Guy Laurence arrived promising a revolution at Rogers Communications. He leaves behind a company that is vastly changed, but still suffers from legions of unhappy customers and confused employees.
His sacking is proof that you can't violate the two immutable rules of the Big Red Machine. One, don't cross the Rogers family. Two, you must produce results. Mr. Laurence did too much of the former and not enough of the latter, and that is why he's gone.
Full disclosure: I spent two years inside Guy Laurence's Rogers as a mid-level grunt in its media division. I arrived in March, 2014, two months before he unveiled his strategic plan, which he called Rogers 3.0, and resigned this past spring to rejoin The Globe and Mail as editor of Report on Business.
I could count on my fingers the number of times I interacted with Mr. Laurence, but the experience was always pleasant. He is an engaging person and an excellent speaker, never better than when he was on a stage or in small groups, laying out his vision to the staff.
Yet all that charisma didn't translate into success. And for most of my time at Rogers, the air was thick with discussion of the CEO's mistakes. It was said that he failed to cultivate allies in the Rogers boardroom and alienated members of the founding family. He rebuilt his senior executive team mostly with outsiders and declined to put a single woman on it. He poked BCE boss George Cope in the eye and paid for it. He made questionable deals, but never seemed to own up to them when they went wrong.
It all started with so much hope. When he took over in 2013, Mr. Laurence was a jolt of energy for a company that needed it. His Rogers 3.0 plan was full of sound ideas. He said Rogers needed to make great strides in improving customer service. He argued that it was too bureaucratic and its products too complicated. He said the company should be able to take customers away from Bell and others in the business telecom market, where Rogers has long underperformed, and hired Nitin Kawale, a spark plug from Cisco Systems, to run the effort.
Mr. Laurence also sought to lower the walls separating the wireless, cable and media divisions and get all of them working together for the good of the company. "One Rogers" was his mantra. He crafted a 100-word mission statement for the company. It was poetic, and it ended with the late Ted Rogers' signature line: "The best is yet to come."
It was a fine strategy. But its implementation exposed some of Mr. Laurence's weaknesses as an executive – such as arrogance: As part of his grand restructuring, he pushed Ted Rogers' children to the side. When he announced to staff that Melinda Rogers was moving aside as a senior vice-president (while remaining on the board), the statement was a few terse lines. It was cold. That was one of the first visible signs of tension between Mr. Laurence and the family that controls the business.
A former media executive who'd worked in Hollywood, Mr. Laurence had a showman's touch. He signed a splashy $100-million deal with Vice Media and appeared on a stage wearing a leather jacket beside Vice supremo Shane Smith, talking about the attraction of great programming for millennials. The arrangement saw Rogers fund a major expansion of Vice's Canadian operation in return for access to its content and a stake in a new cable channel, Viceland.
Was it worth the amount of money Rogers sunk into it? Not a chance. More than one Rogers manager has suffered under the pressure of trying to make the CEO's bad deal work with a difficult partner. But Mr. Laurence rarely missed an opportunity to talk up the Vice partnership to staff.
The Vice deal was a minor error. A bigger mistake happened in Mr. Laurence's first year, when he publicly rebuked Mr. Cope's BCE for complaining to the federal broadcast regulator about Rogers' treatment of hockey content. "Crybaby Bell," he called them.
Several weeks later, the crybabies struck back, not with words but with money. BCE signed a deal for $594-million to acquire Glentel, owner of a large chain of outlets selling Rogers products, including Wireless Wave.
Glentel is a big deal in telecom retailing. Had BCE kicked Rogers out of those stores, it would have been devastating to Rogers' wireless results, at least in the short term. Mr. Laurence had been outmanoeuvered. Eventually, Rogers was forced to overpay to buy 50 per cent of the Glentel business from his rivals – paying $473-million, according to the company's latest annual report. That was one expensive mistake.
Inside the company, Mr. Laurence became known for an odd form of micromanagement. He became obsessed with a plan to renovate the offices and talked of driving a bulldozer through the cubicles at one of Rogers' buildings in suburban Toronto. At one of his quarterly management meetings, he declared that all managers should get a Rogers-branded credit card from the company's banking division. Then, at the next quarterly meeting, he displayed on a large screen the names of all those who hadn't bothered to apply for one.
Funny stuff. But is this what the CEO of a $28-billion company should be worrying about?
In the end, Mr. Laurence achieved some good things at Rogers. He brought in some new executive talent, shifted the culture, and made important steps on customer service, including the introduction of a much friendlier roaming scheme for wireless users.
Even so: today's third-quarter report shows that while the company is adding lots of new wireless customers, it still churns them at a much faster rate than Telus. The cable TV business continues to shrink and Rogers can't seem to get a cable product off the ground that is as good as Bell's Fibe. That will be the legacy of Guy Laurence's short tenure at Rogers. Big promises. Modest results.