Simon Moutter has one more big role in him. That’s what he says anyway. Not politics, not governance, not startups. Corporate.

“One more meaningful, pillar role.”

The 59-year-old Palmy boy will leave telecommunications company Spark on Friday, after seven years in the job. He also spent four years as chief operating officer when the company was known as Telecom.

Moutter will spend a couple of months unwinding, swanning about the world, he says. And then he’ll be ready for a new challenge. 

Call him.

The media has already put him into a number of corner offices, most recently at Air NZ, whose CEO Christopher Luxon resigned last week. Moutter’s not commenting. There’s a space at the top of ANZ Bank for a straight-shooter too, though it’s hard to see Moutter as a banker. 

Last year he was touted as a candidate for Fonterra CEO. 

“I’m going to be hard pushed running all these businesses.”

He isn’t averse to moving the family overseas, but would prefer to be in New Zealand.

“I’m open to anything. I’d like a significant role, but I’m not closed-minded.”

Moutter’s experience so far has largely been in infrastructure. He’s run a power station (New Plymouth), an electricity distribution company (Powerco), an airport (Auckland), and now a telco. Though telecommunications isn’t what it once was.

From Telecom to tribes

It wouldn’t be outrageous to put Moutter among New Zealand’s most successful corporate change managers. He rebranded Telecom NZ as Spark, turned a widely-hated former state monopoly into a respected retail business, took the company into the content space with video-on-demand service Lightbox, launched budget mobile brand Skinny, and took on Sky TV in the sports broadcast game. 

The company has moved into data analytics, cyber security, cloud IT and internet of things.

“These days we’re largely a software company,” he says. 

The Spark HQ just off Victoria Park in downtown Auckland is more Silicon Valley tech lab than telco exchange. Steel beams and glass and walls of post-it notes.

The teams are “squads”, the divisions are “tribes”, there are daily “stand-ups” (meetings without chairs) and hardly anyone looks over 35.

You can’t help thinking about the TV show Survivor, or the Les Mills gym across the road.

“He’s a brilliant leader, super-smart and a super-passionate New Zealander,” says Vodafone CEO Jason Paris, who worked with Moutter at Spark until March last year.

“He’s demanding. He holds himself to very high standards and expects those of others. He makes tough calls, bold bets and is relentless in achieving those goals.”

Not everything’s gone to plan. Spark’s move into the start-up venture space hasn’t worked out, and its Semble mobile wallet app, developed with competitors Vodafone and 2Degrees quietly disappeared in 2016. The Morepork home security technology company is going to a new home.

Still, Spark’s earnings have tended to nudge up each half, and net profit, while a tad unsteady, remains strong.

“Simon Moutter has done a really good job turning the company into an agile digital business with multiple different ways to grow,” says James Grigor, chief investment officer for NZ Funds. “That gives us confidence going forward, even if we see a slow-up in other parts of the market.”

Who’d have thought it?

Telecom in 2012 was a mess, in decline according to almost every measure, be it financial, market share, or employee satisfaction.

Gattung’s axe-swinger

And Moutter joining Spark as CEO had a reputation from his Telecom chief operating officer days as a hard-arsed cost-cutter. 

“He was Theresa Gattung’s axe swinger and there wasn’t a lot of nuance in that role.”

“I was sceptical when he was appointed,” says a member of his team from those days who didn’t want to be named. “I didn’t think he could do it.”

Tech commentator Paul Brislen, once a lowly business reporter, says he experienced the sharp end of Moutter’s tongue on more than one occasion.

“He’d tell people off, shout at people, fly around the country firing people. He was [former Telecom CEO Theresa] Gattung’s axe swinger and there wasn’t a lot of nuance in that role.

“So when he came back to Telecom I thought ‘Here we go’. I didn’t expect a born-again customer-centric person.”

But things started changing quickly, Brislen says.

“I remember he said to me that Telecom had spent years walking backwards slowly, fending off regulation. Now the company was going to turn around, going to lead the market. He started by slashing roaming rates. People hated them so he changed them.

“He’s reinvented the company completely and my hat’s off to him.”

Moutter says his four years as chief executive of Auckland Airport gave him experience shifting from a business model based on science, logic and economics to a business model grounded in customers.

“The Auckland Airport board backed a changed strategy, shifting from an engineering approach – aeronautics, steel and concrete – to thinking of the airport as an engine of growth for New Zealand’s tourism and trade.

“We shifted to sales and customer-orientated growth and lo and behold the money flowed.”

Paris says he noticed the transition in his former boss’ management style.

“His reputation was of someone with a firm hand on the organisation from an operating perspective and he made tough calls for Theresa. For the first couple of years there were tough calls to turn the business around. But he understood people were looking to him for leadership and inspiration and he became more open with himself, showing his foibles, and how he was a passionate New Zealander and proud of the company.”

Paris believes Moutter has grown into being comfortable in a high-profile role.

“He’s worked out the best way to inspire people is to be himself.”

Tide of opposition

Shifting from Auckland Airport to Telecom meant taking the people-centric strategy to a whole new level, Moutter says.

“Very large organisations have massive inertia. If you are growing, you’ll keep growing longer than people expect. If you are on the downturn, that will keep going even if you make 100 small changes.

“To turn that around you have to make large interventions, or you will never overcome that inertia.”

“I have high regard for fear of failure as a driver – I like to succeed.”

But major changes are rarely popular, Moutter says. It’s like “walking into a tide of opposition”.

“People are out there saying ‘It’s stupid, it’s a waste of time, you’ll fail.’ You have to have a huge amount of courage and a healthy degree of fear. 

“I have high regard for fear of failure as a driver – I like to succeed.”

Failing fast

Paris says Moutter’s commitment and loyalty to people and projects are strengths, but also weaknesses.

“Once he’s made a call or he’s backed you, he’ll never stop. In hindsight, there were a couple of instances we could have pulled the pin earlier.”

Moutter says a lot of companies talk about “failing fast”, but it’s not that easy.

“No one wants to admit defeat. You always think ‘I must have been right. If only I spend another million dollars…’

“[At Spark] we’ve failed, but to be honest, we haven’t failed fast. I challenge any CEO in New Zealand to say they failed fast.”

Moutter has been credited with nine big changes over his seven years at Spark, including the ones mentioned above. There was always a couple on the go, one nearing the end and a couple starting to move, he says. That’s why there was never going to be a good time for him to leave. 

When he announced his departure at the beginning of April, commentators wondered why he didn’t wait until after the Rugby World Cup, when Spark’s sports streaming capabilities will hit their biggest test yet. 

They thought he should see through the 5G projects, further embed the company’s Agile workplace practices. 

Seven year itch

Moutter says seven years is enough. Telecommunications is a challenging industry.

“This game is a tough game. It’s highly-complex, changes like crazy, you’re high-profile as a CEO and have a big role outside the industry.

“It takes its toll – I’ve had easier jobs to be sure. But it felt like I’d done the things I set out to do, and it was the right time to hand over to someone ready to run to their peak.”

Moutter’s successor is Jolie Hodson, who has worked under Moutter for the last six years as CFO, CEO of Spark Digital and now customer director. 

As Brislen points out, when Hodson takes over on Monday, she’ll be one of half a dozen or more local CEOs who’ve worked alongside and/or been mentored by Moutter and/or Gattung at Telecom or Spark.

Others include Paris at Vodafone, Chris Quin at Foodstuffs North Island, Kevin Kenrick at TVNZ, Miki Szikszai at Snapper, Glen Sowry at Metlifecare, Adrian Littlewood at Auckland Airport and Vic Crone at Callaghan Innovations.

As for Simon Moutter, anyone wanting to approach him about that perfect job before he heads overseas will need to work fast. He leaves Spark on Friday and flies to Europe that night. 

“But obviously I’ll take a call if anyone has great ideas.”

See more on ‘The Mana of Simon Moutter’ in this piece from Newsroom Co-Editor Mark Jennings.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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