Virgin Media's new owner John Malone today pulled off a coup by recruiting a boss who used to work for his arch-rival Rupert Murdoch in a sign that the war between Britain's pay-TV and telecom providers is hotting up.
Tom Mockridge will take over from Neil Berkett as chief executive of Virgin Media once Malone's Liberty Global completes its $23.3 billion (£15 billion) takeover in June.
Mockridge will bring plenty of intelligence about Virgin's long-time rival, BSkyB, where he was deputy chairman until January. He also spent eight years running Murdoch's pay-TV operation Sky Italia, before an 18-month spell running troubled UK newspaper arm News International as a safe pair of hands after Rebekah Brooks quit.
Mockridge will be paid well. Berkett earned an annual package of $6.3 million, according to Virgin's accounts.
The appointment comes at a crucial time as BT is investing huge sums in a new TV sports arm. Virgin, Sky and BT are all competing to persuade subscribers to take a "triple play" of broadband, home phone and pay-TV.
Mockridge said Virgin would continue to offer "cutting-edge" products and hailed its "immense brand", which has been boosted by an ad campaign featuring Usain Bolt and Mo Farah.
Paul Richards, analyst at Numis Securities, welcomed Mockridge as "a sound appointment" for Virgin, which has annual sales of £4 billion in the UK and five million customers. "If you look at BSkyB, it is one of the most successful companies in the UK, which has grown into a £14 billion business organically over just a few decades, and if someone has been party to that, you'd think some of that has rubbed off," said Richards, noting BT hired ex-Sky boss Tony Ball as a director.
Malone, an American mogul dubbed Darth Vader by former US Vice President Al Gore, and Murdoch have long been rivals who fought over US satellite firm DirecTV. But Toby Syfret of Enders Analysis said Mockridge's appointment did not mean Virgin will be hostile to Sky as the relationship between the firms "has improved over the last few years".
Syfret pointed out Berkett shifted Virgin's focus to super-fast broadband and became a wholesaler of pay-TV channels, rather than competing with Sky as a broadcaster. New Zealand-born Mockridge is the second ex-Murdoch executive to move to a broadcasting rival in weeks as former Times editor James Harding has become BBC director of news. Mockridge left NI five months ago after missing out on the top job, running global newspaper arm News Corporation.
In a separate move, Berkett was today appointed a non-executive director at software firm Sage.
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