Passionate Dutchman with a mission to make connections

Business Profile: The boss of BT has many loves - broadband, politics, Arsenal football club - but you won't catch him on a roller-coaster
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The Independent Online

Ben Verwaayen, BT's chief executive, has something on his mind. It's not broadband, the mantra he's been chanting since he arrived at the company 18 months ago. It's not the battle for fixed-line telecom customers, or anything like that. No, the really big news at BT headquarters is rather more personal.

"I'm going to be a grandfather for the first time in August," Mr Verwaayen says with a smile. "That's the big event in the Verwaayen household."

At 51, he is struggling not only with the concept but also with what his future grandchild should call him. Opa - the Dutch word for grandad - sounds a bit too old, he reckons.

With all this going on, you'd have thought he could have got some practice in for this new role at the weekend when BT hired out the amusement park Alton Towers to reward staff who had been with the business 30 years.

Strangely, he didn't go on any of the rides. "The chairman [Sir Christopher Bland] did. I didn't. He [Sir Christopher] went on the oblivious." He means Oblivion, of course, the world's first vertical drop roller-coaster, which plunges 200ft and travels at speeds of 60mph.

Not Mr Verwaayen's thing, apparently. Besides which, you suspect he was probably too busy talking to his guests. He talks a lot, with a strong Dutch accent, and the words tumble out quickly and animatedly.

When the conversation turns back to his favourite topic - broadband - he starts to wave his arms about and even punches his own palm as he explains how the broadband pipe fits into the back of the PC. Smack.

"I'm a passionate believer in communications," he says. "I think my role is to be passionate about what we [BT] are doing and to be sure that the message is consistent, transparent and that it's a message based on values in the company ... dealing with us should be simple and complete."

It is ironic, then, that where he has succeeded in refocusing BT's attention back on its core business and in communicating his passion for broadband, for customers and for service, his direct and blunt manner has got some people's backs up.

His "so what?" attitude might explain why. "So what? That's my question always. So what? If people tell me things, I say so what? Tell me what it does! Because if you understand the so what, you have a better feel for how it will drive business," he says.

He admits that he uses his Dutch nationality as an excuse to be more blunt and direct than he perhaps otherwise would be. "I shamelessly exploit the fact that I'm Dutch ... they're not seen as very great diplomats," he says. "Anyway, it's so much easier if you just say it as it is."

He also admits that he is extremely impatient; a quality he says he would need if he ever wanted to pursue a career in politics - another big passion in his life.

But whatever your feelings about bluntness and impatience, there is no escaping the fact that Mr Verwaayen is passionate - a word that litters his conversation - about BT, about the telecoms industry, where he has spent his entire career, and about business in general.

His curiosity about business was awakened at an early age. His father ran an export business from home in Driebergen, near Utrecht, so he was used to hearing his parents discussing work matters.

And discussions about business - which took place "around the breakfast table, the lunch table and the dinner table" - were a noisy affair by the sound of it. In a family of eight, he was the fifth of six children. But after singing his parent's praises, he says later they are both "now dead" - the Dutch bluntness coming out again.

But back to a cheerier topic: broadband. BT recently passed the first of its targets there - getting 1 million broadband customers by this summer - and is definitely on course, he says, to get 5 million by 2006. "Oh, yeah. Absolutely. We will do that. I know it. We will do it," he says.

He is so passionate about broadband, he is almost evangelical on the subject. "If something humbles me, it's if I see teachers and doctors and journalists coming home, after a long day at work, changing into jeans and T-shirts and going out with fliers in their villages to campaign for broadband."

Hilariously, he's seen a lot of people with fliers not a million miles from his own doorstep, since he can't get broadband where he lives on the borders of West Sussex and Surrey. "We're not yet enabled," he says, adding that it would be "absolutely dead wrong" to call in favours and jump the queue.

But there is much more to come from BT than broadband. The company is on the brink of getting back into the mobile phone market in a big way and also, ultimately, wants to offer its customers a phone service that will enable them to have just one phone number for both their mobile and fixed-line telecoms.

He makes a point of refusing to criticise past decisions at BT - decisions which, ironically, included spinning off its mobile phone arm, BT Cellnet, now called MMO2. "I hate people looking back to what their predecessors did and, without having been there themselves, criticising," he says. He will only speak of "a lack of transparency" under the former regime.

Nor has it all been plain sailing for the flying Dutchman. Mr Verwaayen was forced to abandon a sales target he had laid down for the business in November, just over six months after setting it.

This, however, does not feature on his list of disappointments so far. When asked what these have been, it is the only time during the interview that he is silent. Staring into space, fiddling with the BT security badge that is hanging around his neck, he says: "Mmmm ... I'll have to think about that ... I'm not easy to be disappointed."

The answer, when it finally comes, is considered. "What I've found difficult is there is a kind of suspicion in the market that we spend a lot of our time plotting against everybody in the world. It's an evil. That people read your words, hear your words, see you say something in person and then start to interpret. Not believing that I'm not saying what I'm saying and that's the only thing I want to say," he says.

He admits though, that he loves plotting BT's next move. "I like that strategic dilemma between what do we want to achieve and how you position yourself. It requires a lot of strategic discussions with regulators, policy-makers, with suppliers and customers and with ourselves."

For someone with so many "passions" - he is also mad about football, particularly Arsenal - his office in the company's St Paul's headquarters is still, surprisingly, bare, even 17 months after he moved in.

This is not, however, a sign that he has not made himself at home and is looking to hot-foot it. He spent over four years at Lucent, nine years in his previous job at KPN and 13 years at the job before that.

He'll be at BT, he says " 'til my bosses tell me to go". "I have a great relationship with the people at BT. I feel that they are part of my life and I don't see this as a project. I see this as a passion."

No surprises there, but pity his future grandchild. Mr Verwaayen will have him/her dishing out leaflets on high-speed internet access before the poor thing can say "broadband".


Position: Chief executive of BT

Age: 51

Pay: Basic salary of £700,000. Total pay of £2.17m last year, boosted by an £849,000 annual bonus and a £468,000 expenses allowance, which includes £250,000 a year for housing.

Education: Schoonoord school in the Netherlands, before studying law and international politics at the State University of Utrecht.

Career: Spent 13 years at ITT Nederland doing various jobs in business development, HR and public relations, before joining PTT Telecom. After nine years there, he joined Lucent Technologies in 1997, rising to vice-chairman. He became chief executive of BT on 1 February last year.

Interests: Football (especially Arsenal), politics. He also enjoys cooking - particularly Indonesian and French dishes.