The balancing act of dtac’s Chief Financial Officer in the “Never Normal”

Update: Dilip Pal was dtac’s Chief Financial Officer from 2017 to 2020

For this month’s “Lunch at the Top”, dtacblog sat down with Dilip Pal to discuss 12-figure investments over some dosas.

dtac Chief Financial Officer Dilip Pal’s choice of an Indian restaurant for his “Lunch at the Top” with dtacblog is a seemingly straightforward pick. But Mr. Pal is quick to point out India is more like a continent than a country, and that the vegetarian delights of Saravanaa Bhavan come from Southern India while he is from Kolkata, to the East.

This point of culinary geography reflects Mr. Pal’s own itinerary. Before joining dtac just as the mobile operator’s 30-year concession for its most essential spectrum was ending (more on that later), Mr. Pal’s early career was marked by a willingness to work all over India, which he described as an early exposure to cultural diversity that served him well when working abroad. He joined Telenor as the Chief Financial Officer of Grameenphone, in Bangladesh, before joining dtac three years later, in 2017. As he recently announced that he would leave dtac to pursue other opportunities, we asked him to reflect on his time with the company.

“I just completed three years at dtac and it was the most eventful three years in my entire career. The first phase was marked by the end of our concession, spectrum uncertainty, many years of accumulated litigation cases and fading customer confidence in our brand. But now I see a far more customer-centric and resilient company than before. We act on customer feedback rather than internal performance metrics,” he said.

Mr. Pal looks back to June 4, 2019, dtac’s Capital Markets Day, as an important milestone for dtac’s transformation. Speaking to investors, dtac’s management clearly articulated a turnaround strategy with medium-term financial ambitions to grow the company’s revenue and customer base, yet do so in the most efficient way.

“That’s the only short, medium- and long-term option for us. As a CFO, I must ensure that resources are allocated to achieve those goals,” Mr. Pal said.

Telecommunications is an expensive business to be in. For spectrum alone, dtac has committed to over 100 billion baht in the last three years. On top of that, there is a contract with CAT for infrastructure access and about 16 billion baht every year to upgrade the network.

“That’s a large financial commitment to strengthen our network and improve the customer experience. As a result, we stabilized our subscriber base loss in 2019 and got back to revenue growth in three consecutive quarters. Then the pandemic hit us,” Mr. Pal said.

Nonetheless, dtac’s network strategy has been largely unaffected. Firstly, dtac aimed to restore smooth connectivity. Secondly, dtac is expanding its network coverage through a low-band rollout.

“The first part is done. dtac already has the fastest download speeds in Thailand,” he said. “The second part is a work in progress. But with the acquisition of both 900 and 700 MHz spectrum, dtac has a strong portfolio to improve its coverage.”

Despite dtac’s network investments, Mr. Pal stressed that the operator intends to remain Thailand’s leanest—an ambition he says is dictated by the market. On average, Thai customers are using 18 GB of data per month and nearly doubling their usage every year. And yet, they will not—or cannot—pay more for that usage.

“ในฐานะผู้ให้บริการโครงข่าย วิธีเดียวที่จะสามารถแข่งขันในตลาดได้ คือเราต้องลดต้นทุนของดาต้าต่อกิ๊กกะไบต์ของเราลง การบริหารต้นทุนอย่างมีประสิทธิภาพจะทำให้เราสามารถมอบข้อเสนอบริการในราคาที่ผู้บริโภคยอมจ่าย” คุณดิลิปอธิบาย

เขายังเน้นย้ำด้วยว่า แม้เป้าหมายระยะสั้นจะสำคัญ แต่บริษัทก็ยังต้องเดินหน้าสร้างรากฐานเพื่อการเติบโตทางด้านรายได้อย่างยั่งยืนในระยะยาว ผ่านกลยุทธ์ 3 ข้อ คือการเพิ่มความแข็งแกร่งให้โครงข่าย การพัฒนาประสบการณ์ของลูกค้า และการเตรียมความพร้อมองค์กรสู่อนาคต อย่างไรก็ดี คุณดิลิปยอมรับว่าการคาดการณ์อนาคตนั้นเป็นสิ่งที่ยากขึ้นเรื่อยๆ

“As an operator, the only way to stay competitive is to reduce our cost per gigabyte of data. Cost efficiency ensures we can offer our customers the prices they are willing to pay,” said Mr. Pal. He also stressed that while short-term goals matter, dtac must create room for long-term, sustainable revenue growth through three ambitions: strengthening the network, improving the customer experience and making the organization fit for future. However, dtac’s CFO also admits that the future is becoming increasingly hard to predict.

Mr. Pal’s colleagues describe him as a coach who seeks to build consensus and empower his teams. And although he consistently exudes calm and humility, he is not afraid to speak his mind. But to dtac’s CFO, the greatest qualities required in leaders in the “never normal” are clarity and the ability to trust their colleagues: “Leaders need to set a clear direction and goals, and encourage a greater degree of empowerment in order to succeed in this new era.”