My talk plan, by BT’s new chief

Ian Liv­ingston, the new chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bri­tish Tele­com, ex­plains how he has achieved so much at just 43, and re­veals his plans for the com­pany

The Jewish Chronicle - - BUSINESS - BY CANDICE KRIEGER

IAN LIV­INGSTON is tak­ing noth­ing for granted. It is through mak­ing the most of his chances that he has be­come the new chief ex­ec­u­tive of BT at the com­par­a­tively young age of 43.

The Scots­man was ap­pointed last week af­ter the cur­rent boss, Ben Ver­waayen — cred­ited with tak­ing the group into broad­band — an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion. Tak­ing over the reins on June 1, Mr Liv­ingston will be one of the youngest heads of a FTSE 100 com­pany — an achieve­ment he mod­estly says he could never have con­sid­ered.

“Your ca­reer is an ab­so­lute co­in­ci­dence of op­por­tu­ni­ties,” says Mr Liv­ingston, cur­rently head of BT’s re­tail di­vi­sion. “I’ve been very lucky in the op­por­tu­ni­ties I have been given and I have tried to grab them.” And from leav­ing school in Glas­gow at 16 to tak­ing on one of Bri­tain’s most prom­i­nent busi­ness roles, Mr Liv­ingston has done just that.

When he was 28, his for­mer boss at Dixons, Stan­ley (now Lord) Kalms, sent him to the United States to be­come chief fi­nance of­fi­cer of one of the com­pany’s bil­lion-dol­lar sub­sidiaries. It was daunt­ing, but he rel­ished it. He spent 11 years with Lord Kalms, be­fore join­ing BT in the same role aged 37.

“Lord Kalms gave me a real op­por­tu­nity,” re­calls Mr Liv­ingston. He says both Lord Kalms and his chief ex­ec­u­tive, John Clare, gave em­ploy­ees the chance to show what they could do. Fel­low Dixonites in­clude Jeremy Dar­roch, the newly in­stalled chief ex­ec­u­tive of BSkyB, and John Pluthero, who now runs Cable & Wire­less.

He adds. “Peo­ple may think there was some grand ca­reer plan, but there wasn’t. Stuff hap­pens. Two years ago, I couldn’t have told you I would be do­ing this. The im­por­tant thing is to just try and do your best at the job you have got.”

But from an early age, the re­fresh­ingly down-to-earth Mr Liv­ingston showed shrewd busi­ness acu­men, win­ning com­pe­ti­tions at school in­clud­ing a Royal Bank of Scot­land share-in­vest­ment tour­na­ment. Af­ter school, he went on to study eco­nomics at Manch­ester Univer­sity. He qual­i­fied as an ac­coun­tant in 1987, work­ing at Arthur An­der­sen be­fore mov­ing on to se­nior man­age­ment po­si­tions at 3i Group PLC and Bank of Amer­ica In­ter­na­tional. He joined Dixons in 1991 and took over fi­nances there in 1997, over­see­ing the launch, float and sale of Freeserve, the in­ter­net ser­vice provider. He was made BT group fi­nance di­rec­tor in 2002 and took over as chief ex­ec­u­tive of BT Re­tail in 2005. He is cred­ited with a sig­nif­i­cant turn­around of BT’s re­tail busi­ness, which has re­turned to growth and in­creased prof­itabil­ity. Last year, the di­vi­sion re­ported earn­ings be­fore in­ter­est, taxes, de­pre­ci­a­tion and amortis­tion (EBITDA) of around £1.5 bil­lion, de­spite fierce com­pe­ti­tion from the likes of BSkyB and Car­phone Ware­house.

So what does he have planned for BT? He in­tends to im­prove cus­tomer ser­vice, ex­pand the brand’s global ac­tiv­i­ties, and make BT into a more agile or­gan­i­sa­tion. He tells JC Busi­ness: “Part of what I want for BT is based on some­thing I hap­pily as­cribe to Lord Kalms. He said that when he was a small busi­ness, he tried to act like a big busi­ness, and now he is a big busi­ness, he tries to act like a small busi­ness.

“We are a very big com­pany, but if you can make a big com­pany very agile then you have all the ad­van­tages of scale and all the ad­van­tages of be­ing close to your cus­tomers and be­ing re­ally ef­fi­cient.”

Mr Liv­ingston, also a di­rec­tor at Celtic foot­ball club, does not plan dra­mat­i­cally to al­ter the strate­gic di­rec­tion of the com­pany. But the high-flyer does in­tend to im­prove it. “We are the best in our in­dus­try for cus­tomer ser­vice, but that’s not good enough, be­cause the in­dus­try isn’t good enough. We have to fo­cus on be­ing the best by a long way. We want to be among the best ser­vice com­pa­nies in the world. While we get it right most times, we don’t get it right all the time.” He ac­knowl­edges this will ben­e­fit the prof­itabil­ity of the busi­ness, which has lost out fi­nan­cially when things go wrong, such as when cus­tomers do not un­der­stand a bill or a re­pair job is un­suc­cess­ful.

He says in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion is a pri­or­ity, no­tably in Asia, South Amer­ica and China. Around 40 per cent of BT’s ser­vices are to ma­jor cor­po­rate clients, which in­clude Unilever, Fiat and Reuters. Twenty-five per cent of the busi­ness is con­sumer-based. The re­main­der is split be­tween whole­sale and the small and medium en­ter­prise (SME) sec­tor.

The group, which em­ploys 150,000 peo­ple and has around 12.5m broad­band users, is ac­tive in 170 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Is­rael. He notes: “This means that when I go to Is­rael on hol­i­day, my wife can get a bit up­set when I say I have to go and see the com­pany man­ager in Is­rael.”

One of the main chal­lenges Mr Liv­ingston will face is the huge amount of com­pe­ti­tion in a con­gested mar­ket. He ex­plains: “Ac­cord­ing to the OECD, the UK has the low­est-priced calls of any ma­jor in­dus­tri­alised coun­try, higher broad­band util­i­sa­tion than the US, Spain, Ger­many, France or Italy, and has more choice of broad­band providers than any other coun­try. It is the most com­pet­i­tive mar­ket in the world. This is great for cus­tomers and a chal­lenge for us.”

Will the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate not prove to be a chal­lenge? “It may well do. We are not see­ing a big ef­fect just now, but ob­vi­ously if there are less new houses and less busi­nesses be­ing formed, then that must have some sort of long-term ef­fect.” But Mr Liv­ingston is look­ing for the op­por­tu­ni­ties. “If big com­pa­nies have is­sues, they may ask us to look af­ter all their tele­coms ser­vices to try and cut costs.”

Out­side of the of­fice, Mr Liv­ingston, who typ­i­cally works 15-hour days, says he en­joys spend­ing time with his fam­ily, watch­ing his beloved Celtic, and go­ing to his lo­cal syn­a­gogue in El­stree, Hert­ford­shire.

So what could be left for him to achieve? “I never think about the next step. My next step is to try and be the best CEO I can be.”

The City has ex­pressed its con­fi­dence in the new boy. On news of his ap­point­ment, BT moved to the top of the FTSE 100 leader­board with a 1.5 per cent share-price boost.

New BT boss Ian Liv­ingston (left) wants his com­pany to be among the best ser­vice com­pa­nies in the world

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