Sir Christopher Bland: Olympic swordsman Bland cuts path for his successor at resurgent BT

A day in the life: he has overseen a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the telecoms giant since he became its chairman five years ago.
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Despite the clock ticking down to his departure from BT, Sir Christopher Bland is no slacker. Most people of 69 are happy to slip into their dotage, but not the telecoms chairman.

He is in his BT office, with its wondrous eye-level views of St Paul's Cathedral, by 8am on the three-ish days a week he carves out for the telecoms operator.

After five years as the group's figurehead, the charismatic Sir Christopher finally feels he is getting the reward he deserves. He ploughed £2m into buying BT shares at an average of 303p shortly after he joined, but was soon nursing massive paper losses. The City took a long time to appreciate the transformation wrought at a company that had debts of £30bn when Sir Christopher and Ben Verwaayen, the chief executive, joined, but now the shares are flying.

"I used to point out to the board, slightly grumpily, that I'd worked for nothing for three years - they said: 'Well, that was your investment decision,' quite rightly - so it's good to see it come good," he said of the stock's 33 per cent leap this year to as much as 316p. (He was still collecting £500,000 a year in remuneration, however.)

In a day of meetings, he starts off with a "board brief" with the company secretary, before moving swiftly on at 9am for an update on Open Reach. This was set up to placate the regulator to give rivals equivalent access to BT's exchanges.


It is two hours into his morning that things start to get interesting - for BT watchers, at least. Sir Christopher, a journalist manqué who nevertheless wound up chairing both LWT and the BBC, is seeing potential successors for his job. He won't give away any clues, but does say that for now there is just one search going on, despite rumours that Mr Verwaayen is getting itchy feet. "Ben's doing well and he's happy," he says of his energetic Dutch chief executive. The top duo have been something of a dream team for investors, getting in much-needed cash with the biggest rights issue in British corporate history, demerging mm02 as was, and pushing the group into areas such as broadband and IT services.

He says a new chairman will allow the board to ponder afresh such strategic dilemmas as whether to go back into mobile. The die was cast before he joined, with the demerger already a done deal, and, for what it's worth, he thinks BT has mobile covered with the virtual service it offers by piggy-backing on Vodafone's network. "I think that is probably the way forward, but my successor may easily take a different view."

As for his own plans, there was clearly something going on between Sir Christopher and ITV before the commercial broadcaster opted to poach Michael Grade from the BBC, but as he says: "That job is filled." He plays down suggestions that he's itching for another big role, but admits: "If a really interesting job came along, I would take it."

Perhaps nervous about what he might be wishing for, he qualifies his comment. "It would have to be interesting and exciting. I don't need another job." His other chairmanships - of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the west London cookery school Leith's, and Canongate Publishing, a Scottish publisher run by his stepson - are "plenty to keep me off the streets".

The RSC, which he was headhunted to chair two years ago, is certainly proving time-consuming. The theatre company has given itself 12 months to get through a whistlestop tour of Shakespeare's complete works: plays, poems, odes, sonnets et al. Which prompted Sir Christopher into a sponsored Shakespearathon - raising money to watch all 864,647 words performed. His running total, with 10 of the 38 plays yet to be put on, is £115,000, raised with help from old friends such as Greg Dyke, Lord Hollick and Sir Martin Sorrell.

The experience has given him the opportunity to flex his creative muscle on his first ever blog. He is "rather proud" of his creation, which name-checks his sponsors. "It becomes quite addictive. And quite revealing, if I'm not careful." He needs more readers, however: "Seventeen in a week isn't exactly packing them in." (


It's time now to see the boss of BT Retail, Ian Livingstone, the bit of the telecoms Goliath that most of us know best. Its big project is the launch of BT Vision, its long-awaited broadband television service. It's not quite a riposte to BSkyB's decision to muscle into the broadband market - BT has been working on this since Sir Christopher's LWT days - but the former Irish Olympic fencer likes the analogy. "It's a big milestone in BT's life ... [and] an indication of the way the market is converging."


Slightly unusually for a working day, Sir Christopher sneaks in a trip to the races. A virtual trip, that is, courtesy of a three-way conference call with his wife, who is at their Hampshire home, and their trainer, who is in Deauville, France. Canongate, a two-year-old bred by Lady Bland is under starter's orders. The trainer provides the commentary and for the first six furlongs Canongate, named after their stepson's publishing house, is in the lead. But the colt tires just short of the finish and ends up sixth out of 16 runners.

"Oh well, there we go. That's racing. He's only a baby, he's still learning," says a philosophic Sir Christopher. The stud, at their Hampshire home, is his wife's baby. "In theory, we don't own racehorses, we breed mares, but when they don't sell we put them into training."


Lunch is with BT's top man at Merrill Lynch, its joint broker, which is handily just a short stroll from BT Tower. After a 3pm meeting with HR, to talk about the company's high flyers - and that potential successor - his next port of call is a one-on-one with the new British ambassador to Italy. BT does more business in Italy than any other country outside the UK. He then squeezes in a broadcast interview before taking off his BT hat for the day.


He swaps it for an RSC one, as he has done most evenings since the Complete Works Festival kicked off. Tonight he is catching the company at its current London base in Covent Garden's Novello Theatre. It is his fourth trip to see Much Ado about Nothing, but this one has a special purpose. He is treating 20 friends and sponsors to the evening, which will wind up with a meal.

His blog reveals that the Oxford history graduate particularly liked the history plays. The Henry VI trilogy gets five stars for the "ensemble approach in which there wasn't a single weak performance. It should be compulsory for George Bush, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to see them all."

Sir Christopher is a fan of the ensemble thread that re-binds the RSC, after a controversial few years before he joined when a "star culture" and shorter contracts dominated. Being an ensemble company, where a group of actors works together for two to three years "making the whole greater than the sum of its parts", is what differentiates the RSC from repertory theatre companies, he thinks. "Actors are riven. On the one hand, they want security and continuity. On the other they want the freedom to do a TV show or a movie if that comes up. So ensemble is the enemy of absolute flexibility."

His term at the RSC runs until 2010, which means he should be around to see them installed in their newly fashioned Stratford base. The art deco theatre is having a £100m makeover. Sir Christopher will have a bird's-eye view of the progress from the giant barge he has moored outside the theatre. It's his Stratford home from home - not to mention legendary dinner-party venue. (He fancies himself a bit of a chef: "My wife says don't boast about the amount. I boast about the quality.")

But tonight, after his late supper, it's back to his Hampshire abode, where is preparing to hunker down for Christmas.

Fencing his way to the top

Name: Sir Christopher Bland

Age: 69

Work: Chairman, BT. Also chairman of Leith's School of Food & Wine (which he co-owns with Caroline Waldegrave); Canongate Publishing (of Man Booker winner 'Life of Pi' fame), which his stepson runs; and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Also senior adviser to Warburg Pincus private equity group.

Career highlights: Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors; chairman of Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust; chairman of the Hammersmith and Queen Charlotte's Hospitals Special Health Authority (he was knighted for work for the NHS); chairman of Life Sciences International; chairman of transport group NFC; chairman of LWT; deputy chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Fenced at the Olympics for Ireland in 1960.

Education: Sedbergh School, Yorkshire; The Queen's College, Oxford.

Family: Married, with one son, two stepsons and two stepdaughters.