Steve Burch: The Virgin soldier

A cable TV boss has a daunting battle on his hands with Sky. But if he wins, he'll gladly let Sir Richard Branson take the glory
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The Independent Online

Chilly shoppers walking through a snowswept Covent Garden on Thursday were taken aback by the sight of a smiling man sitting in a glass box and waving madly at anyone taking an interest.

It wasn't David Blaine but Sir Richard Branson doing what he does best and grabbing the limelight for the launch of Virgin Media, the new name for cable company NTL.

In a warm office around the corner, Steve Burch, the chief executive of Virgin Media, was keeping his head down. Burch is an Anglophile American who has forsaken coffee in favour of tea, but who still struggles to understand what is happening on the rugby pitch.

He has been running the cable TV company since January 2006 - a month after it emerged that NTL was buying Virgin Media and adopting the Virgin name.

"People in the outside world will think Richard Branson runs the company. He does not - but he is a major shareholder. We would be fools not to take on board what he brings in terms of public relations and commitment to excellence."

Burch, an ardent Democrat and Vietnam veteran, is happy to let NTL, with its reputation for rotten customer service, disappear into the mists of time as if it never existed.

And if that means letting people think Sir Richard is running the shop, then so be it.

Such is the effectiveness of the Virgin marketing machine, it is easy to forget Burch is even part of the makeover process.

"It wasn't that hard for me to visualise what the Virgin culture should be because it was similar to what I had come from - a company that looks after its people and is more concerned about their wellbeing than their dress code," Burch explains.

BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster and arch-competitor to Virgin Media, has been keen to indicate that NTL's makeover is no more than a lick of paint on a dodgy old set of wheels.

But the relaunch comes with a new suite of simplified packages from Virgin Media that includes video on demand and V+, a digital video recorder.

Burch had been working to introduce the new products and service before Sir Richard came along with his bag of tricks, but he and his team at NTL are unlikely to get much of the credit if Virgin Media performs markedly better than the old NTL.

"I am thrilled if [customers] think Richard Branson owns the company," he says, adding that "brand means nothing unless you can change the company from inside. I would never expect to get [Sir Richard's] publicity. I didn't take this job to be that type of person. My job is to make this business run better."

This process begins, he continues, with making sure the staff can see that the chief executive is on their side.

"I am not a closed-door sort of CEO," says Burch. "I visit the company's different sites. I see people and make it clear that my door is always open, even if I have 50 people in the office. I am starting to see I am getting there because I am getting emails from people asking for sponsorship for their ninth-grade football team. I love that sort of stuff. The fact they can email me is really comforting. That's where I get my kicks. I just love it."

But Burch is not as easy-going as he seems. "It's an appearance I try to give but I am not remotely laid-back. If you appear agitated, you will agitate the people around you, and I want the people around me to be calm and make rational decisions.

"And I am old - I am in my fifties. I have been through a lot of other things in my life. I was in Vietnam, for God's sake. Nobody is shooting at me here, and as long as they are not shooting at me, it can't be all that bad."

But for Virgin Media's sake, Burch had better be prepared for some testing times ahead.

Sky, determined to kill off the Virgin challenge before it gains any momentum, made its own product announcements on Thursday in a bid to steal the headlines.

"They may try," Burch says, "but it doesn't mean they are going to succeed. We are not a little company any more. Financially, we are in good shape and we are a brand name equal to theirs and have a team in place that knows how to fight.

But he still believes his company is not being allowed to compete on a level playing field. He is unhappy that Sky charges Virgin Media a retail and not a wholesale price to carry its sports and film channels.

"They do it to stymie competition," he claims.

But Burch admits to his admiration for Sky as a company, even if it is focused on making his job as hard as possible. Virgin Media is locked in talks with Sky over renewing a deal so it can show Sky One, home to hit shows such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica.

"There is always give and take and posturing going on in these situations," he explains, while declining the opportunity to express his confidence that Virgin Media will carry Sky One once the current deal ends at the end of this month. There remains the possibility it will appeal to regulators to force Sky to lower the costs for its channels.

But one thing is certain: in Burch, Virgin Media has a fighter ready to add some operational weight to sir Richard's marketing bling. "It's ludicrous to think we are going anywhere," he says, disdaining the idea of surrendering to Sky. "And it's ludicrous to think anyone is going to destroy us. Competition is fun."

BIOGRAPHY

Born 23 December 1949.

Education BA in English literature from the University of Maryland; law degree from Gonzaga University, Washington.

Career

1989-2006: various positions at the American cable giant Comcast Corporation, including general manager and president of the Atlantic division.

January 2006: joined NTL as president and chief executive and is responsible for running the day-to-day operations.

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