Second is good enough

Vodacom has lost its drive for excellence and its obsession with being the best mobile network in South Africa, which is hurting customers and shareholders.

In his book “Second is nothing”, Vodacom founder and former CEO Alan Knott-Craig described how they built South Africa’s largest mobile operator.

Under Knott-Craig leadership, Vodacom put tremendous focus on innovation and was behind many world firsts in the mobile industry.

There was a firm focus on network quality. Knott-Craig was fanatical about having the best mobile network in South Africa and went to extreme lengths to achieve it.

There are many stories about Knott-Craig experiencing a dropped call while driving and immediately raking the head of networks over the coals for the issue.

Knott-Craig was never content with a sub-par network or not outperforming his biggest rival, MTN.

The battle between Vodacom and MTN became so fierce that MTN resorted to dirty tricks to beat Vodacom in a network quality contest in the nineties.

It reached a point where former President Nelson Mandela had to step in to resolve the dispute between the two mobile operators.

The battle for network supremacy was excellent for South African consumers and the country as a whole.

Vodacom and MTN rapidly expanded coverage across South Africa and rolled out the latest technologies as soon as they became available.

Vodacom was the ultimate winner. It is partly thanks to Knott-Craig’s excellent team, which included COO Pieter Uys and CTO Andries Delport.

They were always one step ahead of MTN. They were the first to launch 3G, had the first mass rollout of HSPA, and achieved higher average speeds than their competitors.

Knott-Craig refused to accept anything other than being the best. He truly lived by the words “first is first and second is nothing”.

Pieter Uys, who took over as Vodacom CEO in 2008, continued Knott-Craig’s passionate quest to have an exceptional mobile network.

Vodacom launched the continent’s first commercial LTE service and, with Delport as CTO, dominated network quality rankings in South Africa.

Vodacom was seen as untouchable. Instead of trying to compete, companies like MTN, Telkom, and Cell C were happy to battle for second place.

The drive for excellence was not isolated to the network team. The same was seen in the company’s marketing, support, IT, and enterprise divisions.

The work ethic under Knott-Craig and Uys was unmatched. We often emailed Vodacom executives for information at midnight, and most of them responded within 5 minutes.

However, in time, the drive to be exceptional fizzled out. Vodacom became a follower rather than a leader.

Meanwhile, MTN’s network team — with Giovanni Chiarelli and Zoltan Miklos at the top, and Godfrey Motsa as CEO — decided to take the fight to Vodacom.

By 2018, MTN was on par with Vodacom, and a year later, it started to dominate the network rankings.

In the years that followed, MTN developed such a lead over Vodacom that it was difficult to see how the latter could catch up.

What was striking was how little resistance Vodacom put up in the network quality fight. They basically waved the white flag and let MTN take its crown.

Knott-Craig’s mantra of “first is first and second is nothing” became a distant memory of a bygone era at Vodacom.

Instead of taking the fight to MTN, Vodacom seems proud to be second and beat Telkom, Cell C, and Rain.

The mediocrity has permeated the whole of the company. If you email Vodacom executives today, you are lucky to get a response at all.

Vodacom continues to benefit from the exceptional work done under Knott-Craig, Uys, Delport, and other top executives.

However, the drive to be first and lead in network quality, marketing, support, and technology adoption is disappearing.

At Vodacom, second is now good enough.

Now read: Game-changer can threaten Vodacom and MTN’s business models

Latest news

Partner Content

Show comments


Share this article
Second is good enough