Telstra chair reveals retirement plans, defends Optus after hack

Telstra chairman John Mullen has announced he will retire from his position within the next two years, a decision which he says is contingent on helping new chief executive Vicki Brady settle in her new role and strengthening the board of directors.

Mullen, who has been chairman of Telstra since 2016, separately defended rival Optus, which is facing widespread criticism for its historic cyber attack, and urged companies to avoid complacency when it comes to protecting customer data. He said he is not expecting to run for re-election when his term expires next October, which would bring his total time as chair to seven years.

Telstra chairman John Mullen will retire within the next two years.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

“I have been on the Board for 14 years so it is only natural for there to be speculation on my tenure, especially as we now have Vicki in place as the new CEO,” Mullen said.

“My current term with the Board ends in October next year and I have two significant obligations still ahead of me. Firstly, I need to do everything I can to support Vicki in her new role, and secondly, I need to ensure that, in addition to the capable directors already on the Board, the Board is strengthened by the addition of new directors so that my colleagues have a strong line-up of candidates from which to choose when deciding upon my successor.

“If both of these tasks are completed by next year’s AGM, then I will not be standing for re-election,” he said.

The comments were made as Mullen announced the retirement of longstanding board member, Nora Scheinkestel, which is effective immediately. He described her as “one of the very best directors” he had worked with. The remaining board directors are Eelco Blok, Roy Chestnutt, Craig Dunn, Bridget Loudon, Elana Rubin, Niek Jan van Damme and Sue Laver.

Mullen said if he was unable to complete the tasks he had set out for himself, he would stand for re-election intending to find a new chairman within six to 12 months. That would bring his term as chairman to eight years and his time on the board to 16 years.

The AGM, which ran in person and online, was focused on the completion of Telstra’s T22 strategy (which involved drastic cuts to the workforce and the number of in-market products and bringing contact centres onshore), its proposed corporate restructure, and plans to expand its regional network and 5G capacity across Australia.

Mullen and Brady also used the opportunity to discuss cyber security.

“It is easy for third parties to be critical of companies who have suffered devastating cyberattacks such as happened recently to Optus,” Mullen said. “Let me be blunt, however, and say that it is easy to be critical when it isn’t you in the firing line, and we should all avoid hubris because no-one can be complacent and no organisation can ever be 100 per cent sure that it is completely protected and safe.

Mullen said the Optus hack was a timely reminder to companies never to get complacent about their cyber security. Credit:Nikki Short

“The threat and sophistication of the attackers grows every day, and to address the threat business needs to put aside competitive rivalry, and work constructively across industries, with government, and with the community to protect Australia from this modern scourge.”

Brady said Telstra was seeing an increase in cyber threats and that there had to be a discussion on the laws of keeping data.

“The recent attack on one of our competitors puts into stark focus just how real these threats are,” Brady said. Telstra’s employees were last week among the victims of a data breach of a rewards platform, with names and email addresses of their current and former staff posted online. The internal Telstra systems were not hacked, but Brady said ongoing vigilance was required.

“With a growing number of these cyber attacks some of our customers are asking us what ID documents we keep, for how long, and for what reason. These are all fair questions and people are right to be asking them,” she said.

“We agree the time is right for a discussion on the laws around keeping data. As we do we have to get the balance right – and it’s a fine balance – between identifying our customers, protecting them against fraud, maintaining their privacy, and helping law enforcement combat crime.”

Telstra shares closed at $3.82 on Monday.

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