BT Group board divided on pace of change after South African chairman quits

BT Group Plc’s board remains divided following the unexpected resignation of chairman Jan du Plessis, with the two camps mainly at odds over the pace of changes needed at the company.

One group of directors, including chief executive officer Philip Jansen, wants BT to accelerate decisions around its nationwide broadband network Openreach, as well as restructuring, while other board members want more certainty around external issues such as regulation, according to people familiar with the matter.

BT is studying how to get the best return on investment, including the merits of sharing infrastructure with rivals and external sources of capital, one person said.

Jansen felt increasingly stymied pushing for faster decision-making after two years leading Britain’s largest telecommunications company, the people said, asking not to be named as the deliberations are private. The resulting clash with the chairman reflected those boardroom debates and wasn’t personal, they said.

A Sky News report saying Jansen threatened to resign if he wasn’t fully supported prompted BT to publish an unusual stock market statement denying du Plessis had impeded BT’s restructuring, but it didn’t deny Sky’s central claim.

The two agree on BT’s central direction — upgrading the company’s network to fiber and adding value with digital services — but the board has failed to agree on the pace and extent of changes needed.

Jansen won’t suddenly face an open field. Du Plessis will remain in post until a new chair is found, months during which BT faces a gamut of major decisions.

This week it’s expected to spend hundreds of millions of pounds in an auction for 5G airwaves, and will probably bid for Premier League soccer broadcasting rights.

Next month watchdog Ofcom will impose rules determining how much profit BT can make on its 12 billion-pound ($16.7 billion) fiber network. Then BT will conclude triennial funding talks with trustees of its pension, the UK’s largest in the private sector.

Du Plessis, 67, ended up temporarily trapped in his native South Africa over Christmas as flights were canceled by coronavirus travel restrictions.

The timing isn’t ideal for his legacy as he leaves after just three-and-a-half years. In one of his first speeches at BT he said he was “very, very confident, when I hand over the chairmanship one day, we will have created value for shareholders.” BT’s share price has fallen by almost half since then.

BT reiterated its earlier statement that du Plessis resigned for personal reasons. “The board of BT is fully aligned on the strategy and future direction of the business,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Du Plessis was planning to retire as soon as this year, but recently expressed a wish to stay in his role for longer, which had brought discussions to a head, according to one person familiar.

BT’s board has been overhauled in recent years. It’s been joined by former Barclays Plc UK chairman Ian Cheshire, former Argos managing director Sara Weller, Telia CEO Allison Kirkby, Deutsche Telekom executive Adel Al-Saleh, former Telefonica SA UK boss Matthew Key, and Unilever’s head of human resources Leena Nair.

Senior independent director Iain Conn will lead the search for a new chairman. BT has previously tended to look externally for chairs.

Jansen comes from a high-octane stint in private equity leading payments processing giant WorldPay onto the London Stock Exchange and into a merger with rival Vantiv. He’s also overhauling the company’s executive team from global telecom companies.

He brought in Harmeen Mehta from Bharti Airtel Ltd to lead a new digital unit, and Rob Shuter joined from South Africa’s MTN Group to replace retiring enterprise unit head Gerry McQuade.

Read: Former MTN boss Rob Shuter scores R74 million payday

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BT Group board divided on pace of change after South African chairman quits