Profile: Bert Roberts - Another roll of the dice at MCI

Paul Rodgers talks to the boss of BT's American partner - a gambler well versed in playing for high stakes; A performer for the big stage: Bert Roberts answering questions at the recent BT/MCI press conference called to announce their proposed pounds 20bn merger Photograph: AP
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When MCI boss Bert Roberts introduced his new British partner to his shareholders there was an audible gasp. It was not that the conservative BT chairman, Sir Iain Vallance, looked at all startling, more the manner of his appearance on stage: Roberts had conjured him forth from an empty red phone box.

That was after BT took a 20 per cent stake in the US telecoms giant in 1994. Now, with the two firms heading for a pounds 20bn merger into Concert, shareholders are hoping to see more magic from Roberts. After working his way through almost every department in MCI, he has a well-stocked bag of tricks.

It will be needed. The task he shares with co-chairman Sir Iain is to meld two companies from diametrically opposite backgrounds in a fast-changing, cut-throat market. While BT started out as a state monopoly and has fought a rearguard action to hang on to its domestic customers since privatisation, MCI is an upstart long-distance carrier that began by blasting its way out of a narrow, regulated niche to grab business from the BT lookalike, AT&T.

Roberts insists this will not be as difficult as it looks. MCI prides itself on its ability to form close partnerships with other firms. Nor is this latest partner as hidebound as it might appear to British eyes. "BT is much further along than other telecommunications companies in changing its culture," he says. And the merger with MCI will stir things up still more, with a flow of MCI people into BT.

That MCI is in a position to make this deal is remarkable. The company only just survived the bitter legal battles that later led to the break- up of AT&T in 1983. "We were nearly bankrupt," he says in a deep Midwestern drawl. "At one point we had run out of start-up money and had negative net equity."

One of his early assignments - a project called Execunet that he steered through America's regulatory minefield - came to the rescue in 1980. "After the court case we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps," says Roberts. The principle established by Execunet allowed MCI to offer a variety of long-distance services under different brand names, cracking open the US market. "It generated explosive growth in the early 1980s," he says.

Gambling the entire company on the mercy of a court is typical of MCI. And Roberts fits naturally with that risk-taking culture. In his spare time he is learning how to race antique cars and hopes to enter his orange Porsche 914 in a meet next summer. "It's got good handling compared to other rear engine cars, and when I smash it up it will be less expensive to repair," he explains. His other four cars, including his wife's British- built Rover, are black.

That may sound ostentatious, but in America it is the norm. Unlike many British bosses, he drives himself to work, usually in his Audi. He still lives in a 3,000 sq ft house that he bought 20 years ago in leafy Annapolis, Maryland, although many US executives have 10,000 sq ft mansions.

At 54, Roberts stands six feet tall and weighs just under 14 stone - down 2.5 stone in the last four months thanks to a low carbohydrate diet that banned fruit while allowing steaks. Critics complain that he has a tendency to make abrupt U-turns, a trait he defends as "flexibility". Although popular with his staff, he admits he can be impatient at times. "I don't like bureaucracy and I don't like people not taking responsibility," he says.

One thing he does like - and which might concern Britons who fear a right- wing version of George Orwell's 1984 - is the style of one of his other partners, News International boss Rupert Murdoch. "Rupert is genuinely a character," he says admiringly. "He's exactly what I like to see in a businessman. It's sad we don't have more like him."

His aggressive, roll-the-dice approach to business is not the sort of attitude you would expect from the son of a Midwestern machinist and an accounts clerk. His full name is Bert ("It's not short for anything") Carl Roberts, a slight change from his grandfather's Bert Craig, but identical to that of his father, who became known as Bert Senior.

He was born midway through the Second World War at a hospital on the Missouri side of Kansas City, although his family lived on the Kansas side. In his mid-teens the family moved to New England. "The pace in the Midwest is slower than on the east coast, and the work ethic is a little bit higher," he says. "People in Kansas want to have jobs."

Unlike many top executives, Roberts had an early interest in the field he ended up championing - communications. "As a hobby when I was growing up, I was a ham radio operator, talking to people all over the world," he explains. Today he's thinking of rejoining the international short- wave fraternity, possibly under the call sign K3MCI.

He went to university in Baltimore, Maryland, emerging with a bachelor of science degree and a wife, former nurse Pat Niffin, the mother of his three children. His first job was in computer software, at Westinghouse, helping to design process control programs for industry. From there he went to Leasco, a smaller software company specialising in the (then) novel idea of time share - allowing more than one user to work on a computer at the same time.

His big break came in 1972, and he proceeded to toss it away. "I had a career opportunity to become the president of a software company. I had all but accepted when I ran into an acquaintance at an airport who persuaded me to take a look at MCI, which at the time was selling private lines and data services to businesses. Just to humour him I did." That look changed his life: "I said maybe this was a chance to get in on the ground floor of a completely new industry. I decided to take a chance, even though it was only a third of the money I would have made at the software house."

His first job at MCI was to look after "big deals", including a bid on a Florida microwave network. "At that time I didn't know what a microwave was," he admits. By the mid-1970s he was in charge of corporate development and relations with the Federal Communications Commission. "I began to feel like an honorary lawyer," he says.

His rise from vice president in 1974 to chairman today reflected the dramatic changes at MCI. The corporation is now the US's third largest phone operator and one of the country's 100 biggest public companies. Ironically, perhaps, conventional voice telephony is little used within the organisation. "Our company virtually operates by e-mail," he admits.

He describes his business philosophy as entrepreneurial. "Everyone in the company must think as though it's a small business," he says. "You have to personally worry about expenditure as if it were your own money."

He is also determined that MCI, and now Concert, do not become "stodgy". Judging by the pep talks he gives his sales force that is unlikely to happen. Echoing the Vallance phone box illusion, he once made a Bengali Tiger appear in front of an audience, then had it "eat" an employee masquerading as an executive from a US telecoms competitor, Bell. Concert's international rivals be warned.