Regulator adjusted to the job: Donald Cruickshank, Oftel's new broom, talks to Mary Fagan

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The Independent Online
DONALD Cruickshank, the new broom at the telecommunications watchdog, Oftel, appears neither tough nor adversarial.

The soft-spoken Scot has kept a low profile since becoming director-general in April. He has started separating parts of BT in accounting terms but, almost in the same breath, has made it clear he is not interested in seeing it broken up.

The danger for BT is that it might take too much comfort from these first few months of relative quiet. Mr Cruickshank may be in no hurry to show his teeth, but his career has given him a special interest in the fate of small companies that want to enter markets in which one giant carries the clout.

Mr Cruickshank arrived at Oftel via the Scottish health service, where he was its first chief executive. But his earlier posts spanned consultancy and publishing - both Times Newspapers and Pearson - and culminated in the role of managing director at the Virgin group.

'What is important in doing this job is my past experience in business and having been in organisations which were battling with monopolies or closely controlled markets,' he says.

In contrast, when it comes to battling against the might of a monopoly he says: 'BT's managers have no idea what they are talking about in that respect. They have no idea what it is like to compete with a monopoly and no real experience to bring to that debate.'

At Virgin, he helped to launch the airline in the face of competition from the privatised British Airways. He also saw Virgin's music business develop to command a 6 per cent worldwide market share.

'You realise you are up against the Sonys and the (now) Time Warners of this world. It is difficult to persuade artists of any substance to be on your label. Just as BT wants to be global, so does Genesis,' he says.

He compares the reticence of artists to come on board to the anxieties that he believes managers and shareholders in BT's fledgling rivals must feel.

He has little sympathy with the argument that many UK cable television companies do not need help against BT as they have the power of large US telecommunications firms behind them.

Indeed, he quips that the thought of all that market experience roaming the streets of Britain, to the good of the consumer, rather fills him with cheer.

While still at Virgin, he was also a founding director of British Satellite Broadcasting - setting up shop against the might of the BBC and ITV. 'The business plan for BSB in terms of revenue and market size was dead on,' he laughs. 'It's just a pity that it had to be shared with Sky.'

The Virgin years are his most valuable weapon as he prepares to do battle with BT. Mr Cruickshank has no doubts that tough regulation will be around for a long time. Competition for BT is emerging from cable television companies and mobile communications as well as Mercury, but he says it will be many years before that is established. So constraints on BT cannot be relaxed.

Nor does he intend to wait until BT's rivals complain. 'This is not a job where you sit back and wait for cases to walk in the door,' he said.

Among his first tasks at Oftel is to clarify in his own mind what a regulator in this industry should have to do. The 1984 Telecommunications Act sets that out, but he believes that there is a lot of room for manoeuvre and different ways of doing the job.

'I have to address that - to ask consumers, whether residential or business, how they would judge whether Oftel is doing a good job - on what criteria they would test Oftel.'

That was a very important question to be asked in the Scottish health service, he observes. 'A similar process has to be gone through as I move into the role at Oftel,' he adds.

His time at the health service in Scotland also gave him an insight into coping with a huge staff - about 160,000 people who had to become more customer-orientated under his guidance .

Having had to change the culture of a large bureaucracy to one that meets the needs of a market, he has understanding - and admiration - for BT's task of improving its services and customer relations in recent years.

'It seems to me that BT's management is well aware of what is required,' he observes.

Whether he brings about great change at Oftel or in the telecoms market remains to be seen. While concerned to serve consumers as best he can, Mr Cruickshank appears to take a laid-back approach to the task. He is not a workaholic - 10 hours a day perhaps, but not seven days a week.

While in Scotland he commuted back at weekends to the family home in London and he is keen to make time for leisure pursuits, including golf and opera. And like his predecessor, Sir Bryan Carsberg, he likes to pound the streets - although he does not regard himself as being in Sir Bryan's marathon-running league. He admits: 'I do run - there is at least some continuity at Oftel - but I do not have Bryan's knees.'

As for his tenure at Oftel, Mr Cruickshank will think about that when the expiry date of 31 March, 1998, looms. 'Five years is the deal, which is important because of the issue of accountability. You know if you do not do the job then there is no opportunity to be reappointed.'

He will, at some stage in the not-too-distant future, tell the world exactly what he feels success will mean. 'It is in my nature to be specific about what I want to achieve - a lot of organisations never get around to saying what it is they are trying to do, and that is a very good way of not being judged.'

(Photograph omitted)