Ben Verwaayen: Arsenal fan has clear goal in mind as he aims to make BT a champion

A day in the life of the Chief executive of British Telecom
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The Independent Online


It is four years since Ben Verwaayen became chief executive of British Telecom. (Ben Who? is how he remembers the general reaction to his arrival).

Few days in those four years have been approached with as much determination as this. Arsenal are playing Real Madrid that night and he is going - come hook, crook or regulatory inquiry - to be back at his house in Surrey in time for kick-off. "I will be in front of the television at 7.30pm," he says, in a tone that means business.

On the journey in, he and his driver Paul have important matters to discuss. Mr Verwaayen's position in the fantasy football league that he entered along with the company's chauffeurs and chairman Sir Christopher Bland is an unsatisfactory 11th.

Something must be done. Should he sell Van Nistelrooy and buy Rooney? It is the first deal dilemna of the day.

Other than footballing problems, the only other thing wrong with the day is how early it began. "I am not a natural early riser. I learned it in the US at Lucent, but I don't enjoy it," he says.


The office offers a good view of the Gherkin and St Paul's Cathedral but looks and feels like it was made by Ikea. "It is boring," says Mr Verwaayen, offhandedly.

There is odd art on the walls that is not of his choosing. "I hate it. I have no idea what it is, but it is ugly," he says.

While he switches on his computer and turns the television on to CNBC, he has the first of the roughly 10 cups of coffee he needs to make it through the day. This caffeine affliction doesn't make him at all hyper. Mr Verwaayen is informal, relaxed, even occasionally funny.

Over more coffee come the papers. These days, the news industry has a much more positive feeling towards BT than it once did. "It is a company that has the attribute that people love to hate it and hate to love it, but we get recognition when we do good things," he says.

Mr Verwaayen, who is 54, has travelled a long way and so has BT. "There is an institutional memory in the UK that says, oh, BT, that's the black phone in my grandmother's hallway. It is embedded in the culture, but it is not what we are any more."

Before Mr Verwaayen arrived, BT was forced to demerge its mobile phone arm to try to raise cash and stave off possible bankruptcy. Since then the group has embraced the internet, and now styles itself as a communications company that has little in common with the clunky business of old. Grandma's phone in the hallway is now just 16 per cent of sales.


If it were Monday, there would now be a two-hour management meeting. A conference call with the top 40 in the organisation would follow, the idea being that by 12.30pm, a plan for the week is set.

"I hate bureaucracy, I hate it with a passion," says Mr Verwaayen, conscious that he works for a deeply bureaucratic institution. "It was certainly a bureaucratic place, but we are making strides," he insists.

It is time to take the weekly call from the chairman. "I am a big fan of Christopher, the way he runs his life and his business is pretty interesting. We don't have hours and hours of conversation, ever. It is always to the point."

One likely topic of conversation is the vague rumour that BT is being eyed up by venture capital firms.

Mr Verwaayen shrugs his shoulders when asked, but he doesn't look like a man on bid alert. "It is part of the landscape. It is probably inevitable that we would be on the list. Every telco in Europe is rumoured to be a target. Theoretically they could do it, but it is speculation," he says.

Like every football manager, Mr Verwaayen knows that the inevitable future for a chief executive is, at some point, the sack. He seems unfazed by the prospect. "If you lead an organisation, you have to have two radars. One is how is the market doing, the other radar is, how do I fit in? People have no hesitation to tell me bad news so I don't think there will be any hesitation in them telling me, hey, it is time to move on."


Mr Verwaayen detests business lunches, preferring to grab a baguette from the shop around the corner, chosen because it is frequented by taxi drivers, whose food choices he inexplicably trusts.

If he has no time to chat with the cabbies, he eats at his desk while e-mailing. He says 90 per cent of his work is done via e-mail (drop him a line, he might even respond). If the chief executive of BT prefers not to use the phone, you know the company's old business is dying.

The fixed-line phone sector remains profitable and the City seems impressed with how well BT has managed its decline, but it is still going to disappear, perhaps like the phone boxes we will one day miss.

"They won't go," Mr Verwaayen assures me, "but if they do, you won't be upset. Well, maybe for a minute or two..."


In the afternoon, Mr Verwaayen typically talks to shareholders or other movers and shakers in the City. He phones colleagues around the world to gossip about what the competition is up to - following developments at AT&T in the US and Vodafone closely.

Mr Verwaayen claims to like the City, however it has sometimes felt about him. "London should be very proud of its financial community. It is one of the best-organised financial markets in the world. It is an asset for the nation," he says.

He is surprisingly outspoken for a chief executive. When he arrived, his PR people suggested a strategy that was basically "say nothing for six months". He ripped up the memo in front of them.

Although he claims not to want to go into politics, he is clearly heavily involved. "Business leaders must be vocal on what is going on in society. Jobs are moving from west to east, we need to reinvent our economy. I am very worried about what is going on in Europe, we are heading back to nationalistic tendencies," he says.

Mr Verwaayen thinks a "political crisis" has struck Holland, though this turns out to mean that the party he has supported his entire life has been forced out of power. He is planning to write the manifesto for the next election.


As the stock market closes, Mr Verwaayen does what he does every day - checks the BT share price. If he doesn't like what he sees, the Investor Relations director gets a call. "I yell at him and he yells at me," he says. It would be interesting to see him when he is mad.

His English is excellent but not flawless. He has a clipped, precise way of talking but doesn't always say exactly what he means. Staff say that, although he is nearly always genial, he does have a temper, at which point questions are met with the stern rebuke "it's just obvious!"


Time to make a break for it. Arsenal need a draw to progress. Chelsea went out of the Champions' League to Barcelona the previous evening, an event Mr Verwaayen enjoyed. "It didn't break my heart," he concedes.

Normally leaving the office at 5pm would be impossible, but he isn't complaining.

"I don't think I have a tough life," he says. "I am pretty cool, time wise. Sometimes you have to have dinner with someone or work at night, but I don't feel bad."

The curry has been ordered. The wine is chilling. "I am not a pub person. If you are not born and raised here you miss that part of the culture," he says.


Arsenal scrape through. Mr Verwaayen takes calls until 11 o'clock before heading to bed. Ben Who is tired, but wonders if there is one more deal to strike that day.