Guy Laurence says he is passionate about listening to customers. He's going to get an earful should the head of Vodafone UK Ltd. end up running Rogers Communications Inc.
Canada's telecommunications companies must have known they had customer-relations problems – but they probably had no idea just how bad until this summer when seemingly half the country was ready to switch to a U.S. provider that had not even committed to coming to Canada.
Verizon Communications Inc. took a look and said no thanks. But customers showed their willingness to gripe about their wireless companies, and the sting of that lingers, as does the risk the Conservative government will capitalize on that antipathy for political gains by luring another foreign telco here.
Mr. Laurence is apparently going to be the man Rogers picks to keep customers loyal and happy.
He is said to be the frontrunner for the Rogers CEO job now that Nadir Mohamed is leaving Rogers, which holds all or part of the country's biggest wireless provider, biggest cable company, and biggest sporting empire, along with one of the biggest media agglomerations. It's a diverse portflio, in complicated industries.
Rogers could have gone with another deal maker in the Ted Rogers mould, if there was one to be found. There was long said to be some discontent in the boardroom at Rogers that Mr. Mohamed was not as aggressive as the man whose name is on the building, and that Rogers had lost its moxie. Suddenly once-staid rival BCE Inc. was doing all the deals.
Realistically, it's hard to see what big acquisitions in Canada remain to be done given Rogers' breadth. The deal that is always out there is the plan that might one day combine Rogers with Shaw Communications, the other mammoth cable company. Until then, the size and scope of Canada's telecoms limit their domestic options.
So what Rogers needs might be less about making it bigger than making it feel and act smaller.
In Mr. Laurence, Rogers could get new ideas from an executive who is used to a competitive wireless business that looks a lot like Canada's. Vodafone and two competitors have about 85 per cent of the market among them. The difference is that Rogers is used to being on top, while Vodafone is the smallest. Mr. Laurence knows what it's like to be an underdog, which Rogers was when it was building a wireless business from scratch.
The risk is that Mr. Laurence will be unfamiliar with what one longtime financier in wireless charitably calls the "nuances" of the Canadian market. Communications and media are governed by so many twisted regulations and overseen by so many strong personalities that it takes a long time to learn how to deal with it all.
Mr. Mohamed had years to learn, having worked at Rogers for most of a decade before becoming CEO. George Cope had a long career in telecom in Canada before ascending to the top seat at BCE. Darren Entwistle at Telus Corp. has had a similar stretch to learn on the job in Canada after moving from a role at Cable & Wireless PLC in the United Kingdom.
And then there are the quirks of Rogers itself.
Mr. Laurence will have to handle the complicated governance at Rogers, where the children of the late Mr. Rogers control the company. One of them, Edward Rogers, is a one-time CEO aspirant who has huge sway over the family's voting bloc of Rogers stock.
Dealing with all that is likely to be easy compared to convincing Canadians that they don't have it so bad when it comes to cellphone service. Mr. Laurence will hear about it wherever he goes.
As I type, I'm looking at a stack of documents from incumbent Canadian telcos that argue Canadian services are good, and a decent value at the price. It's not entirely unconvincing. But too many Canadians don't believe it.
Until they do, Rogers is vulnerable.
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(Boyd Erman is a Globe and Mail Capital Markets Reporter & Streetwise Columnist.)
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