After more than a decade leading a transformation at Canada’s biggest telecom and media company, George Cope plans to step aside as chief executive of BCE Inc. next year.
When he took the top job in 2008, he inherited a legacy telephone operator in decline and a blockbuster deal to take the company private soon fell apart, leaving him to execute a turnaround plan with the continued scrutiny of public shareholders.
Now Mr. Cope, who will turn 58 next month, says he is ready for a break from that attention and the relentless pace of meeting quarterly targets. Having been either CEO or one of the top managers at a publicly traded telecom since 1994, he estimates he has participated in about 100 quarterly earnings calls with investors, only missing one call when he moved from Telus Corp. to BCE in 2006.
When he leaves on Jan. 5, handing control over to long-time BCE executive Mirko Bibic, Mr. Cope said it will “allow a little bit of the intensity that comes with running BCE to come off my back.”
“The company is re-energized from a competitive standpoint, so I hand the baton to Mirko and the team feeling quite relaxed,” Mr. Cope said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Friday after the company announced the CEO transition. “My view was that since Mirko has been here for so long and is such an excellent leader, it was not necessary for me to take it any longer than to the end of this year.”
Mr. Bibic, a lawyer who for years played a key role in regulatory and corporate affairs at BCE, took on the expanded job of chief operating officer last October. The promotion, which gave him hands-on experience with operational matters, was seen by many as a clear signal of the company’s CEO succession plan. Financial analysts said Friday the move was largely expected, but added that it will take some time for Bay Street to become more familiar with Mr. Bibic.
“These are big shoes to fill as we believe that Mr. Cope has been an outstanding CEO. However, BCE has a deep management team and a stable, diversified asset base, so the ship will continue to sail after Mr. Cope’s departure,” TD Securities analyst Vince Valentini said.
“We believe the company has never been better positioned or operated more efficiently,” said BMO Nesbitt Burns’ Tim Casey, pointing out that BCE shares have generated a total shareholder return of 167 per cent during Mr. Cope’s tenure, compared with 65 per cent for the broader TSX.
In the years after taking over as CEO, Mr. Cope steered BCE through a significant overhaul in its operations – launching new marketing, restructuring the management ranks and investing in its landline and wireless networks – as well as a long series of acquisitions. His deals ranged from large and high-profile targets such as Astral Media, CTV and Manitoba Telecom Services Inc., to smaller but still strategic plays, such as telecom retail distributors The Source and Glentel Inc. (owner of shopping mall mainstays Wireless Wave and Tbooth Wireless).
On the legal side, Mr. Bibic helped fight numerous battles with federal authorities in Ottawa, sparring over regulations and smoothing the way for government approvals of the company’s many acquisitions. He joined BCE in 2004 after a stint in private practice with Stikeman Eilliott LLP in Ottawa and became chief legal and regulatory officer in 2012. Mr. Bibic will be 52 in July.
“It’s sort of bittersweet from the board’s perspective as we would have loved to have George stay on longer,” said Gordon Nixon, who is the former CEO of Royal Bank of Canada and current chairman of the BCE board of directors. “But there’s no question that the board believed Mirko was the right person at the right stage in his career with the right background and right personality strengths.”
“George will enjoy a well earned rest."
Mr. Nixon said the board also considered external candidates for the role but was pleased to pick an internal successor. “When you talk about a lot of the deals that were done by George, Mirko was side by side with him during those deals,” he said, adding that Mr. Bibic will have spent more than a year adding operational experience to his résumé before he takes over as CEO.
Calin Rovinescu, CEO of Air Canada and a BCE board member, said he has known Mr. Bibic for about 25 years, having both started at the same law firm early in their careers. He said the incoming CEO’s strength in building relationships with government and regulators will be a benefit as the telecom industry prepares for a major regulatory review next year as well as looming legislative changes.
Mr. Cope got his start in the early days of the Canadian cellular industry, joining wireless startup Clearnet in the 1980s shortly after graduating from the University of Western Ontario. He helped take Clearnet public in 1994 and sold it to Telus Corp. in 2000 for $6-billion.
The 6-foot-7 executive played varsity basketball and realized a dream of sorts when he helped hoist the championship trophy after the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Finals earlier this month. One of his marquee deals was acquiring 37.5 per cent of Toronto sports conglomerate Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., which owns the Raptors.
Mr. Cope will resign his seat on the BCE board of directors when he retires but said, “I plan to stay somehow involved in the commercial community in Canada and in the charitable community." He currently sits on the boards of Bank of Montreal and research foundation Brain Canada.
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.