New ring leader at Telstra

Sol Trujillo admits to not knowing a heck of a lot about Australia or its biggest telecommunications group.

Sol Trujillo admits to not knowing a heck of a lot about Australia or its biggest telecommunications group, Telstra -- which is more than a bit curious, given that the American expat becomes the company’s CEO this month. Fortunately, Trujillo, 53, already feels at ease in the Aussie landscape: “This part of the world resembles the part of the world where I grew up and where I worked.”

Born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on the western plains of the U.S., Trujillo played trumpet in his father’s mariachi band to help pay his way through the University of Wyoming, then worked his way up to the top job at US West, where he oversaw the Baby Bell’s sale to Qwest in 2000. He later became CEO of Orange, the mobile subsidiary of France Télécom. Along the way he developed a reputation as a straight-talking, no nonsense executive.

Now the ability to blow a horn (including his own) will come in useful for Trujillo as he shepherds Telstra through what is expected to be the world’s biggest stock offering since the $36 billion IPO for Japanese telecom NTT in 1987. The Australian government is selling its stake in Telstra, a 51.8 percent holding with a current market valuation of A$33 billion ($26 billion). Trujillo will try to attract more international investors, who now account for only 6 percent of the investment base. It’s a huge job, complicated by internal politics: Trujillo replaces Ziggy Switkowski, who was given the elbow by the board after a disagreement over strategy.

Trujillo says he has a mandate for sweeping organizational change at Telstra, but he won’t have much time to implement it before the share sale, which is likely to happen in the first half of next year. Still, he managed to make his presence felt even before he started his new job. Last month, just after his appointment was announced, he rejected suggestions from analysts, regulators and some politicians that Telstra should be broken up the way that AT&T was in 1982. “AT&T was the No. 1ranked brand in the world,” he said. “By the middle of next year, that brand may not exist any more.”