The Lowdown: So WorldCom didn't wear you out then?

Viatel chief Lucy Woods tells Clayton Hirst why she's taking on another telecoms challenge
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The Independent Online

At 2am on 26 June 2002, Lucy Woods was woken by the telephone. Reaching to answer it, the bleary-eyed head of WorldCom's European arm received the alarm call of her life.

The company where she'd worked for just over three years had admitted to a massive accounting scandal. As it unravelled, the fraud at the US telecoms giant dwarfed even that at Enron. Like most other executives at WorldCom, Woods first learnt of the black hole in the company's accounts by conference call.

"Four hours after that call I arrived at work, where there were already television cameras outside the office," Woods remembers, speaking out for the first time since the scandal erupted. "It was frightening because we didn't have any information, so there was nothing we could say. But these people were very determined to get through the door. It was a very difficult time."

Woods had moved from BT to WorldCom for a challenge. But she had no idea just how big a challenge it would be. "WorldCom was amazingly fast moving. It was hard-nosed and performance driven," she says. "I learnt a great deal - how to run a sales team with much more energy. And, of course, in the last year, a whole load about corporate governance and directors' responsibilities."

As the WorldCom founder Bernie Ebbers detonated the corporate bombshell on the world, Woods' European operation had just moved into a cash-positive position. The irony is not lost on her. "I know what I achieved was noteworthy. I know I worked with an excellent team in Europe. And I know WorldCom Europe didn't commit any kind of fraud. We just weren't part of it. That's enough for me."

With lawyers and accountants crawling all over the business, the 16-hour days began to take their toll on the mother of two. Woods finally resigned from WorldCom in January after a long discussion with the company's new chief executive, former Compaq boss Michael Capellas.

As there was never any blame attached to Woods for WorldCom's problems, the next few months were filled with speculation about her next move. Was she being lined up to become chief executive of Cable & Wireless? Perhaps she'd join a private equity firm? Maybe a European operator? "I spoke to a lot of people about a lot of opportunities. But I wasn't approached to run C&W."

The 44-year-old has now made her choice. Since she has just gone through the mill at WorldCom, her decision may seem a little strange. She has joined Viatel, a company all too familiar with the ins and outs of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Viatel was one of the new breed of pan-European telecoms companies. Set up in 1991, it listed on the American Nasdaq exchange and built a 10,000km fibre-optic telecoms network spanning 59 European cities. But like so many of its peers, it grossly overestimated the demand for telecoms, and eventually collapsed. Former bondholder Morgan Stanley is now its largest shareholder, owning around 12 per cent of Viatel.

So what's the attraction of running another bombed-out telecoms company? "It's a blank sheet of paper," says Woods. "We have a network, we have some cash, a willing investor and all the benefits of hindsight."

Woods has been with the company only a month and says it is too early to discuss plans in detail. But when she talks about how the telecoms sector will shake down, her ideas for Viatel inadvertently slip out: "I don't think there's room for all the UK telecoms companies. I think they will be consolidated into two or three players. I'm sure Cable & Wireless will be in there. But there are other ways of starting that off," she grins. "It depends on whether I can get in there first."

When asked about possible mergers, she admits: "I'd like to get started - and I don't think it will take long. [Viatel] is in a position where it could attempt to catch up by organic growth: hiring more sales people and improving the product. But I think that for us it will make sense to go on some sort of acquisition trail."

The decision will be made within the next two months, when Woods presents a business plan to Viatel's board and shareholders. Asked if Morgan Stanley could help fund future acquisitions, she says: "Everything is on hold until I present the business plan. But I'm very optimistic."

She started her telecoms career at BT, joining in 1981 as a cost analyst. In 1997 Woods was appointed to run BT's Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland operations.

"I lost my heart in Northern Ireland. I had a fabulous time," she says. It was there that she became friends with Mo Mowlam, the former Northern Ireland Secretary. But it wasn't at a high-powered gathering of politicians and business leaders that the pair met - it was at the Girl Guides.

"We were both invited to speak as role models for the girls," she recalls. "We just got chatting, in what has developed into a lasting friendship. I'm impressed at what she achieved in Northern Ireland and I was disappointed with the way she was treated when she came back [to London]."

Associates of Woods say she has a similar approach to Mowlam. She is straight and to the point, sometimes a little blunt. Woods admits she has in the past unnerved some male colleagues: "I'm direct. That style can be more easily accepted if it is coming from a man than a woman."

In the male-dominated telecoms industry, Woods has come across prejudice: "I once had a boss who said he'd always prefer a man to do a job." But far tougher to handle, she says, is being both a mother and a businesswoman. "I think women with children who work outside the home suffer from incredible personal guilt. My children are 15 and 18 and I still feel guilty.

"Last year at WorldCom I was working from seven in the morning to 11 at night. I felt particularly bad about that, as the youn- gest was going through her GCSEs." Turning around Viatel will certainly be a challenge. But hopefully Woods' children can expect to see rather more of their mum than in her WorldCom days.