Ben who? Just you wait and see

They say he's only there to do Bland's bidding. But BT's new boss is his own man
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The Independent Online

Wanted: an executive to take a hefty pay cut, move halfway around the world, join a company that is disliked by customers and shareholders, and work with a very demanding chairman.

Who'd be crazy enough to take on a job like this? Ben Verwaayen, that's who. The new chief executive of BT started in earnest last week, by meeting 5,000 employees, briefing City analysts and presenting the company's latest financial results to the market.

A former executive at America's Lucent, Verwaayen has given up a lot to sit in the chair of one of Britain's best-known companies. He's on a £700,000-a-year salary and has also received a "golden hello" of £1m in shares. But he isn't in it for the money.

"No, please believe me," he says. "What I left on the table in the US ... no UK company could have matched that."

Perhaps the Dutchman wanted to return to Europe after five years in the States? "We were just getting settled in New Jersey. My wife, Helena, had made a wonderful place to live. When first I received the call [from the headhunters] I was not interested at all."

No, Verwaayen, a likeable, lively and chatty man, is deadly serious about what motivated him to BT. "I took it for the challenge. Simple as that," he says.

Verwaayen replaced Sir Peter Bonfield, the man partly responsible for BT's disastrous foray overseas which left the company saddled with debt. Even so, Verwaayen's appointment was greeted with little more than disdain from the City. Most people hadn't heard of him, and those who had, associated him with Lucent's spectacular fall from grace.

"I was happy with the 'Ben who?' response," he says. "I was pleased to start off with low expectations."

Verwaayen's style is very different to that of his predecessor. It is a running joke in the City that while BT's slogan was "It's good to talk", Sir Peter rarely did. Verwaayen, by contrast, is only too happy to rattle on about BT, football, politics, pretty much anything you ask him.

The biggest criticism that can be levelled at him is his track record at Lucent. Just days after he was announced as Sir Peter's successor, the company issued a profits warning. Asked if he was to blame, Verwaayen doesn't demur. "I had a responsibility because I was management."

Then, without any prompting, he starts answering his own questions. "Could I have seen [the problems] coming? We should have. Could I have been smarter? Yes, you bet.

"I have learnt a lot. I have learnt to read the tea leaves better. I have learnt that keeping two feet on the ground is better than having a head in the clouds. I am an enthusiastic person by nature, but I have learnt to count twice before saying yes. The bottom line is, I am slightly more reflective." OK, OK, Ben, we get the message.

Only a few weeks into the job, Verwaayen says it's too early to reveal details of his plans for the company. But he dismisses accusations that he will become Sir Christopher Bland's yes-man, there only to implement the BT chairman's strategy. In fact, he's reviewing Sir Christopher's own plans.

Take the much-publicised proposals for BT to move from its iconic Newgate Street head office, opposite St Paul's Cathedral. This was a plan, don't forget, that was overseen by Sir Christopher. "If I find that it costs more money to move to another building, then we'll stay here," says Verwaayen. "We are not moving just to send out a signal that BT is changing. If I wanted to do that, then I would move my office furniture around. Come on, it's just a building."

This decision, along with many more important ones, will be made in two months when Verwaayen will outline a three-year plan for the company. Everything is up for grabs. Asked if the loss-making business telecoms division Ignite was a concern to him, given that it's operating in an overcrowded market with falling demand, he says: "I have taken on board your comments and I will come back to you in two months."

Similarly, he passes off another question about costly overlaps among BT's business units Openword, Retail, Wholesale and Ignite. "Some of this is a result of regulation. Other areas of overlap are by our own design. That may not be the best thing. Again, you'll have to wait."

His strategy will broadly address three areas: customer service, BT's internal culture and ways to grow the business.

"Many people, when pressed, have a negative story about BT. This is a company people love to hate and hate to love."

Verwaayen says that after his tour of BT staff he learnt that "the people have absolutely the best intentions, but that level of commitment does not always translate into such good customer performance. Something in the middle needs to dramatically improve".

On customer service, he says, the company has a habit of looking at service figures the wrong way round. If BT has a 90 per cent level of satisfaction, then it should be worrying about the 10 dissatisfied customers. A bit like viewing a glass of water half-empty instead of half-full.

BT, Verwaayen argues, needs to get out of the mentality of being a former state-owned operator. "It is important for the company to speak up, as BT has many hidden jewels."

If he gets any time off, Verwaayen may be spotted at Highbury, because he is an Arsenal supporter. But his real passion is for politics. He graduated from the State University of Utrecht with a master's in law and international politics, and has developed close ties with the Dutch People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (the same political colour as the Liberal Democrats). He has also struck up friendships with many politicians, including Annemarie Jorritsma-Lebbink, the finance minister who regularly appears in the celebrity pages of the Dutch press.

Verwaayen denies he has any interest in entering politics. "To be a politician you need passion but also you need to have a certain personality. I am not that type of person."

Being chief executive of a FTSE 100 company is often likened to being a Cabinet minister, since both roles involve balancing seemingly impossible demands. Verwaayen will have to call on all his resources to succeed in his new job.