Telenor names new CEO as Brekke preps for retirement

Despite a wealth of experience among its senior leadership, Telenor has chosen a high-flying banker as its new CEO.

Nick Wood

May 23, 2024

4 Min Read

Incumbent Sigve Brekke's contract stipulates retirement at the end of 2024, which will bring the curtain down on his eventful nine-year tenure.

Replacing him from 1 December is Benedicte Schilbred Fasmer (pictured), who is currently chief executive of SpareBank 1 SR-Bank.

It is in the midst of merging with SpareBank 1 Sørøst-Norge – said to be the largest banking tie-up in Norway for 25 years. Don't be confused by the names, these are two separate banks that are both members of the SpareBank 1 alliance, a nationwide cooperative of independent savings banks.

Before that, Schilbred Fasmer held group EVP roles at insurer Fremtind Forsikring, and DNB Bank, Norway's largest financial services provider. Her background also includes stints in private equity, corporate finance, Citibank, and a spell as chair of the Oslo Stock Exchange.

By appointing an external candidate, Telenor has become the latest European operator after BT and Orange to cast the net wider than its leadership team to snare a new CEO.

It's a surprising move given the calibre of Telenor's senior management.

Petter-Børre Furberg springs to mind. Currently head of Telenor Asia, he's been at Telenor since before the millennium, and has previously been in charge of its domestic operation and its Mynamar business – not an easy gig, to put it mildly. He's also held C-level roles at Dtac in Thailand.

Jørgen Rostrup is another. He has previously been group CFO, head of Asia, and is currently head of Telenor Nordics.

These two know Telenor and the telecoms industry inside out, but for one reason or another, have been overlooked.

One could argue that it's high time for some fresh perspective, which would be a valid point were it not for this snippet from Telenor chair Jens Petter Olsen, who said "Telenor's financial targets stand firm, and there are no plans for any strategy shifts."

Perhaps there is some ancient Telenor bylaw that demands fresh blood.

"The board has been looking for the most qualified candidate to lead Telenor and we are pleased that Benedicte Schilbred Fasmer has agreed to take on this role," said Olsen. "We need a CEO with great leadership skills, who understands how technology will enable us to deliver secure and superior customer experience and someone who will ensure profitable growth."

That might sting a bit for messrs Furberg and Rostrup.

"I feel incredibly privileged to be given the opportunity to lead Telenor, which is in a class-of-its-own when it comes to profitable growth and customer experience in the European telecoms industry," said Schilbred Fasmer.

"I have been working with digital innovation and transformation for two decades, and in my opinion banking and the telco industry are facing similar disruptions," she said. "I am very much looking forward to contributing to continued growth and customer centricity in Telenor."

As for Brekke, it's safe to say he has led Telenor through interesting times.

Under his leadership, Telenor put its international expansion into reverse, as the dream of being a global powerhouse crashed into the reality of political upheaval, corruption and fierce competition.

Brekke stepped up at a time when Telenor was under fire for its affiliation with the telco formerly known as VimpelCom – which was charged with bribing its way into Uzbekistan's mobile market, and subsequently settled with US and Dutch authorities for $835 million.

Telenor's chairman, CFO, and general counsel all resigned during the course of the scandal, and Telenor unsurprisingly opted to sell its stake in VimpelCom.

At the beginning of Brekke's tenure, Telenor was also a major force in the Indian mobile market, where it operated under the Uninor brand. But the launch of Reliance Jio triggered a damaging price war. Uninor threw in the towel in 2017, when it agreed to be acquired by Bharti Airtel.

Then of course there's Myanmar. When Brekke became CEO, Telenor – along with Ooredoo – was one of the first foreign-owned telcos rolling out mobile services in what was back then seen as the world's last greenfield mobile market. Its launch there was emblematic of a country that was finally looking outward after the military junta ceded control to a civilian government.

Then the wheels came off. The junta again seized power and began crushing civil liberties. Unwilling to install surveillance equipment on its mobile network, Telenor opted to sell out of Myanmar instead, but not before writing down the value of its business by $780 million.

Telenor is also currently in the process of selling its Pakistan operation, while its opcos in both Thailand and Malaysia have both merged with rivals in the pursuit of scale and all that entails.

In Europe, Telenor has focused on consolidating its position in the Nordics, carving out and monetising its infrastructure, and ramping up various digital growth engines, including IoT, entertainment, maritime comms, and more recently – along with every other telco – generative AI.

"Sigve has done a terrific job on behalf of Telenor for several decades. His nine years as CEO have been a very demanding period for European telcos. Nevertheless, the company has grown and outperformed the industry," said Olsen.

"I've had fun at work every single day, and it is a great privilege to be CEO of an organisation like Telenor, with so many talented employees," Brekke said. "I'll give full throttle the last few months, then I'm looking forward to welcoming Benedicte to Telenor."

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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