Mike Quigley: The background check

Father, brother, cancer survivor, highly intelligent engineer and leader of the "Australian mafia" group of executives who battled their way to the top of global telco supplier Alcatel-Lucent. We present Mike Quigley, executive chairman of the National Broadband Network Company.

profile When ZDNet.com.au asked people behind the scenes in the telco industry this week what sort of person NBN Company executive chairman Mike Quigley really was, it was one disappointment during his career that was commonly mentioned.

Mike Quigley

Mike Quigley
(Credit: Alcatel-Lucent)

"He was promised the CEO role," one industry source said of Quigley's departure from Alcatel-Lucent in 2007 after more than 30 years with the French company. "It was taken away from him and there might be bit of bad blood."

Two other sources also noted Quigley's disappointment at never becoming chief executive of the French company, either before or after its 2006 merger with Lucent. "[Mike] was in-line to take over. Then the merger occurred and he was given a role heading up R&D — so, fundamentally it was a step down," said another former employee.

In fact, depending on who you believe, Quigley lost two opportunities to become the CEO of the company he spent most of his life with.

Going back to 2005, Quigley had a pivotal role at Alcatel as president and chief operating officer. He was reportedly rapidly learning French in preparation for taking the reins from then-Alcatel chief Serge Tchuruk. And some say he played an important role in the deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars that then-Telstra chief Sol Trujillo inked with Alcatel back in the closing months of 2005, although Trujillo always publicly praised Tchuruk.

However, it is believed Quigley lost his chance at the role due to the 2006 merger "of equals" between Alcatel and fellow network hardware specialist Lucent, which resulted in Lucent's Pat Russo taking the reins at the merged company. Despite widespread speculation Quigley was furious about the move, at the time, he categorically denied being angry about Russo's appointment, saying that in fact he had argued for it.

Actually, Quigley said, he was tired of jet-setting around the world as Alcatel's COO, "bouncing back and forth between Paris and Dallas and other places", and wanted to spend more time in the US and Australia with his family — he is married with three daughters.

Nine months into a much lower profile science and research role at the merged company, and with the press wondering what had happened to the high-profile face of Alcatel's IP and broadband business, Quigley quit, to return to Australia, perhaps to renovate the $3.6 million Mosman home with water views he reportedly bought.

He had some health issues and that was the stated reason he left. But the real reason was that it wasn't the same place as far as he was concerned

Sources

But not everyone agrees with that version of events. "He had some health issues and that was the stated reason he left. But the real reason was that it wasn't the same place as far as he was concerned," one former employee said.

A year later in July 2008, Quigley was thrust back in the limelight after Russo and then-chairman Tchuruk revealed they would quit following Alcatel-Lucent's sixth straight quarterly loss. Speculation was rampant that the Australian executive, the rainmaker who won a massive US$1.7 billion deal with US giant AT&T for equipment at the core of its Lightspeed overhaul, was posed to take over the reins.

But it wasn't to be; the fairy tale of an Australian and Alcatel loyalist (Quigley was well-loved inside the company), taking the reins was smashed as outsider, British Telecom CEO Ben Verwaayan, won the Alcatel-Lucent crown.

While speculation was rife that yet again he had been passed over, according to a source who had worked with Quigley for years, the executive walked away from the top job this time off his own bat.

According to the source, a brain tumour suffered by Quigley had racked him from a health perspective at the time, although it is not known if the issue was related to the Leukaemia Quigley suffered — and beat — several decades ago. "It was a decision on his behalf to walk away," they said. "He was pretty much offered the job the second time around and decided not to take it for personal reasons. Running a company like that is a massive, massive strain — physically and emotionally."

"If you look at the history over the past few years of leaders of Alcatel and or Lucent, none of them left the job in much the same way they were when they started it," they said. "I can understand that a man of his age, with a history of cancer he had, he realised it just wasn't the job for him."

The source reckons that being passed over the first time was not enough for Quigley to harbour any ill will towards the company. "There's no problem there. He's bigger than that," he said.

Before the fall
But if you delve below the public surface of Quigley's career, a much wider picture of the new leader of the NBN emerges beyond whatever really happened at the top of the Alcatel-Lucent ladder.

He was pretty much offered the job the second time around and decided not to take it for personal reasons.

Sources

For instance, it's not just Mike, but his brother Vince, that has long worked for Alcatel-Lucent, a relationship that may divulge a clue as to why Quigley stayed with the company so long. Vince Quigley still works for Alcatel-Lucent's French headquarters in reliability modelling, but he has based his role in Australia for the moment.

It is believed to be Vince who supplied much-needed tissue when Quigley underwent a bone marrow transplant for Leukaemia 20 years ago, an operation that would change his life. "Once you've stared death in the face, every day is a good day," he told BusinessWeek in 2005.

This event may give a clue as to why Quigley will keep his spot as a non-executive director of the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, although he has resigned from the board of construction firm Leighton's due to a potential NBN conflict. He's believed to remain on the board of Sydney tech start-up Audinate, which ZDNet.com.au profiled recently.

Next: the relationship with Ron Spithill and the "Australian mafia" of Aussie executives pushing up the ranks at Alcatel-Lucent's global team.

Then too, there's Quigley's long relationship with current Telecom New Zealand board member Ron Spithill. The pair were known internally as the heads of Alcatel's "Australian mafia" — not due to any links with the real mafia — but due to their ongoing Aussie attack on the company's global leadership ladder.

"Ron and Quigley were quite tight. They used to be referred to as the heads of the Australian mafia within Alcatel," a former employee said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Ron gets a role on the [NBN] board too. They were also both supporters of Hillary Mine who used to be the CEO of Alcatel-Lucent Australia and were probably instrumental in her placement in Australia."

Spithill and Quigley both hold engineering degrees from the University of NSW, although their differing ages (Spithill is about 67, Quigley is 56) would seem to preclude them attending the institution — one of the country's finest for engineering talent — at the same time.

It is very heartening to see the corporation aligning to what we want it to be and having Ron and Mike at senior levels has helped us get that message across

In 2005, then-Alcatel Australia chief Ross Fowler

Spithill retired from Alcatel in 2005 after 43 years with the company and reaching the lofty role of global chief marketing officer. Like Quigley, Spithill led Alcatel-Lucent in Australia. He then won the Asia-Pacific presidency of the company and moved his team to Shanghai (fulfilling a boyhood dream to do so), before, like Quigley, earning a spot on Alcatel's board.

According to local telecommunications industry newsletter Exchange, then-Alcatel Australia chief Ross "Chook" Fowler (who would later lead arch-rival Cisco in Australia), Quigley and Spithill took major roles in a global restructure the company went through at the time.

"We have been through so much in Australia in the last year, it is very heartening to see the corporation aligning to what we want it to be and having Ron and Mike at senior levels has helped us get that message across," said Fowler at the time.

It appears executive links run deep within Alcatel. Hillary Mine, a more recent chief of Alcatel Australia, recently moved to the US to join former Alcatel-Lucent Asia-Pacific president Fred Rose, who is now CEO of the Thomson arm of the merged Thomson Reuters behemoth. The company's Asia-Pacific chief technology officer, Vince Pizzica, has also joined Rose.

A great leader
One source who knows him well described Quigley as "a great leader, very charismatic, a people person, and understands the technology from the bottom up. He's still probably the leading executive in the industry — a fantastic negotiator and leader."

"Many times he has visited customers — he's very good with customers," they added. "Whenever I've been with Mike, he's been very straightforward and very direct — certainly an Australian quality. That's why you tend to find a lot of Australians at high-level executive positions — because it saves a lot of time in business."

They added Quigley pays a lot of attention to his health; he keeps himself physically fit and is conscious of the importance that quality of life plays in a leader's overall performance. This feeds into his "strong" ability to lead teams and keep them organised and focused.

But for many in the telco industry eyeing the NBN, Quigley appears to remain a distant figure or a person that few want to make on the record comments about.

AAPT chief Paul Broad, was not willing to comment on Quigley yesterday, with his media advisor citing "back to back" meetings. Bevan Slattery, chief of Pipe Networks would only say, "Quigley was a good pick".

He was approachable and understands technology to an extent — guys at that level usually don't understand the technology well

Telstra source

Phil Sykes, managing director of Nextgen Networks, and bidder for the $250 million blackspots program, said he had only met Quigley "a couple of times" despite Quigley's role on Nextgen parent Leighton's board.

"I haven't spent enough time with him to draw many conclusions," said Sykes. When he met Quigley six months ago the NBN chief seemed like a "well-rounded telco person" who had a "deep insight" into the industry at a service, operations and technical level. Another former employee said Quigley was "a very, very intelligent man".

This sentiment echoed another's view of Quigley during the time the new NBN chief was negotiating the "titan" Telstra deal. "He was approachable and understands technology to an extent — guys at that level usually don't understand the technology well," said the former Telstra employee.

And, like Telstra's recently appointed chief, David Thodey, Quigley has been labelled a customer's man. Despite leaving his post as Alcatel's US CEO to take up the chief operating officer role at Alcatel-Lucent's Paris headquarters, Quigley still nursed Microsoft's mammoth IPTV project through to its deployment. "Even though he'd moved, he kept is finger on the pulse," the source said.

In any event, Quigley's tenure leading the NBN Company will be closely watched. Skills acquired being a father, brother, beating cancer, leading Alcatel-Lucent, dealing with Telstra and more will likely come into play as he attempts to shape what will be one of Australia's largest telecommunications companies — from the ground up.

Do you know more about NBN Company executive chairman Mike Quigley than we do? Post the info below this article or drop us a line confidentially.

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