernization to the fact that the Telenor group’s networks did not buckle under the extra usage caused by social distancing.

“At Telenor, modernizing our core, the way we do business and the results we deliver remains our key focus. Based on the results, we earn the right to grow and expand our offerings. We have a fantastic opportunity to be best at what we’re doing right now. That should be the number one focus at dtac, too. Lately, dtac has invested more than in previous years and I believe dtac can really be the best at what they do,” he explained.

In Mr. Rostrup’s view, modernization isn’t just something businesses owe themselves, but also a prerequisite to delivering connectivity sustainably to its customers.

“Currently, the lack of digital payment solutions makes it difficult and unsafe for people to complete transactions. We also see that when crisis comes, those less privileged face the biggest problems,” he said. “Mobile operators have a role and responsibility to help modernize and advance societies. We can offer digital services and stable network connectivity, we can take good care of our employees, and we can have a voice in our societies.”

With 176 million mobile subscribers across the region, Telenor Asia and its new head can indeed contribute to the digital advancement of Asia with greater impact and speed than ever before.