Roger Wood, who until now has been managing director of Matra Marconi, replaces David Wells, who is to retire early from the company after 27 years. British Gas said that there was no payoff for Mr Wells, who is 55 and who will work alongside Mr Wood until the early autumn this year.
Earlier this year British Gas came under fire for leaving customers waiting for days to have repairs carried out, even where they had paid around pounds 100 for "three-star" service contracts. Customers who believed they were in entitled to priority treatment were left without heating during the freeze, prompting an attack from the Gas Consumers Council, which said it had warned well in advance that the problem might occur.
The appointment of a new managing director from outside the gas industry will be seen as a further attempt by British Gas to repair its damaged image. British Gas said Mr Wood had "wide experience in competitive customer- focused businesses" including ICL, the UK computer company owned by Fujitsu of Japan, and STC, the telecommunications group.
During his time at STC he worked with Roy Gardner, British Gas director responsible for business trading operations, who is viewed increasingly as a key figure in the management team.
Mr Gardner said: "David Wells has done an excellent job in establishing British Gas Service as a separate business within British Gas. We now look to Roger Wood to build on that achievement and carry the business forward."
British Gas has suffered a series of problems and public relations fiascos since the end of 1994. Its fall from grace in the eyes of customers has shocked both the company and City analysts. British Gas has blamed the drop in standards of service on its radical restructuring to meet the changing shape of the UK gas market.
The group now faces the prospect of domestic competition starting with a pilot area in the South-west on 29 April. Clare Spottiswoode, the industry watchdog, has warned that British Gas will have to act to reassure customers to prevent them leaving the company in large numbers as competitors come on stream.
So far only about 30,000 people from an area covering 500,000 households have opted to leave British Gas.