Wake up, C&W

Dick Brown
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When a venerable British company with roots that reach deep into what was once the Empire chooses an American as its new top officer, it is likely to have some preconceptions about what it will get. Besides being young, the fellow will surely be horribly energetic (orange juice before dawn); will play golf, though perhaps indifferently; and hopefully will be pally with Bill Clinton.

If this is the picture that Cable & Wireless has of Dick Brown, whose appointment as the company's chief executive from 1 July was announced last week, then it is unlikely to be disappointed. Mr Brown - youngish at 49 - likes to rise between 3.30 and 4.00 in the morning and usually performs 200 sit-ups and reads five newspapers before arriving in the office sometime after 6.00am. He was recently at the White House to offer advice on the economy and he does play golf, although his real sporting passion is baseball.

A change of pace is afoot then for C&W's London headquarters, which has barely recovered from the disintegration and ousting last year of its previous management team, led by Lord Young and James Ross. Something else will make the contrast still more sharp, however: while neither Lord Young nor Mr Ross could boast any pedigree in the telecommunications industry - the first a former politician and the second an old hand of the oil trade - Mr Brown is as near as you ever likely to get these days to being a walking telephone.

True, he is coming to C&W not from a phone company but from the American accounting giant, H&R Block. Block is a sort of WH Smith of American accounting, preparing returns for one in seven US taxpayers, although it is better known internationally as the parent of the on-line provider, CompuServe. When he joined, Brown became the first non-Bloch family member ever to lead the company. But that was only nine months ago. His entire working career before that point - spanning some 27 years - was in the telephone sector.

It might not have been so. Raised as one of five children of a New Jersey maths teacher and his wife, Brown wanted to be an architect for a long time, but lack of funds for architecture school made it impossible. Then, on graduating from Ohio University in 1969, he pondered training as a Navy pilot before being approached by the state phone company, Ohio Bell. It offered a salary of $11,000 - not bad then - but the ambitious Brown thought the prospect unexciting. It was his father and the parents of his future wife, Chris Brown, who prevailed him upon to accept the offer. "Are you crazy!" the elder Brown is said to have intervened. "You call them first thing in the morning and tell them yes!" (His basic salary at C&W will be a rather more impresssive pounds 650,000 a year.)

Thenceforward, Brown's career path in the industry was smooth and impressively steep. In 1980 he became divisional manager for the city of Cleveland before jumping the following year to United Telecommunications, which subsequently became Sprint Corporation, America's third long-distance carrier. In 1989, he was appointed an executive vice-president at Sprint, whereupon he switched again to become president and chief executive in 1990 of Illinois Bell, a subsidiary of Ameritech, one of the seven regional "baby bells" that emerged from the 1984 break-up of the original AT&T.

The most intriguing phase of his career opened, however, at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1992. Nearing retirement age, the then chairman of Ameritech, Bill Weiss, had summoned 30 of the company's top executives there for what turned out to be a thinly-disguised succession contest. He made each one write a newspaper-style article on how Ameritech should grown which they had to read out loud. Two stars emerged, both younger than the others - Dick Notebaert and Dick Brown, then 46 and 45.

The two men started to overhaul Ameritech's structure. They cut 10,000 employees and jettisoned the collection of five holding companies that constituted Ameritech - one for each state it served - in favour of 11 smaller units. As vice-chairman, Brown took charge of nine of the units with combined sales of $11bn. But when Weiss stood down finally in early 1994, it was Notebaert who got the big prize.

Brown has insisted that he was never bitter about the decision and that it had nothing to do with his decision to quit Ameritech for H&R Block last year. In a recent interview with the Kansas City Business Journal, he said: "Look, we both knew that there could only be one CEO." But then he went on: "I'd be misleading you if I said I was thrilled about it".

The owner of a summer island on Mooselake in Maine, Brown claims the syndicated self-help columnist Ann Landers and the former baseball great, Bo Jackson, among his closer friends. For a while he was a neighbour of Jackson's and because it was he who had a baseball cage in his garden (he still likes to practise hitting), he often found himself fending off fans of Bo who came knocking at his front-door by mistake.

Another friend is John Edwardson, the President of United Airlines, who helped in the recasting of Ameritech. "Being in the trenches like that, you get to know someone," Mr Edwardson recently remarked. "And I immediately liked his openness, his wit, his ethics. He's a very intelligent person who's quick to grasp issues."

C&W will be glad to hear it. Brown recently suggested that he would have been a good architect: "I can step back and see the big picture, yet I can bore into details with incredible depth, and an architect has got to do both." So has the leader of a once-mighty telephone company that needs to find its way again.