Next BT CEO Allison Kirkby takes the wheel from next month

Jansen can let someone else worry about nationwide fiber rollout now

UK telco giant BT is confirming a start date for Allison Kirkby, who will become its chief executive on February 1, facing down the challenge of the company's nationwide fiber rollout and trying to reverse its declining share price.

Kirkby takes over the helm at BT Group from current CEO Philip Jansen, who led the former state-owned telecoms monopoly since 2019. Her appointment was announced last summer, shortly after Jansen said he intended to retire from corporate life within 12 months, but the handover date was not named at the time.

During Jansen's half a decade in charge, BT was hit by its first nationwide strikes over pay for decades, as well as announcements of swingeing job cuts (up to 55,000 jobs, or 42 percent of staff) to come between now and the end of the decade.

However, it has also witnessed a major acceleration in the deployment of all-fiber network infrastructure, with its Openreach subsidiary recently claiming to have reached the halfway point in its goal of rolling out fiber broadband to 25 million UK premises by the end of 2026.

“Jansen helped navigate the group through a difficult period,” PP Foresight telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore commented, adding: “It was probably time to think about the next chapter for both him and BT.”

Kirkby faces a number of challenges as she steps into the hot seat, but seems to have plenty of the right experience. She joins from Swedish telecoms provider Telia, where she has served as President and CEO since 2020, and has previously worked for Virgin Media and TDC, the largest telecommunications company in Denmark. She has also been a non-executive director at BT Group since 2019.

“Managing BT is no easy feat due to numerous stakeholders including Ofcom, the UK government, pension funds and unions as well as others,” said Pescatore, sounding a note of caution.

“An external person always needs time to get up to speed and establish new connections with everyone. Arguably, it might have been time to promote from within the BT ranks rather than recruit another external CEO.”


Progress towards 'Gigabit Europe' is slow, with UK also lagging


One of the challenges faced is BT’s stock price, which has been in long term decline, said to have fallen by 31 percent over five years, and 53 percent over the past decade. According to investment site Motley Fool, the share price had a volatile year, increasing steadily from January until April last year, before falling back the next six months, then recovering slightly, but still ending up below its five-year high of £2.39 ($3.04), achieved in January 2019.

“She will face pressure to improve returns and appease shareholders after a long-term share price decline,” CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann told us.

At the top of the list of priorities ought to be improving BT’s ailing business division, following the merger of its global and enterprise arms in 2022, according to Mann, as well as trying to improve relationships with staff following the job cuts announced last year.

Other challenges are likely to include increasing competition from rivals such as the alternative network providers (“altnets”) in fixed-line broadband, plus the threat from a combined Vodafone and Three on the mobile side, set to happen sometime this year, subject to regulatory and shareholder approvals.

Something will also need to be done to improve things at the company’s Business unit, which has been regarded as underperforming since it was created from the merger of the Global and Enterprise divisions.

However, the consensus is that Kirkby’s arrival is unlikely to herald a major change in direction for the telecoms giant. The new CEO seems set to continue following Jansen’s transformation efforts, and pushing the nationwide rollout program of fiber infrastructure by Openreach.

One wildcard that Kirkby may need to keep an eye on is French telecoms billionaire Patrick Drahi and his Altice outfit, through which he has been gradually buying up BT shares over the past several years. He now owns just under 25 percent of the company, giving him considerable influence, although he has consistently denied any intention to make a takeover bid for BT. ®

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