June 5, 2023

One year into his tenure, Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri is looking for answers in unlikely places

Tony Staffieri, CEO of Rogers, will be visiting the Toronto flagship store on October 21st.Shay Conroy / The Globe and Mail

The vaunted corporate boardroom is no longer where there is no action, at least not for Tony Staffier. Anyone trying to find the CEO of Rogers Communications Inc. these days is better off looking in the most unlikely of places: in a call center, next to employees fielding customer complaints or in a store talking to a clerk.

As he marks his first anniversary as CEO of the nation’s largest cell phone and cable provider, Mr. Staffieri opens the interview by naming the cities where he recently dropped by unannounced to talk with Rogers Communications salespeople. He rhymes about Montreal, London and Barrie.

He says the conversations revolve around one topic: How Rogers can do better. And when he returns to headquarters in Toronto, the CEO acts on what he heard. “One store in Montreal had an idea about how to make the pricing of new phones easier to understand,” Staffieri said. “We rolled it out nationally in two weeks.”

That feedback, along with his recent focus on web stability, is featured in an hour-long conversation with The Globe and Mail. The past year has been a tumultuous one for Rogers, but Mr. Staffieri is now looking forward to clarifying his focus as chief executive. Under his watch, Rogers is obsessed with service and performance.

Some of this is thrust upon him, some is of his own doing. Mr. Staffieri sits in one of Canada’s hottest seats, and his arrival as chief executive came after a boardroom brawl at Rogers. Not only is he fighting one of the nation’s biggest takeovers with a $26 billion bid for Shaw Communications Inc. — a deal originally signed by his predecessor — but his first year at the helm has been marked by a national blackout. This left 12 million Canadians without cell phone and internet service for an entire day.

On top of all that, the Rogers boss is acutely aware that consumers love to hate their telcos.

A sign at H&M in Toronto’s Fairview Mall advises customers of payment service disruptions due to the widespread outage at Rogers on July 8.Yader Guzman / The Globe and Mail

Every year, the survey company Leger ranks the reputation of Canadian companies. In 2022, Rogers ranked 194th out of 288 companies, behind rivals Telus Corp. and Shaw, but ahead of BCE Inc.-owned Bell. Still, Leger’s study was published in the spring, before Rogers’ nationwide shutdown in July. That a technical glitch annoyed subscribers when the Interac banking network crashed and some customers were unable to call 911.

Mr. Staffieri knows that a company’s reaction to an outage defines its brand, and it’s critical that Rogers get things right. “We have to own it, we have to be responsible,” CEO said. He then listed a series of steps the company is taking to update its systems, including with billion dollar leading technology companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., Juniper Networks Inc. and Ericsson. “If we don’t have the best network, we don’t have a business.”

He is also well aware that chairman Edward Rogers and his siblings, the company’s controlling shareholders, have high expectations for the leadership of the company built by their visionary father, Ted Rogers. Since the founder’s death 14 years ago, Rogers has gone through four CEOs. “My mandate from the board was clear, and it was two things: turn around the capability and close the Shaw store,” Staffieri said.

After one year in office, Staffieri has fulfilled half of his task. Rogers led the industry last quarter by signing up 122,000 new cell phone subscribers, doubling its growth from a year earlier. Turnover increased by 10 percent to 3.4 billion dollars and profit by 35 percent to 409 million dollars. Rogers’ stock hit an all-time high in April. It has since fallen 31 percent, in part because the stock market is falling on recession fears.

Mr. Staffieri knows that a company’s response to an outage defines its brand, and it’s critical that Rogers get things right.Shay Conroy / The Globe and Mail

Closing the Shaw takeover has proved more difficult. The federal competition agency wants to block the deal because it will lead to higher prices for mobile phone services. To address those concerns, Rogers agreed this summer to sell Shaw’s Freedom Mobile cell phone business to Quebecor Inc. for $2.85 billion, about half the amount Calgary-based Shaw invested in the business.

As part of the Freedom sale, Rogers signed a long-term agreement to supply the network services Quebecor needs to expand in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Contrary to competition agency concerns that the deals would lead to higher cellphone bills, Mr. Staffieri said Quebecor has the scale to drive down prices, as it did when it won a 22 percent market share in Quebec over the past decade. . “Quebecor has a better cost structure than they would have had on their own,” he explains.

Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor will hold conciliation talks with the competition agency next week. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the competition court will consider the agreement in November. The court is expected to rule by the beginning of the new year, and both sides can appeal the decision. Federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne must also approve the deals. Mr Staffieri declined to comment on the status of proceedings with the government but said he was “confident the deal will be completed”.

During his one year as CEO of Rogers, Mr. Staffieri has fulfilled half of his mission: improving his operational efficiency. The remaining task, closing the Shaw takeover, has proven more difficult.Shay Conroy / The Globe and Mail

Mr. Staffieri speaks precisely. When he talks about a problem, he says he wants to make three points and then number them 1, 2, 3 as he goes along. The methodical approach helps explain why PriceWaterhouseCoopers made him one of the youngest tax partners in the history of the accounting firm in the first stage of his career. From there Staffieri moved on to finance roles at technology maker Celestica Inc. and Bell’s parent company BCE Inc. before joining Rogers in 2012 as CFO.

Mr. Staffier’s rise to the top last fall surpassed the drama of the award-winning HBO series Collection. Two months of battles in boardrooms, courts and Twitter pitted Edward Rogers with his late mother Loretta and sisters Martha and Melinda Rogers-Hixon. When the dust settled, CEO Joe Natale — a former Telus executive — was out and Mr. Staffieri was in. What is Mr. Staffier’s position on the family feud?

“I’m clinical about it. I see family businesses as a competitive advantage,” he said. a long-term vision.

Edward Rogers has a tight-knit group of friends dating back to his school days at Upper Canada College and Western University. Mr. Staffieri is outside this circle.

His parents, both born in Italy, built a restaurant equipment company in North Toronto. Mr. Staffieri earned his degree at nearby York University’s Schulich School of Business. Outside of work and family – he and his wife have three grown children – education is Staffier’s passion. He is president of Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly known as Ryerson, and said, “As a child of immigrants, I know that a good education creates opportunities in life.”

Rogers director Robert Gemmell, a retired investment banker, said the common ground between the chairman and CEO is a focus on operational results. He said outsiders tend to underestimate Edward Rogers’ insights gleaned from more than two decades of experience in the trenches, including a six-year stint running the cable division. “The thing you have to remember about Edward is that he knows this business cold.”

After a decade at Rogers, Staffieri believes having an experienced telecommunications executive as controlling shareholder and chairman of the board will mean “complete alignment” within the ranks. “The chair’s priorities are very clear and distinct, and that only helps our execution because no one in our 23,000-person organization is confused about our priorities.”

As for his relationship with Edward Rogers, Mr. Staffieri took a pragmatic tone: “I have what I would call very productive and constructive discussions, as any CEO would expect to have with the chairman.”

Mr. Staffieri runs Rogers from a modest office — the living room of a suburban home — partially dominated by two screens. On one wall hangs a muted television tuned to Rogers-owned Citytv news. On the other side, there is a massive computer screen that maps the status of the company’s operations. The CEO can glance at it and see the wait times at the call centers and then go to the network traffic levels in real time.

Every Rogers executive has similar screens in their offices. Immediate access to information shapes the way Staffier manages. The company’s managers have the ability to detect problems as they develop and, if necessary, reach the front lines. “It’s always a bit of a lean when it makes sense, but also let people execute,” he said. “And they’re doing a great job.”

Another centerpiece of Mr. Staffier’s office is a poster-size black-and-white photo from the 1920s of a store in Brampton, Ont., with a sign advertising Rogers-Majestic battery-free radios out front. Ted Rogers’ father made those sets and then died at age 35 when his son was five. His widow sold the business.

Ted Rogers worked tirelessly throughout his career to recoup what his father lost, starting a new company to compete with his mother’s auctioned media company. He managed by all means to pioneer the cable industry in Canada and then win cell phone customers from much larger, established carriers. Mr. Staffieri, who joined the company two years after the founder’s death, wants to keep that spirit alive.

“The DNA of this organization is entrepreneurial,” he said. “That’s our heritage, that’s the culture we want for our people, that’s the great Canadian company we want to build.” And to do that, Mr. Staffieri plans to keep visiting Rogers stores and call centers to get new ones ideas.

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