Ben Verwaayen knew it wasn't going to be easy. When the Dutch-born executive became CEO of BT Group PLC in February, 2002, Britain's former telecom monopoly was in deep trouble. Boom-era spending on acquisitions and 3G wireless licenses had saddled the company with nearly $20 billion in debt. Worse, BT had been forced to spin off its mobile unit -- the most promising source of future growth -- to escape possible collapse.
Verwaayen moved fast. By keeping a tight rein on costs and lowering capital spending, he swung BT to a $4.2 billion profit in fiscal 2003, from a $4.1 billion loss the previous year. But his boldest bet was staking BT'S future on broadband and the Internet. With no wireless business to pump up revenues, Verwaayen instead focused on how to best exploit BT's wired network. Today, the company leads European telcos in its embrace of the Net -- and Verwaayen has redefined the industry's agenda. BT just awarded the first contracts in an $18 billion project to rebuild its core network using low-cost Net technologies. And Verwaayen has vowed to switch off Britain's old analog phone system sometime in the next decade -- a promise no other telco CEO has made.
Rocking the boat comes naturally to the 53-year-old CEO. The fifth of six children from a village in central Holland, he organized his high school's first student parliament and later launched an unauthorized union among fellow army conscripts to push for better wages and conditions. After 13 years with ITT Industries Inc. and nine years at Dutch telco KPN, he joined Lucent Technologies Inc. in 1997 as U.S.-based international vice-president and later became vice-chairman. "I lived through the bubble and saw it go from gold to ugly," he says.
Now, he's trying to make gold for BT's investors. The shares are up 45% from their all-time low in March, 2003. Yet BT's boss insists on sharing credit for the turnaround with his employees and eclectic team of top managers. "A leader isn't a know-it-all," he says. Verwaayen also eschews the limelight outside of work. A passionate football fan and public-policy wonk, he loves most of all spending Saturdays dandling his 18-month-old grandson and cooking French and Thai meals with his former high school sweetheart and wife of 31 years. Verwaayen makes a tough job look easy.
By Andy Reinhardt