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Gurkan: “The needs of customers will always be put at the center of every business decision.”

Emre Gurkan has been at the helm of touch since his appointment as CEO in the beginning of 2017. Prior to his appointment, he was the chief strategy and business development officer of Zain Group. In an interview with Telecom Review, he shared his insights into the Lebanese telecom sector and of the achievements of touch, managed by Zain, made over the past 15 years as one of the country’s mobile operators.

What is your opinion about the telecom sector in Lebanon in general?

Constant evolution and never-ending challenges are what comes to mind. Over the past two years, since I assumed this current role, the sector has transformed tremendously from both a technological and services offered point of view, whereby today the sector is one of the most advanced in the region. It still has a long way to go, and despite the many socio-economic challenges in the country, I’m confident that Lebanon will be firmly and highly placed in the global telecom map vis-a-vis the technologies and services offered.

Over recent years, Lebanon’s Ministry of Telecom has been very active in supporting the sector to flourish by facilitating the two operators’ installation of 4G services and the latest technologies that have tremendously enhanced the customers’ mobile experience on all levels.

There is no doubt that the human talents in Lebanon are second to none and are super impressive; Lebanese are in every value chain in telecom and the potential of the sector is unlimited.

Accordingly, the telecom sector is vibrant with 4.5 million customers that generate over 1.6 billion USD per year, making it the third revenue generator for the country after customs and VAT.

The Lebanese community is very digitally savvy with very high data usage per customer, and thus it’s critical that both telecom operators continue working closely with the Telecom Ministry to ensure that the quality and availability of voice and data services are of the highest standards.  

Why is touch so important to Zain?

Zain has been managing touch for 15 years now, ever since it won the mobile tender in 2004. The Kuwaiti-Lebanese bilateral relations have always been strong and strategic on several levels, and Zain looks forward to the day that the mobile sector is privatized, as it will keenly seek and compete to acquire a longer-term mobile license.

Although touch is the only Zain operation not owned by the Kuwaiti parent company - since Zain has a management agreement with the Lebanese government – nevertheless, it takes a considerable amount of the Group management’s time and resources to support and oversee the operation. Touch is on par with all of Zain’s other operations in terms of the allocation of resources and time spent in ensuring that the services offered to customers are of the highest quality.

What added value does Zain bring to the Lebanese market and to touch in specific?

Zain was one of the first telecom operators in the region and currently owns and runs operations across eight countries (previously 23 when it was in Africa), today serving 50 million customers. Many of the solutions that touch delivers in Lebanon rely on knowledge transfer based on experience and expertise that Zain Group has gathered across its other markets. For example, today Zain Group is trialing and rolling out 5G technology in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. These Kinds of experiences and knowhow are of great benefits to both touch and Lebanon’s telecommunications and ICT industry. Furthermore, many of the solutions and projects implemented by touch are aligned with Zain’s strategy and vision: building a sustainable and innovative digital communications company serving consumers and enterprises with a rich and simple mobile experience, in addition to providing a differentiated customer experience, maintaining an aggressive operational effectiveness, achieving business growth and developing people.

This year, Lebanon’s telecom sector celebrated its 25th anniversary, with touch managing one of the mobile networks for 15 years. What have been some of the major milestones achieved over the years by touch?

We have achieved so much over the years. Together with our mother company Zain Group, and working closely with country’s Telecom Ministry, touch has managed to maintain its market leadership position in Lebanon for 15 years. The operator remains the first choice for the people in Lebanon.

In 2018, we achieved a record high of 54 percent market share. Touch’s competitive advantage lies in our various product and service offerings and during the year, touch’s self-care app exceeded 1 million downloads and 100 TBs of daily data traffic. In 2019, we have witnessed a substantial growth in LTE subscribers to over 1 million.

I personally believe that the biggest contribution Zain has provided over the years has been the technological know-how and procurement efficiency with leading solutions providers it has brought to the country, as well as the further development of touch’s human capital. Today, every individual constituting touch’s workforce is very capable in their respective field and many are highly sought after by regional and local entities.

In your opinion, what are the elements that have contributed to touch’s success? 

Over the years, we have positively evolved and shaped our success around our talented workforce, culture and by maintaining a defined strategy and vision. We have also strived for operational excellence as part of the Zain family and by implementing the latest technologies to deliver superior customer services.  

Our continuous belief in the capabilities of our human capital is a major organizational asset. This is due to our staff’s increasing level of expertise, which contributes positively to touch and to the telecom sector as a whole. At touch and Zain, we are strong advocates of human empowerment, and this has now grown into an entrenched gender diversity program, which is essential for any balanced organization that strives for excellence.

Another reason for our success is our loyal customer base. Our vision remains to be customer focused in a way that the customer influences and leads the direction of the company through a transformational journey to becoming genuinely customer-centric.

In your recent keynote at the 12th Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit, you emphasized the importance of gender diversity and inclusion especially in regard to empowering women. Why are you working on expanding women’s role in the workforce?

Our gender diversity and inclusion initiative is based on the premise of creating a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully and with all having equal access to opportunities and resources. We firmly believe this brings benefits to the business as men and women have different viewpoints, ideas and market insights, which enables better problem solving. Close collaboration and diversity in leadership at the workplace enable us to deliver innovative solutions, drive positive results and strengthen our organization all at the same time.

Gender diversity is vital to any workplace, not just because it's a praiseworthy goal; it simply makes bottom-line business sense and can contribute immensely to the organization's success.

Touch is on a promising path towards diversity and inclusion given the leadership percentage that currently stands at 25 percent, but our target is to increase the average to 35 percent, while the total number of female employees has reached approximately 32 percent and is subject to an increase to 50 percent.

Touch has been deploying efforts to develop the digital economy in Lebanon. What are the main initiatives you have launched in this regard?

The digital economy refers to the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is taking place. It is an opportunity for all organizations to leverage technologies to execute daily tasks. In order to achieve a digital economy in Lebanon, touch has been active through key initiatives that include creating a culture of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, connectivity and access to broadband internet, as well as digital financial services.  

In line with touch’s digital and innovation strategy, the company launched the touch Innovation Program (TIP) and we are currently running our third cycle. TIP aims to support the local digital economy in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship by collaborating with startups and identifying potential partners. Every six months, the program selects up to seven startups in Lebanon and offers them a wide range of support including access to the touch lab working space, workshops by entrepreneurs, meetups with industry leaders, mentorships by touch employees, and widespread exposure online and offline. TIP has graduated 12 startups so far, and is currently working alongside seven other innovators in cycle 3. TIP selects startups that come from an array of different industries including e-commerce, education, homecare, health and IoT. 

In addition to skills, the digital economy needs an advanced internet infrastructure. Touch has migrated its management systems from network operations center (NOC) to service operations center (SOC), where all technology operational activities are more customer-centric than network oriented. We are also in the process of deploying fiber optics and new technology implementations on radio, core and transmissions.

As for digital finance, touch has introduced smart quality management system, digital kiosks and interactive touch outdoor screens. All these services allow customers to undertake payments, address issues and concerns, and browse the internet for the latest services.

With respect to digital transactions, figures in 2018 were extremely promising (with approximately 40 percent increase in transactions) and are expected to rise further in 2019. Touch will continue pushing more traffic toward its digital channels be it the touch self-care app or website to make transactions more efficient.

As an internal initiative, Zain Group introduced Zainiac in late 2017 to act as an internal e-platform and community for all Zain Group personnel to be able to share ideas and formulate solutions aimed at stimulating creativity within the company. The platform allows Zainers across the Group to suggest innovative ideas on a bi-annual basis, share challenges and collaborate in a bid to achieve common goals.  

To date, hundreds of initiatives and project ideas have been submitted with the aim of promoting internal innovation and to motivate Zain personnel to start new businesses, and hopefully become the next unicorns of the region. 

To date, I’m proud to say that two of the four Zainiac ideas that Zain Group will nurture and fund for further development have come from touch.  

Zainiac reaffirms our conviction that to remain innovative and competitive, we need to generate ideas from wherever we can find them and seeking them out internally is prudent.

With the aim of accelerating IoT deployment in Lebanon, touch partnered with IoTree, the first organization in Lebanon to deploy NB-IoT. What does this partnership entail and why have you decided to invest in IoT?

IoT is a fantastic opportunity given the explosive growth in consumer adoption of smartphones, tablets and wearable technology.

Today, connectivity and technological innovation play a pivotal role in developing the agriculture industry among others. That is why touch has partnered up with IoTree for the first NB-IoT collaboration in Lebanon to provide leading-edge connectivity to IoTree's sensors delivering reliability, low latency and very long battery life using the powerful 3GPP NB-IoT standard. This initiative helps farmers apply the right agricultural practices that can revive the agri-food sector. Touch has also granted IoTree a golden pass to join touch’s innovation program (TIP) cycle 3, which has just kicked off, and as part of the program, touch assigns IoTree mentors and conducts workshops to ensure performance and continuity of this partnership.

What are the future aspirations and plans of touch and the sector overall?

We hope that one day the mobile telecom sector would be privatized; in the meantime, we work closely with the ministry of telecommunications ensuring the sector’s continuous evolution. We aim to continue to launch innovative services and further fortify touch as the market leader, as voted by consumers.

Given the importance of connectivity in driving innovative solutions in just about any private and public sector organization, touch will provide large bundles and end-to-end solutions to corporates and businesses for greater network throughput and experience. We will implement further coverage improvement on 3G, 4G and 4.5G networks – with improved throughput in areas of high traffic so that all customers will have access to the connection they desire.

Touch will further monetize voice and data through new customer-centric offers, establish a solid B2B organization with new value propositions, and expand into the digital ecosystem through digital and innovation offerings and value propositions.

Last but not least, where do you see the telecoms sector in Lebanon headed, and what message would you convey to consumers?

The telecom sector in Lebanon really needs to have more flexibility, including pricing and value propositions, in order to increase penetration and usage. If such flexibility is permitted, then the sector would soar. Additionally, an opportunity for further growth could be the privatization of the sector.  In all cases, the needs of customers will always be put at the center of every business decision. It is imperative that customers are provided with high-quality data and services across multiple forms of communications technologies.

In all cases, the needs of customers will always be put at the center of every business decision. It is imperative that customers are provided with high quality data and services across multiple forms of communications technologies.

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