GE­ORGE’S GAME PLAN

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS - ‘ BELL WAS FLOUN­DER­ING’

The col­lapse of BCE’s buy­out 10 years ago changed Ge­orge Cope’s ca­reer. He has re­vamped the com­pany by mak­ing one deal af­ter an­other, but with few tar­gets left, what’s Bell’s Plan B? Chris­tine Dobby re­ports

The big­gest deal BCE Inc. never did died on Dec. 11, 2008. A lever­aged buy­out of the com­pany led by the On­tario Teach­ers’ Pen­sion Plan crum­bled, a vic­tim of a his­toric cri­sis in fi­nan­cial mar­kets. Pres­sure from the Teach­ers group had vaulted Ge­orge Cope into the CEO’s suite that sum­mer. Mr. Cope was to be their guy – a cost­cut­ter ex­traor­di­naire who would run the tele­com com­pany more ef­fi­ciently, help the new owners pay down tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in debt and, with any luck, de­liver a hand­some re­turn on their bet.

But then Teach­ers couldn’t close. The deal’s col­lapse changed ev­ery­thing in an in­stant. BCE in­vestors, who had been count­ing on a cash pay­out of $42.75 per share, watched the stock drop to about $22. For Mr. Cope, it al­tered the tra­jec­tory of his ca­reer. In­stead of man­ag­ing a com­pany that was swim­ming in debt, he could fol­low a more se­duc­tive and po­ten­tially more lu­cra­tive path: buy com­pa­nies, boost cash flow, re­peat.

Ten years later, BCE’s chief deal­maker is sit­ting in the lounge above the train­ing cen­tre of the Toronto Rap­tors bas­ket­ball club. One of his sig­na­ture pur­chases came in 2012, when BCE and its pen­sion fund ac­quired 37.5 per cent of Maple Leaf Sports and En­ter­tain­ment Ltd., owner of the Rap­tors, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto FC, the soc­cer team.

Mr. Cope has a seat on the MLSE board, and one of the perks of the job is that he can take in an oc­ca­sional Rap­tors prac­tice. The six-foot-seven CEO played bas­ket­ball at the Univer­sity of West­ern On­tario and talks about the team like any fan would.

About the game the night be­fore, a loss to the New Or­leans Pel­i­cans: “Wish­ing we’d had a lit­tle luck on our shots.”

About the Rap­tors’ prospects this year: “[They’re] off to such a good start. They’re also fun to watch.” And de­spite the fran­chise’s re­cent play­off strug­gles, he hopes the team can prove it’s the best. “We’ll all know for sure this spring.”

A play­off run would mean more than just re­ar­rang­ing his sched­ule to make it to some games. “If they win, our strate­gic rea­son for own­ing them, of course, is for peo­ple to watch the broad­cast,” he says, swiv­el­ling his bucket chair away from the court.

The suc­cess of the Rap­tors ben­e­fits BCE and ri­val Rogers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc., which op­er­ate com­pet­ing sports broad­cast­ers TSN and Sport­snet. They also count on those net­works to at­tract sub­scribers to res­i­den­tial TV ser­vices.

TSN was the prod­uct of an­other splashy Cope deal, a key as­set in his $1.3-bil­lion pur­chase of na­tional net­work CTV in 2011. It was part of a wave of “con­ver­gence” deals that were pop­u­lar at the time, com­bin­ing sports and me­dia con­tent with own­er­ship of tele­com dis­tri­bu­tion as­sets – in­ter­net, TV and wire­less ser­vices. The busi­nesses pro­vided wel­come cash flow while Bell was in­vest­ing in its in­ter­net and wire­less net­works, as well as cost-ef­fi­cient ac­cess to pro­gram­ming for its grow­ing IPTV ser­vice, Fibe TV.

In his 10-year run as BCE’s boss, he has seen ways to make a trans­ac­tion work that oth­ers don’t, ac­cord­ing to a banker who has ne­go­ti­ated both with and against him over the years. And while ri­vals dither, “Ge­orge will do a deal on a nap­kin,” a for­mer se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at a com­pet­ing firm said.

But Mr. Cope, 57, is now out of ob­vi­ous tar­gets. Af­ter do­ing a se­ries of siz­able ac­qui­si­tions in both tele­com (Bell Aliant, Man­i­toba Tele­com) and me­dia (CTV, As­tral Me­dia), it isn’t ob­vi­ous where he can turn to next for a deal that will boost growth. The provin­cially run Saskatchewan Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Hold­ing Corp. (Sask­Tel) is one of the few telcos left, but it’s not for sale. There are a hand­ful of me­dia as­sets on the mar­ket, but com­pe­ti­tion au­thor­i­ties have al­ready blocked BCE from ac­quir­ing French-lan­guage spe­cialty TV chan­nels be­cause the com­pany’s al­ready so big. Fed­eral pol­icy made it im­pos­si­ble for BCE to make a play for a hand­ful of smaller wire­less car­ri­ers and is now favour­ing the owners of Free­dom Mo­bile and Vidéotron by al­low­ing them to buy cheaper wire­less air­waves.

What’s a growth-by-ac­qui­si­tion CEO to do with no ma­jor deals in sight?

On his third-quar­ter earn­ings con­fer­ence call last month, Mr. Cope had good num­bers to re­port, with a 5.5-per-cent rise in earn­ings per share, af­ter ad­just­ments. But he also had a mes­sage for the fi­nan­cial an­a­lysts on the line about how he plans to push BCE into the fu­ture.

The plan doesn’t have the in­trigue of an­other megadeal or a new strate­gic di­rec­tion. But that won’t mat­ter if he can make the num­bers work. To ex­e­cute it, he’ll have to lean on the strengths that parachuted him into his role in the first place. It was the height of a lever­aged-buy­out frenzy, when cheap money and a strong econ­omy led to a se­ries of huge takeovers by pri­vate-eq­uity firms. New York-based KKR & Co. Inc. and the Canada Pen­sion Plan In­vest­ment Board de­ter­mined BCE’s rel­a­tively low val­u­a­tion made it a prime can­di­date to take pri­vate.

By the end of June, 2007, the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany had drawn a com­pet­ing bid from On­tario Teach­ers, which had formed a part­ner­ship with U.S. play­ers Prov­i­dence Eq­uity Partners and Madi­son Dear­born. The Teach­ers group won with a pack­age worth $51.7-bil­lion, in­clud­ing debt.

“Bell was floun­der­ing, and pri­vate eq­uity saw an op­por­tu­nity to come in and take this un­der­val­ued stock pri­vate and reap the ben­e­fits of that,” said cur­rent BCE chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Glen LeBlanc, who was CFO of Bell Aliant at the time.

Still, they needed some­one to re­place Michael Sabia, the BCE chief ex­ec­u­tive since 2002 who had helped clinch the buy­out deal. He had cleaned up the bal­ance sheet by sell­ing non-core as­sets such as Yel­low Pages and satel­lite-ser­vices oper­a­tor Te­le­sat Canada, but he was not seen as a strong oper­a­tor, and the com­pany’s share price on his watch had been stag­nant, al­most al­ways trad­ing be­low $30.

Mr. Cope, who had moved to BCE from Telus Corp. in 2006, was their choice. He al­ready had decades of ex­pe­ri­ence in the in­dus­try af­ter join­ing the en­trepreneurs who would start Clear­net Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc. in the 1980s, tak­ing it pub­lic in 1994 and sell­ing it to Telus in 2000 for $6bil­lion.

In its pre­buy­out-deal life, BCE had very lit­tle debt but was sad­dled with big problems: a bloated cost struc­ture, out­dated mar­ket­ing, dis­as­trous cus­tomer ser­vice and what an­a­lysts call a rot­ten “as­set mix,” mean­ing it had a lot of ex­po­sure to the de­clin­ing land­line phone busi­ness and a weaker po­si­tion in the grow­ing wire­less mar­ket. (Rogers and Telus are both more heav­ily weighted in wire­less.)

The plan for the buy­out deal was for Mr. Cope to cut costs, in­vest in tech­nol­ogy and cus­tomer ser­vice and give the com­pany a se­ri­ous brand makeover – all while count­ing on the cash flow of monthly phone bills to pay down debt.

But over the next year and a half, debt mar­kets cratered as the U.S. sub­prime mort­gage cri­sis deep­ened and spread around the world. Mean­while, reg­u­la­tory ap­provals and le­gal fights with BCE’s ex­ist­ing bond­hold­ers de­layed the buy­out deal’s closing – just as the cost of fi­nanc­ing all the nec­es­sary debt be­gan to rise.

Af­ter an au­di­tor de­clared that, post­buy­out, BCE would be tech­ni­cally in­sol­vent, the Teach­ers group an­nounced the deal was dead on the morn­ing of Thurs­day, Dec. 11, 2008.

“I re­mem­ber on the Satur­day, I was down­town with my wife, just brows­ing through stores, and peo­ple kept stop­ping us, won­der­ing what’s next for the com­pany. Peo­ple were po­lite, but they were all wor­ried about how much money they lost,” Mr. Cope re­called. “I don’t hide eas­ily. So I even­tu­ally said, ‘Let’s just go home.’ ”

His as­sign­ment changed dra­mat­i­cally. He now had all the same problems and still had to an­swer to about 750,000 share­hold­ers. Re­main­ing a pub­lic com­pany came with the added pres­sure to record consistent growth ev­ery quar­ter and start pay­ing higher div­i­dends.

So he shifted gears, us­ing his­tor­i­cally low in­ter­est rates – and the flex­i­bil­ity in his bal­ance sheet – to make a se­ries of ac­qui­si­tions.

Some were cen­tral to im­prov­ing BCE’s core tele­com busi­ness, such as ac­quir­ing the 50 per cent it didn’t al­ready own of dis- count wire­less brand Vir­gin Mo­bile Canada and buy­ing elec­tron­ics re­tailer the Source, both of which Mr. Cope snapped up in 2009. The lat­ter was a small but im­por­tant trans­ac­tion, be­cause the chain had about 750 stores. BCE needed real es­tate to leapfrog its ri­vals, which had been adding cor­po­rate stores at a faster pace.

Mr. Cope has al­ways rec­og­nized the im­por­tance of dis­tri­bu­tion, so it was not sur­pris­ing when, five years later, BCE swooped in to ac­quire Glen­tel Inc., owner of shop­ping-mall brands Wire­less Wave and TBooth Wire­less, out from un­derneath Rogers. Rogers, fear­ing a loss of wire­less sub­scribers, des­per­ately wanted in, and af­ter some le­gal wran­gling, BCE agreed to split it. But the deal forced Rogers to over­pay for its 50-per-cent share, putting down $473-mil­lion of the $594-mil­lion pur­chase price.

The ben­e­fits of BCE’s pur­chase of dat­a­cen­tre provider Q9 Net­works Inc. were not as clear, and of course there was the bet on me­dia, which now looks ques­tion­able at best. The CTV deal was fol­lowed by the $3bil­lion pur­chase of As­tral Me­dia, which owned a wide port­fo­lio of ra­dio and spe­cialty TV sta­tions, in­clud­ing the Cana­dian rights to HBO con­tent.

Since then, reg­u­la­tions have pre­vented tele­coms from hoard­ing most me­dia con­tent for their own cus­tomers, while the for­tunes of tra­di­tional tele­vi­sion ser­vices have dimmed in the face of com­pe­ti­tion from new play­ers such as Net­flix Inc. and plum­met­ing advertising rev­enues.

But Mr. Cope’s sig­na­ture tele­com deals have been win­ners. BCE took At­lantic Canada tele­com Bell Aliant pri­vate in 2014 at a cost of $4-bil­lion and closed a deal last year to buy Man­i­toba Tele­com Ser­vices Inc. (MTS) for $3.1-bil­lion. Both gave BCE more scale and sub­scribers for grow­ing data ser­vices.

Shortly af­ter tak­ing over, he ap­proved a new mar­ket­ing cam­paign and stripped the man­age­ment ranks, cut­ting 2,500 jobs in 2008 and a fur­ther 2,400 over the next few years.

To fix cus­tomer ser­vice, the com­pany hired thou­sands of new tech­ni­cians and ex­tended call cen­tre hours and in­stal­la­tion win­dows to evenings and week­ends. BCE spent hun­dreds of mil­lions on new call rout­ing sys­tems and kit­ted out tech­ni­cians’ trucks with GPS and lap­tops.

The com­pany lagged its ri­vals on the tech­nol­ogy front. Its in­fe­rior wire­less net­work and out­dated cop­per tele­phone wires could not de­liver TV sig­nals or fast in­ter­net ser­vice. Mr. Cope struck a deal with Telus to build a shared cel­lu­lar net­work, giv­ing both com­pa­nies in­fra­struc­ture that was fi­nally com­pat­i­ble with Ap­ple’s mar­ket-lead­ing iPhone.

With the wire­less as­sets in bet­ter shape, the CEO then poured bil­lions into up­grad­ing the com­pany’s land­line net­work, in­stalling much faster fi­bre op­tic ca­bles first into neigh­bour­hoods and more re­cently di­rectly to cus­tomers’ homes.

BCE started win­ning a larger share of the TV and in­ter­net mar­ket, which was dom­i­nated by ca­ble ri­vals Rogers, Co­geco and Videotron. And it be­gan win­ning more wire­less cus­tomers on con­tracts than its ri­vals, scoop­ing up 1.3 mil­lion since 2015, com­pared with about 1.1 mil­lion at each of Rogers and Telus. At the same time, it shifted from lower-value cus­tomers to higher spenders, even­tu­ally achiev­ing the high­est av­er­age monthly revenue per user in the coun­try at $69.28 last quar­ter.

“That doesn’t hap­pen by chance,” said Des­jardins Se­cu­ri­ties an­a­lyst Ma­her Yaghi, not­ing that it typ­i­cally takes lower prices to woo more sub­scribers. “It is be­cause they in­vested a lot of money in the net­work, they had the right mar­ket­ing cam­paigns and they in­vested in cus­tomer ser­vice.”

A lot of those in­vest­ments would not have been made if the pri­va­ti­za­tion deal had suc­ceeded, Mr. LeBlanc said. “Pri­vate

eq­uity looks to lever up, squeeze the lemon, take the cash and move on.”

“Frankly, we ex­e­cuted a strat­egy as a pub­lic com­pany aw­fully close to what we thought about do­ing pri­vately, other than I think the pub­lic mar­kets en­abled us to do it quicker,” Mr. Cope says. “We ac­quired the Source, Vir­gin. We moved pretty quickly with the in­vest­ment in Maple Leaf Sports and CTV. A lot of those things be­came very core to the strat­egy, and those were not a part of the go-pri­vate struc­ture. They were not in that orig­i­nal plan.”

Mr. Cope had turned the com­pany around, ex­e­cut­ing the buy­out plan – with a twist, us­ing ac­qui­si­tions to help spur growth and fund in­vest­ments – but now he needs to prove that or­ganic growth is enough.

‘ YOU HAVE TO TAKE OUT THE COSTS’

Mr. Cope’s pen­chant for mak­ing reg­u­lar multi­bil­lion-dol­lar ac­qui­si­tions prompted Na­tional Bank an­a­lyst Adam Shine to put to­gether a ta­ble on his shop­ping record last year to help pre­dict the num­ber of days un­til the next big deal. His av­er­age pace, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Shine, was one multi­bil­lion-dol­lar deal an­nounced ev­ery 716 days, and a new one was inked, on av­er­age, 430 days af­ter the pre­vi­ous deal closed. So BCE was due for an­other megadeal be­tween April and Septem­ber of this year.

When noth­ing ma­te­ri­al­ized by mid-Au­gust, the an­a­lyst ran the num­bers on the pos­si­bil­ity of BCE scoop­ing up the strug­gling movie-theatre chain Cine­plex Inc. He made clear it was pure spec­u­la­tion around a po­ten­tial “nice to have” trans­ac­tion if it could be done at the right price. Still, the idea got Bay Street talk­ing.

Mr. Cope tells me he heard the Cine­plex chat­ter and won’t com­ment on it specif­i­cally, but makes it a point to add that he’s very sat­is­fied with the me­dia as­sets BCE has right now.

And he’s not look­ing for tar­gets out­side of Canada. “You never say never to any­thing, but it’s not a space that we’re strate­gi­cally hunt­ing or look­ing at.”

BCE will still do small “tuck-in” ac­qui­si­tions. Sources close to the com­pany say its cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment and le­gal teams are good at finding even the small­est op­por­tu­nity to add EBITDA through an ac­qui­si­tion, par­tic­u­larly at the end of a quar­ter.

But Mr. Cope says “the fo­cus for the last three to four years has been much more on broad­band net­work in­fra­struc­ture. We all know the fi­bre story, the 5G and the wire­less story. That’s where our cap­i­tal is go­ing for our share­hold­ers.

“Now, some of our ac­qui­si­tions have helped ac­cel­er­ate the growth once in a while. And a lot of peo­ple have writ­ten, ‘With­out the ac­qui­si­tions, would this have hap­pened and would that have hap­pened?’ And it’s a bit of a silly con­ver­sa­tion, be­cause it did hap­pen, so why is it rel­e­vant?”

Per­haps it isn’t – if he can con­vince in­vestors that they won’t no­tice the miss­ing growth now that the shop­ping spree has ended.

“The main ques­tions we have from in­vestors right now are: ‘Is this div­i­dend growth sus­tain­able? Are there any other tricks up BCE’s sleeve on the ac­qui­si­tion side that will sup­port free cash flow?’ ” said Mac­quarie Cap­i­tal’s San­ford Lee.

For the past 10 years, BCE has in­creased its div­i­dend by at least 5 per cent an­nu­ally, re­turn­ing $2.5-bil­lion to share­hold­ers last year. How can Mr. Cope keep spend­ing al­most $4-bil­lion a year on cap­i­tal in­vest­ments and pay for the grow­ing div­i­dend in­vestors ex­pect?

BCE still has years to go on its ex­pen­sive fi­bre build­out, bring­ing higher-speed in­ter­net ser­vice di­rectly to at least 9.3 mil­lion house­holds and busi­nesses from Man­i­toba to At­lantic Canada. And its next- gen­er­a­tion, 5G wire­less net­work up­grade will re­quire sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments in cel­lu­lar spec­trum li­cences as well as vast pur­chases of ra­dio and an­tenna equip­ment to build thou­sands of small cells – smaller ver­sions of cell tow­ers that will be in­stalled on the sides of build­ings, on lamp posts and other ur­ban in­fra­struc­ture.

Af­ter years of steady growth un­der the CEO’s watch, BCE shares started to lan­guish in mid-2017. An­a­lysts say the stock has been hit in part by ris­ing in­ter­est rates, as in­vestors turn away from safe and pre­dictable div­i­dend stocks.

But they also say stum­bling per­for­mance on the TV and in­ter­net side and slow­ing wire­less revenue growth con­trib­uted to the stock slump, as did a wors­en­ing outlook for me­dia on ever-de­clin­ing ad­ver­tis- ing rev­enues.

How­ever, the shares seemed to reach a bot­tom this fall, at just over $51 in early Oc­to­ber, and are up al­most 12 per cent since then. An­a­lyst sen­ti­ment has shifted, too, with a few up­grad­ing their rat­ings on the stock in re­cent months.

The com­pany’s third-quar­ter earn­ings re­port from early Novem­ber showed it at­tracted 53,000 new in­ter­net sub­scribers and added 40,000 Fibe TV cus­tomers – far more than ex­pected – suggest­ing the fi­bre build is giv­ing the res­i­den­tial busi­ness some mo­men­tum. And Mr. Cope has been ac­tively telling Bay Street why he thinks the com­pany can keep gen­er­at­ing cash flow growth.

He says it will come from a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors, and his story seems to be res­onat­ing.

One is eas­ing de­mand for cap­i­tal in­vest­ment as the com­pany ap­proaches the half­way point of its fi­bre build. Plus, BCE says it can reach as many as a mil­lion new in­ter­net cus­tomers in ru­ral ar­eas us­ing new wire­less tech­nol­ogy, which is much cheaper than fi­bre to roll out. On the wire­less side, the com­pany says it has a leg up in the race to 5G thanks to all the fi­bre it has al­ready de­ployed, which will be cru­cial to mak­ing the back end of the cel­lu­lar net­work fast.

Sec­ond, the cost-cut­ting never stops. Mr. Cope told an­a­lysts on the Novem­ber call that BCE had cut 700 jobs in the pre­vi­ous three months, which will save the com­pany $75-mil­lion a year. (Its head­count was 51,679 as of the end of last year.) The fi­bre pro­ject helps with that, he tells me in our in­ter­view, be­cause the new net­work is more re­li­able and re­quires fewer ser­vice calls and fewer peo­ple to man­age it all.

Mr. Cope gets a lot of buy-in from an­a­lysts on this point, be­cause the com­pany has the best cost struc­ture in the busi­ness and cor­re­spond­ingly high profit mar­gins.

“You have to take out the costs to pro­tect the mar­gin, to pro­tect the cash flow of this com­pany, so that we have the cash to in­vest in to­mor­row’s tech­nol­ogy,” Mr. LeBlanc said. “Ge­orge re­ally has forced into his ex­ec­u­tive team, and into the lead­er­ship team around here, cost dis­ci­pline, mar­gin man­age­ment as a core com­pe­tency. With Ge­orge it’s never a pro­ject – it’s just the way he has trained the team to op­er­ate and it’s the way he thinks.”

Fi­nally, BCE can look for­ward to new cash flow thanks to favourable tax de­vel­op­ments as well as re­lief on mas­sive cash con­tri­bu­tions to its pen­sion, which sup­ported nearly 50,000 pen­sion­ers as of last year. Thanks to ris­ing in­ter­est rates, the com­pany ex­pects it will pay $1-bil­lion to $1.5-bil­lion less on pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions over the next five years. Its de­fined ben­e­fit pen­sion sol­vency rate was 100.5 per cent at the end of Septem­ber, and if it reaches 105 per cent, the com­pany has an op­por­tu­nity to save a fur­ther $200-mil­lion a year.

Af­ter the earn­ings call, RBC Se­cu­ri­ties an­a­lyst Drew McReynolds com­mented that the fac­tors Mr. Cope laid out were not nec­es­sar­ily new, but he said the “ex­plicit gran­u­lar­ity” around free cash flow “ar­guably re­moves what has been lin­ger­ing un­cer­tainty around the com­pany’s div­i­dend growth model look­ing into 2019.”

‘ YOU KEEP SCORE’

As al­most ev­ery pro­file of Mr. Cope du­ti­fully notes, he’s es­pe­cially fond of sports metaphors. As we watch Rap­tors head coach Nick Nurse gather the play­ers in a large cir­cle for a team-wide chat to start the prac­tice, he tells me, “I find sports and busi­ness so sim­i­lar, be­cause they’re com­pet­i­tive, you play by the rules and, in a pub­lic com­pany, you keep score, so you re­ally know if you’re do­ing well against your com­peti­tors.”

For the past 18 years, he has worked ei­ther for or in friendly com­pe­ti­tion with Telus CEO Darren En­twistle. The pair, who are al­most the same age, came up in the early days of the in­dus­try. Mr. En­twistle worked as a line­man at BCE while Mr. Cope, fresh out of busi­ness school, joined the soon-to-be Clear­net team in the 1980s.

Both share a sim­i­lar dogged fo­cus on num­bers and ex­e­cu­tion, both have en­joyed fan­tas­tic suc­cess and both are well re­garded and some­times feared (Mr. En­twistle prob­a­bly pulls ahead on the lat­ter).

And now, Mr. En­twistle’s one­time suc­ces­sor, Joe Na­tale (who also over­lapped with Mr. Cope at Telus), is a year and a half into run­ning Rogers, still the coun­try’s big­gest wire­less car­rier.

The trio of CEOs, for­mer team­mates, all ex­cel at heads-down op­er­a­tions and know one an­other’s moves well. That means they can’t count on out-think­ing one an­other in a ma­tur­ing Cana­dian tele­com mar­ket, which has been de­scribed as a “game of inches,” with none of the ma­jor play­ers hav­ing an ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage.

At Bell, Mr. Cope is loyal to his cor­po­rate team. Many of his se­nior ex­ec­u­tives – who pri­mar­ily work out of the com­pany’s man­age­ment suite on the 44th floor of a tower at Bay and Adelaide Streets in down­town Toronto – have been by his side since his Telus days, if not the Clear­net era.

Mr. Cope re­cently pro­moted reg­u­la­tory and le­gal ex­ec­u­tive Mirko Bibic to the role of chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, no­table in part be­cause he him­self was the last per­son to hold that ti­tle. Mr. Bibic has played a key role in cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment, shep­herd­ing the com­pany’s trick­i­est deals – in par­tic­u­lar MTS, which in­volved a se­ries of con­ces­sions to get com­pe­ti­tion au­thor­i­ties on side. Mr. Bibic is smart and per­son­able and seen by many as a star, but he lacks hand­son op­er­a­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, hence the new role.

For the first time in a decade, the prospect of Mr. Cope not run­ning BCE seems to be on the hori­zon.

For now, all Mr. Cope will say on the sub­ject is, “I’m re­ally lik­ing what I do.”

I find sports and busi­ness so sim­i­lar, be­cause they’re com­pet­i­tive, you play by the rules and, in a pub­lic com­pany, you keep score.

GE­ORGE COPE,

CHIEF EX­EC­U­TIVE OF BCE INC.

FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

BCE chief ex­ec­u­tive Ge­orge Cope speaks dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at the train­ing cen­tre for the Toronto Rap­tors. Mr. Cope is on the board of

FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ge­orge Cope, chief ex­ec­u­tive of BCE Inc., looks out over the Toronto Rap­tors’ prac­tice space at the BioS­teel Cen­tre on Nov. 13. BCE owns 37.5 per cent of Maple Leaf Sports and En­ter­tain­ment Ltd.

CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Mr. Cope, left, MLSE chair­man Larry Ta­nen­baum, cen­tre, and Nadir Mo­hamed, then the pres­i­dent and CEO of Rogers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, hold up Rap­tors, Toronto FC, Maple Leafs and Mar­lies jer­seys at a 2011 news con­fer­ence an­nounc­ing the tele­com gi­ants’ $1.3-bil­lion pur­chase of a ma­jor­ity stake in MLSE.

FRANK GUNN/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Rap­tors for­ward Kawhi Leonard, left, moves past Philadel­phia 76ers for­ward Wil­son Chan­dler dur­ing NBA ac­tion in Toronto on Wed­nes­day. BCE’s Mr. Cope sees many par­al­lels be­tween busi­ness and sports.

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