The two faces of Didier Bellens

  • The head of Belgacom brilliantly rose to a host of challenges during his first term.
  • But his second term has been a complete disaster.
  • The government will determine his fate on Friday.

It’s now the trend to criticize the arrogant attitude of the Belgacom CEO while simultaneously praising his captain of industry-style skills, which have turned the public firm into a thriving operator within a sector in crisis. If, however, Didier Bellens’ two six-year terms are analyzed separately, the reality of the situation is actually very different. While his first six years often enabled him to project a competent image, his second term has produced much less impressive results.

When he arrived in 2003, the company was not exactly on its knees. Most of the strategic decisions, such as the development of a high-speed network, had already been made by his predecessor, John Goossens. Bellens took charge of seeing them to fruition, plus enhancing them with the ambitious launch of television over phone lines, an innovation that turned the audiovisual sector upside down.

But the flagship project of his first term was undoubtedly floating Belgacom on the stock market, which was adeptly overseen by Albert Frère’s former right-hand man. “It seemed like the only time where he really derived pleasure from an initiative,” notes an insider who left the company today. The operation was followed by a consolidation period, during which the group incorporated Proximus and other divisions.

The end of his first term also saw some disenchantment between Bellens and his board of directors come to light. A group of directors, led by Maurice Lippens, urged him to adopt an aggressive foreign acquisition policy. Bellens opposed this vigorously.

But it was an unrecognizable Bellens who began his second six-year term. Once his controversial reappointment was behind him, he set about rooting out the individuals on the board who had fiercely opposed him in the past. “What was left was an extremely weakened board with which he did what he wanted,” says a former company executive. This was exacerbated by the fact that for nearly two years; the role of chairman of the board was fulfilled by one of his closest allies, Michel Moll.

This second term has been far from convincing, given that Bellens has proved unable to rise to the majority of challenges that lay before him. In the sphere of new media in particular, he has overseen a series of bitter failures – from Jinni, a search and recommendation engine for movies and TV shows (in which millions of dollars have been sunk for a minimal return) to On Live, an online video game platform (an apparent loss for Belgacom). As for his mobile payment services, which Bellens had claimed would become the new growth drivers, they have attracted more praise from industry experts than sales thus far.

This absence of new cash cows, combined with heavier telecoms regulations, continues to have a negative impact on revenue- especially in the mobile sector. This has forced Didier Bellens to take a more “creative” approach to guaranteeing the sacrosanct dividend on which the public shareholder depends. He can pride himself on not having delved into the generous coffers of the state, but he has only achieved this through certain “one-shots”, such as the sale of more than 60 buildings over the past two years. It will likely be many months before a clearer picture of this decline in Belgacom’s operational results emerges.

Maintaining in-house harmony was one of the principal tasks entrusted to him. Throughout the decade spent at the helm of Belgacom, he has managed, like his predecessors, to avoid the sort of bloodbaths witnessed within other European telecoms operators. But it could be said he did not have any choice in the matter and that his public shareholders would never have allowed him to indulge in ruthless downsizing. However, that never stopped him from unceremoniously steering numerous members of staff toward the exit doors. “Most employees can’t wait for him to go,” says another ex-executive. “If the government removes him, you can expect champagne corks to pop all over Belgacom Towers on boulevard Albert II.”  

ALAIN JENNOTTE

 

 

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