Douglas Craigie Stevenson, interim CEO of Cell C. Picture: Supplied
Douglas Craigie Stevenson, interim CEO of Cell C. Picture: Supplied

Telecoms veteran Douglas Craigie Stevenson’s appointment as interim CEO of Cell C came as a bolt from the blue.

Craigie Stevenson, the group’s COO, was asked to take the reins when Jose dos Santos announced late last month that he was stepping down as of March 1. Dos Santos is to take on a new role as "a consultant offering strategic advice to the chairman of the Cell C board [Kuben Pillay]".

The departure of Dos Santos, who ran the mobile operator for the past six years, was so sudden that it appeared that Cell C had no ready replacement. When he left, the group announced that "an interim CEO will be announced shortly, until such time as a permanent appointment is announced". It named Craigie Stevenson six days later.

As COO, Craigie Stevenson was responsible for all operational aspects of Cell C, making him best placed to take over from Dos Santos. He joined the group 18 months ago after holding several high-profile telecoms jobs.

When he joined the operator he said: "Cell C is an extremely dynamic business and I look forward to putting my skills to work at a company that has been at the forefront of innovation for the past couple of years."

Before joining Cell C, he was CEO of Telekom Networks Malawi for two years.

Craigie Stevenson cut his teeth at Vodacom, where he headed up finance for several of the group’s cross-border operations. He had a four-year stint in Tanzania followed by five years as financial director at Vodacom Mozambique, ending his time at Vodacom with a two-year stretch as MD of Vodacom Business Africa.

His appointment as interim CEO might have been sudden, but Craigie Stevenson feels he and the group’s management are up to the task.

"Obviously stepping into this position is going to be a challenge. However, together with my team’s unique view and depth of knowledge, we know what needs to be done with Cell C."

Craigie Stevenson might feel he can handle the job, but the CEO post has been a difficult one for all its previous incumbents, probably because the group had a difficult start that it has been struggling to overcome ever since.

When it got its operating licence in March 2000, Cell C was already way behind the duopoly of MTN and Vodacom, with their six-year head start. Together the two giants had already signed up almost 5.5-million subscribers and had set up their national networks.

Cell C was not helped by a nine-month delay in getting its operating licence, during which time MTN and Vodacom ramped up subscriptions.

To get into the game Cell C had to piggyback — at a fee — on the infrastructure of its rivals, while at the same time servicing billions of rands in debt.

It was a fight it could never win. Despite managing to sign up 17.2-million subscribers, Cell C has never really made a net profit.

It didn’t help that the group made a questionable call in opting not to roll out a 3G network, then reversing that decision and having to play catch-up.

In an effort to turn its fortunes around, its major shareholder, Saudi company Oger Telecom, brought in prepaid technology specialists Blue Label Telecoms and Net1 UEPS, which took 45% and 15% in the operator respectively.

The R7.5bn generated from this deal and Cell C’s move into streaming video and fibre services were expected to give it a new lease of life. It hasn’t worked out like that — yet.

Blue Label incurred a headline loss of R105m for the six months to end-November, with its share of losses from Cell C amounting to R123m.

For his part, Craigie Stevenson has not been idle. He took the reins as interim CEO only last week, but has gone on an investment roadshow with Blue Label’s management to outline his plans.

"What is clear," he says, "is that Cell C has to continue to be agile and adapt quickly to change if it is to be a sustainable player in the telecommunications sector."

True enough.