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Telus CEO Darren Entwistle is the son of a Bell lineman and had an early job as a repairman for the rival phone giant. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and)
Telus CEO Darren Entwistle is the son of a Bell lineman and had an early job as a repairman for the rival phone giant. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and)

Telus CEO put to a leadership test Add to ...

The jaw is still firm, the face still unlined and the voice still thunders through long soliloquies like a freight train roaring down a canyon. But Darren Entwistle is no longer the cocksure 37-year-old who parachuted in from Britain to manhandle a sleepy former phone monopoly into a national communications force called Telus Corp.

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That was in 2000 and his industry has undergone several revolutions since then, propelling him through stomach-churning megaprojects and impossible deadlines that created the scariest moments of his professional life.

Telus's young leader has also created a dilemma for the company. The Vancouver-based enterprise has suffered the curse of the kid CEO, an energetic force who built the company, made it into a national player and is still there, at 48, at the cost of ambitious executives who departed for rival firms, knowing Mr. Entwistle was going nowhere soon.

"You don't want to coagulate the arteries of an organization forever," he says, speaking in that florid oratorical style that is the Entwistle trademark. But he has not lost the old intensity and insatiable lust for the deal. "I have some pretty profound desires in what I'd like to see us achieve operationally and strategically," he says. "I'm just not quite exhausted yet."

We are entering a new phase of Mr. Entwistle's bold stewardship of Canada's No. 2 telecom carrier, a once-regional company that he pulled across the east-west divide and into the data and wireless business, and now into Internet protocol TV (IPTV) service. The years ahead shape up as the culmination of what is already an 11-year run - a tenure almost unheard of in the tumultuous telecom sector - as he tends to a list of unfinished business.

But what a list it is. As active as Telus has been since his arrival, the final years of the Entwistle era will present some of the most daunting tests the company has ever faced.

Mr. Entwistle still wants to complete his national wireless dream, anchoring Telus in the backyards of Bell Canada and Rogers Communications and growing beyond its traditional place as the distant third-place entrant in Ontario. In its home base of Alberta and B.C., it is playing defence - with powerful western rival Shaw Communications Inc. making its long-awaited push into wireless service - and offence. Telus's high-tech television venture has so far captured about 10 per cent market share in those two provinces; it will have to gain much more than that in order to reap a return on the multibillion-dollar investments necessary to be competitive with cable.

And then there is the newest challenge: grappling with the industry's second wave of convergence. Friday's announcement that BCE Inc. closed its deal to buy CTV means that of the four telecommunications companies with a wide geographic presence - BCE, Rogers, Telus and Shaw - only Telus lacks a large stable of in-house broadcasting assets to produce entertainment and news content for cellphones, tablets, and yes, televisions.

Mr. Entwistle has stuck stubbornly to his decade-old game plan as a non-aligned carrier using content from wherever it can find it, without owning it. It has been a major test of leadership, as he has watched his two closest archrivals snap up the largest private broadcasting networks.

Regulators in the U.S. and Canada have indicated they don't like the idea of carriers locking up exclusive content, and Ottawa is about to run hearings to look at the issue. "You can see where the landscape is headed," the Telus CEO says.

But if Mr. Entwistle seems outwardly comfortable, don't be deceived. It is his fundamental tenet that executives should be exceedingly anxious, and if they aren't, they lack necessary focus. It's what drives Mr. Entwistle, and what has driven many Telus managers out the door, unable to cope with the pressure. "The intensity just permeates everything that he does and the way he does it," a former employee says.

What makes managers most anxious are not the things they do, but the things they elect not to do, Mr. Entwistle maintains. There are always 10 exciting actions his company could be taking, but in a world of scarce resources, only five probably can get done.

It's the ones that get away that keep you awake, Mr. Entwistle says. His biggest sleep-killer arises from his decision in 2004 not to pursue a winning bid for wireless provider Microcell. He let the late cable entrepreneur Ted Rogers slip in and walk away with a prize that made Rogers into Canada's wireless powerhouse. Telus avoided a huge debt load, but lost a game-changing acquisition. Telus remains locked in third place. It still hurts.

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