"Jolie Hodson wants to be a chief executive and if she gets her way, she will be among a very small group of women who have made it to the top of corporate New Zealand," the Herald wrote in 2016, profiling the telco's then-chief financial officer.
This year Hodson got her wish, in what was either an example of seamless succession planning or a closed-shop process, depending on your point of view.
Long-time Spark boss Simon Moutter resigned late in the day on April 2 and that evening Spark's board decided to appoint Hodson as his successor.
Asked if any other candidates were considered, chairwoman Justine Smyth replied, "The board determined that undertaking a potentially lengthy external search was not required and would not be in the best interests of the company."
So far, Hodson has rewarded the board's faith. The company's share price has steadily climbed and the stock spiked on Wednesday as she turned in a confident performance while revealing a 12 per cent bump in profit to $409m at Spark's full-year result presentation.
Peter McIntyre, an investment adviser at Craigs Investment Partners, said the result was a solid one based on mobile revenue growth, better gross margins and higher average revenue per user, but that the outlook for dividends - which will be kept at 25 cents per share in 2020 - was really important for investors.
"You don't often see Spark rally close to 5 per cent in one day, and it's doing it on really good volumes," he said.
So, it's full marks so far. But three big challenges lie ahead around Spark Sport, Huawei and 5G, and Southern Cross.
One is Spark's foray into sport.
Sky TV also has a new CEO - Martin Stewart, now six months into the job - who has made no bones that his core strategy is all about keeping sports rights and making more sport available for streaming.
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This week's news that Disney will launch its Disney Plus app into the NZ market in November - ending Sky's long-time monopoly on most Disney content - has only made Stewart double down on sport.
Sky has already revealed a new tagline: "life needs more sport", added more sports channels, beefed up its streaming app, headed off Spark in the fight for the iconic Boxing Day test between the Black Caps and Australia, and bought global streaming player Rugby Pass in a deal worth up to $62m.
This week Stewart announced Sky would take over sponsorship of Wellington's Westpac Stadium from January 1. And that his company had opened a new $200m credit line and suspended its dividend to build a war chest as it negotiates for the key sports contracts that are coming up for grabs over the next 12 to 24 months. Those include Sky's deal with Super Rugby and Rugby Championship body Sanzaar.
Stewart very much gives off a death-or-glory vibe about his efforts to keep top sport on Sky. He recently said, " If someone outbids us, they're going to go broke ."
His strategy is pretty transparent: he's hoping a big push now will scare off Spark, and that its board will decide it is better off concentrating its energies on areas where it knows it can make money, like mobile and cloud services. However, the catch is that he might see off Spark for the current Sanzaar round only to face, say, Amazon next time around.
In the dying days of the Moutter regime, Spark Sport head Jeff Latch hosted a media session during which he was very bullish about tackling Sky Sport head-on. Spark Sport subscribers would be kept loyal after the Rugby World Cup by the telco winning rights to season-long, top-tier rugby and cricket competitions - which would mean spending on sports rights at a Sky TV-like pace.
Forsyth Barr recently estimated Sky spends around $106m a year on rugby, cricket and NRL rights alone; Spark's annual report included a rights inventory entry that indicated it spent around $22m last year on rights for Spark Sport, whose line-up now includes English Premier League football, Formula 1 and of course the pending 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Hodson is noticeably more low-key on sport than Moutter or Latch, however.
"We've entered sport because we can see a commercial return there," she said during a Herald interview.
Hodson emphasised the appeal of Spark Sport's existing stable of content.
After the World Cup, will there be a move to grab season-long competitions?
"And we'll look at other content as it becomes available as well - as long as we can get a commercial return, we'll be happy to participate in those bids … We will be looking at sports where we can make the right commercial return."
You're beginning to sense the theme. It seems unlikely there'll be a bone-crunching $100m bid to snatch Super Rugby rights from Sky, or any other death-punch moves as per Stewart's apparent playbook.
And where Sky has suspended its dividend as part of its all-funds-on-deck approach to Sanzaar bidding, Spark kept its full-year payout at 25 cents per share, and Hodson has promised investors the same in 2020.
Still, the new chief executive says she's committed to Spark's sports push.
Of course, the Spark board's and shareholders' stomach for a fight will, in part, hinge on how Spark Sport fares with its Rugby World Cup coverage.
On that note, Hodson says, "We're successfully preparing for the Rugby World Cup. Since March, when we launched Spark Sport, we've shown over 800 live sport events. We've had 12,000 hours of linear channels and we've been making improvements all the way through. Over the past three months we've been at around 99.99 per cent in terms of platform up-time. So I'm confident in what we're doing with the Rugby World Cup and a month out, we're really much more in the education phase."
Some Spark Sport subscribers will raise their eyebrows at that 99.9 per cent figure, given the streaming stuff-ups that hit two high-profile Premier League games (Manchester United vs West Ham and Arsenal vs Burnley) as the new season kicked off, and a general background hum of grizzles on social media - some caused by actual technical issues, and others by confusion.
Hodson pitches it as a period of adjustment. The Rugby World Cup is the immediate catalyst, but the move to sport being streamed is a pervasive trend regardless she says.
"If you look globally, sports streaming is everywhere so it's coming to this market. So from our perspective, [Spark Sport] is just a way of New Zealanders getting used to using this as they've done with Netflix, like they've done with Lightbox over time."
5G without Huawei
Simon Moutter spoke passionately in defence of Huawei at times. This week, Hodson took a much lower key approach.
She told the Herald that Spark is on track to launch its 5G service on its target date: July 1 next year.
"We're about to go through our vendor selection process," she said.
That timetable essentially precludes Huawei's participation, at least in Spark's initial deployment.
"Rollout plans will not be impacted by decisions beyond Spark's control around Huawei's participation," she said.
Huawei recently threatened to leave this country if the ban on its involvement in 5G remained in place. It's now nine months since the ban, and Spark has yet to re-submit a proposal based around Huawei technology. In his final days, Moutter said that would be "pointless" given Huawei's escalating export blacklist issues, which would inhibit its ability to deliver even if cleared by the Government Communications Security Bureau.
This week Hodson said her company had a "multi-vendor" strategy.
Spark has also used gear from Sweden's Ericsson and American company Cisco for a trial 5G cellsite on Auckland's waterfront.
But while Spark is clearly shaping up to launch 5G without Huawei, Hodson also emphasises that it is a long game. If it follows the same arc as 4G, it will take five years to deploy 5G nationwide, she says.
Vodafone NZ got a jump on Spark and 2degrees (which has yet to set a 5G date) when it said it would upgrade 100 cellsites in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown to 5G by December.
Hodson made the usual polite noises about welcoming competition ("we've been in 5G for the last two years [through trials] and pretty much a lone voice in that conversation so it's great to see a competitor coming into this space") but also previewed Spark's probable line of attack.
"From my point of view, I think it will be interesting to see how they go in from a service experience point of view; there's only limited amounts of [5G-friendly] C-band spectrum available right now and for us, when we think about 5G, it's about making sure we can deliver a great experience - and the spectrum auction's pretty important to support that."
The Government has yet to set a date for a 5G spectrum auction as Communications Minister Kris Faafoi grapples with a Treaty claim on the airwaves. Vodafone maintains it has all the spectrum it needs for its initial rollout.
Spark's 50 per cent share in the trans-Pacific Southern Cross Cable used to be a cash cow, contributing $66m to profit in 2016 and $61m in 2017.
But last year that shrank to $50m, and $15m for the financial year just closed, amid new competition from the Hawaiki Cable, which broke Southern Cross' longtime monpoly as NZ's only major broadband connection to the outside world, and plans for a new Southern Cross cable, dubbed Southern Cross Next.
The Southern Cross dividend will flatline to zero over 2020 and 2021, Hodson said, and when the profit-share payout returns, it will be at a "more modest level than they have been in the past," she warns.
Southern Cross Next will cost around $520m, and Spark and its partners Singtel and Verizon hope to have it in service by 2021 (construction has yet to begin, but a contract has been signed with Alcatel Submarine Networks).
Last December Spark revealed that Next would be part-funded by Telstra taking a 25 per cent stake in Southern Cross Cable, which will dilute Spark's stake to 37.5 per cent.
But negotiations have dragged on and on. This week Spark said a deal was close, but it's still not clear how much Telstra will chip in for its quarter share.
Spark's gender pay gap
Spark has already adopted a new sustainability strategy after spending the past year reviewing its non-financial performance and reporting, and Hodson said the firm wants to make a "positive contribution to New Zealand".
The four pillars of the sustainability strategy are: fairness and inclusion; environmental protection; a prosperous New Zealand; and trust and transparency.
The telco's board has had a particular focus on improving gender inclusion and diversity, led by chair Justine Smyth. In the 2019 financial year women made up 36 per cent of Spark's workforce, 38 per cent of new hires, and 42 per cent of those who left the telco.
The gender pay gap varied across Spark's different types of work, but for all 5377 staff, women were paid 18 per cent less than men.
That lags the national average. Statistics NZ this week said the national gender pay gap was 9.3 per cent in the June quarter, the third smallest since the agency started collecting the data in 1998.
But Spark's annual report noted: "A major contributor to this differential is the make-up of New Zealand's technology sector having a significantly higher proportion of males compared to females."
Spark is already seeking to reduce this ratio with initiatives such as Women in Technology scholarships and partnering with external technology educators, designed "to proactively build a New Zealand-wide pipeline of female technology qualified employees".
As a female chief executive (one of just three running an NZX50 company), it will be interesting to see if Hodson pushes such initiatives further.
Although female CEOs are still rare in corporate New Zealand, Hodson is not the first woman to lead the company formerly known as Telecom.
The Herald asked the first, Theresa Gattung, if she had any advice for Spark's new chief executive.
"Jolie doesn't need any advice from me," Gattung said.
But on the broader gender pay gap, she had a suggestion for NZ business as a whole.
"I think it's time to consider the approach that Iceland's adopted - or something similar," she said.
That is, "Any organisation employing more than 25 people must be independently certified as paying equal wages for work of equal value - with a period of time allowed to get to this point - or face financial penalties," said Gattung.
The fines run to about $750 a day - a substantial amount for a small- or medium-sized business. Organisations were given four years from January 2018 to become compliant. Early in its implementation, data on its success rate is scarce.
Beyond the pay gap, "it's still harder to become a political or business leader if you are a woman," Gattung said.
"But it's not as hard as it was 20 years ago. And it was harder again 20 years before that.
"The sheer numbers of women coming out of business school, and law school, has helped.
"Measuring and reporting on, and writing about , the percentage of board roles held by women has helped," she said. A recent AUT report on NZX100 companies gave Spark (with its 50/50 gender split at the top) and a handful of others a high rating, but found the general diversity standard "woeful".
"And yet , there are still very few female CEOs of large companies, and there are very few women on the rich list.
"It's got better, but we're not there yet."
As well as various diversity initiatives under way at Spark, Hodson said it was important that the company had a 50 per cent female board and women on its executive team.
That helped set the culture. It meant there were role models for other women to look up to.
Beyond Spark, Hodson says she's passionate about mentoring women in business. She belongs to Global Women, which advocates for diversity and offers a mentorship programmes, and is a founder of On Being Bold, a site where 800 professional women share their experiences and advice.
• Joined Spark in 2013 as chief financial officer, later being named head of Spark Digital then Customer Director.
• Spent 12 years at Lion Nathan in Australia, working her way up the ranks of the finance division.
• Before that she spent eight years at Deloitte working as an auditor.
• Has a bachelor of commerce from the University of Auckland and undertook a strategic management programme at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management.
• Member of career mentoring and diversity advocacy group Global Women , founder of On Being Bold , a collective for professional women
• Married with two children
• Age: 48
Jolie Hodson's tips to making it to the top:
• Network with people who can connect you with future job opportunities
• Take risks and opportunities offered
• Back yourself - if others believe you can do it, you should too