View from City Road: Why monopolies may hear an engaged tone

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Barry Romeril's departure from the finance director's seat at BT to join Xerox in the US could not have come at a worse time for the company, the Government or its advisers, as the BT3 share sale roadshow dusts itself down for a summer outing.

In the five years since leaving BTR, the aggressively commercial conglomerate, Mr Romeril had won a sizeable City fan club. An articulate and forceful communicator, he managed to cut through the bureaucratic web that so often hinders BT's dealings with the financial world, both City and press.

A sad loss indeed. But it is even sadder to reflect on what may have led to Mr Romeril's decision to leave and on what that may say about the ability of the big privatised utilities to attract and retain top quality executives from outside.

When Mr Romeril joined BT he arrived with a commercial outlook honed in the robust school run by Sir Owen Green and Norman Ireland at BTR. At the time, BT was embarking on a post-privatisation drive to become like other private sector companies, emphasising customer service and pricing strategies.

Perhaps Mr Romeril reckoned without Oftel, the telecommunications regulator. Those close to him have said for some time how he, along with almost all senior BT management, had become increasingly frustrated by dealings with Oftel.

Oftel's decision last summer to exclude bulk discounts for business users from BT's new RPI-7.5 per cent pricing package went down particularly badly. In prior discussions with Oftel BT had understood that discounts, designed to give BT a marketing edge over its rival Mercury, would be included and had made its commercial plans accordingly.

Accusations that Oftel had shifted the goal posts flew thick and fast. Certainly the idea that BT was supposed to make life easier for its main competitor must have been irritating to anyone with Mr Romeril's background.

BT has been unusual in bringing in top-level executives from outside. Other utilities have been content to rely on home-grown talent with vastly increased pay packets who have gained most of their operational experience in a pre-privatisation world.

Until the day dawns when genuine competition enters the world of privatised monopolies, the conflict between regulation and commercial, profit-maximising, behaviour will make outsiders think twice about changing jobs.