THE HOYOS FILE: Conor Looney: Customer first
“The first weekend I arrived in Barbados I visited every parish – I didn’t feel like a tourist after that!” says Conor Looney. Knowing that within a few weeks his anonymity on the island would be lost forever due to the high-profile nature of his job as the incoming chief executive officer of Digicel Barbados, Looney savoured his final hours of being simply a tourist.
He visited the scenic places, stopped at shops (including those selling strong beverages), bought food from street vendors and took in Barbados on his own terms. The impressions and experiences of that weekend have remained in his memory, making Looney one of the island’s greatest boosters.
Looney’s route to Barbados began after the University of Dublin class of ’96 graduate was “headhunted” in Ireland in 2011 and offered a job with Digicel in the Caribbean. In the intervening years prior to that, the honours student with a first place in international business had established a career in the food and snacks industry, being promoted through the marketing and sales ranks, first at Coca-Cola Bottlers Ireland (1996-97), then Masterfoods United Kingdom (1997-99) and Ireland (1999-2004), and then at Mars Ireland (2004-12).
Accepting the offer to relocate to the Caribbean would be a “huge decision” as he was doing well at Mars and was a member of the company’s Irish Food management team. It would also mean uprooting their three children from school.
But Looney and his wife decided it would be a good opportunity and after four or five months he learned he had got the job.
The family – Conor, his wife Fiona and their kids Jack, 13, Alice, 9, and Kate, 4 – moved to Kingston in early 2012 and Looney took up his new post, as a member of Digicel Jamaica’s senior management team, with responsibility for Digicel’s marketing activity in Jamaica.
Looking back, he says, the children have benefitted from their experiences in the Caribbean.
“There is not one day when my family and I regret making the move. It was a big move, a risky move, but we are certainly enjoying and benefitting from it.”
And although he had not worked in the telecoms sector before, he was a quick study, and in less than two years he was promoted within the management team to the post of operations director, responsible for operational efficiencies and data strategy in Jamaica.
“That [job] gave me a broader experience in terms of the telecoms industry business. I was new to telecoms – so it was a wonderful experience to actually be able to work with teams in customer care, in technical, retail and finance, and it gave me a broader experience within the telecoms industry.”
His ascent of the Digicel ranks continued, and within ten months Looney relocated his family again, this time to the British Virgin Islands (BVI), where he took up the post of CEO in 2013. “It’s a very successful business,” he says. “A lot of that business is based around the financial services and tourism industries, because in the BVI most of the economy is dependent on them. We also have a 4G network there.”
Looney describes the period since taking up his post as CEO of Digicel Barbados early this year as a “fantastic nine or ten months”.
“We’ve made a lot of changes, hired over a 150 people here in just over the last year.”
Digicel is now the “fastest-growing mobile company in the country”, he says.
“The services Digicel offers in this country are world-class,” he says. “And some of the services we have introduced here – if you are a consumer, at home, on the go with your mobile phone, if you’re a business, or if you’re the Government – you couldn’t get in London, or New York or Toronto, to this day.
The backbone of Digicel’s enhanced services, he says, is its fibre optic network which now stretches for a thousand kilometres through the island’s most densely populated areas and has cost $84 million to install.
Since Digicel started in Barbados 15 years ago, he says, the company has invested about $400 million in its network.
“We are preparing for this hyper-connected world. This network test that we did of 100 gigabytes a second means that the Digicel network that’s built here in Barbados is fit for the next 50 years.”
Looney says that the part of his job he loves the most is being responsible for over 200 people.
“It gives me the opportunity to find great people, which is easy in Barbados because we have such a fantastic education system.
“The talent in Barbados is phenomenal. We’ve got a pretty vigorous recruitment policy and for me it’s not really where you’ve come from, it’s more about how you want to develop as an individual and what you want to contribute to a business which is customer-obsessed.”
Looney says Digicel sees “wonderful opportunities” for growth in Barbados over the next five years and beyond.
“We’re investing, building networks here, building bigger teams here because we see huge potential in Barbados. We see the same opportunity in Barbados now as we did when we launched in Jamaica in 2001 because we can see that some people don’t get the quality of service that they should be getting and we want to make sure that there’s a provider there who is focussed on the customer, who is investing in the networks for the future and who is hiring the best people to cater to their demands.”