Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Goodbye Ben

Last month, Ben Verwaaven’s house in Haslemere, not far from where I live and the location for BT’s famous Summer Parties, was put up for sale in Country Life. On top of that Ben declined my offer to address, yet again, my annual Prince’s Trust event in September saying “I don’t know where I will be then”. I must admit that my suspicions of an imminent departure were aroused!

And so, today, it has come to pass. Verwaayen will step down as BT’s chief executive on 31 May and will leave the board at the end of June when Ian Livingston, who is currently chief executive of BT Retail, will succeed him. Livingston's role will be filled by Gavin Patterson, currently group managing director of BT's consumer division.

There will quite correctly be many eulogies to Ben’s six years at the helm of BT. See
BT’s Verwaayen to step down; Livingston named Chief (Bloomberg 8th Apr 08). And I will readily join in. I’ve had a great relationship with Ben over the years…and some very ‘robust’ conversations. Given the state that BT was in after the Bonfield period, the results have been equally great. Ben understood that BT had to embrace change – not constantly fight it. Cash cows are fine but they don’t last for ever anymore. Indeed they go dry far faster now than ever before. Hence the need to constantly renew the herd.

In some respects that’s what Ben’s departure is doing. Livingston is 12 years his junior, has a good reputation and obviously knows BT inside out. The world that BT inhabits is changing even faster and more radically now than even when Ben took over. BT has to change too. It could lose its lead position in Broadband if Carphone acquire Tiscali UK. Making money from Broadband as a ‘utility’ is a real challenge. But finding hot ‘value added’ services is even more difficult. The challenge is made even harder without a mobile arm; particularly as mobile internet now seems to be taking off in a really big way. (see Mobile internet access increases tenfold – FT 7th Apr 08. ) BT Global Services, which has driven much of the growth in BT’s business, suffers both from the general market slowdown and from considerable margin pressure. As a result, BT’s share price is down a third in the last year. There is much to be done.

But today belongs to Ben. I will miss your instant Blackberry reactions to my comments! I really do thank you for everything you have done for me, my ‘old’ company, for the Prince’s Trust and for BT. I wish you every good fortune in your future endeavours.

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