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Allison Kirkby will take over as the new chief executive of BT on 1 February, the UK incumbent announced this week.
January 8, 2024
While Kirkby's start date is in itself noteworthy, bringing a new face to the top of a major telco, it would be a mistake to expect any kind of major strategic change at BT this year or even further out. Kirkby has been involved with BT for some years and made it clear when she was appointed that she would take a similar tack to outgoing CEO Philip Jansen.
"Having been a member of the BT Group Board for the past four years, I'm fully supportive of our strategy and am excited about leading it into its next phase of development," Kirkby said, in July last year.
That strategy has seen BT move away from an expensive content play championed by former CEO Gavin Patterson, whose tenure saw the operator spend heavily on sports rights, particularly football.
Since Patterson's departure five years ago, the telco has instead focused on being a telco, prioritising the rollout of fibre infrastructure in the UK. And keeping costs in check, of course.
That said, Jansen's period in charge was not solely a return to the old days; amongst other things, the departing boss oversaw the repositioning of mobile unit EE last year, which is now trying to establish itself as a the hub around which customers organise their online lives – providing a platform for the sale of consumer electronics, insurance, home security and so forth – rather than settling for being simply the UK's biggest 5G operator.
The jury's still out on how that will go and it will be for Kirkby to manage, along with everything else, when she arrives next month.
She inherits a company in a reasonably stable, if uninspiring, position. Its last set of financial results, published in November, showed a continued increase in profits on flat revenues on the back of price hikes earlier in the year; sales of fibre broadband and an improved performance in its business division also helped. The operator is recording strong customer additions in fibre broadband and mobile adds at EE, while its Openreach unit continues to roll out fibre at pace.
Its share price makes for less upbeat reading though. The telco starts the new year with its stock price almost half what it was five years earlier. That depressed share price has attracted a new major investor in the shape of Altice, which holds almost a quarter of BT and clearly believes there is a growth opportunity there.
BT is far from being the only major European operator having trouble with its stock market graph. So while Krikby will keep one eye on its downward trajectory when she moves into her new office in a few weeks, her immediate focus is likely to be elsewhere. We can expect more upbeat fibre deployment announcements, more hype around EE's prowess, and an ongoing tight grip on the purse strings.
The biggest change at BT HQ will be the fact that for the first time in its history the telco has a female CEO. But from a strategy point of view, we're unlikely to notice the difference.
Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.
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