Up close & personal with Ben Verwaayen

  • Business
  • Saturday, 13 Nov 2010

BEN Verwaayen says he can read people within minutes into a conversation with them. Indeed, it can be unnerving for the person on the other side of the table who knows this bit of information about Ben. The skill has little to do with psychic abilities and more of gut and sharp intuition.

"I read people all the time," he says. Has his "gut feel" been proven correct? "Most of the time yes. I feel good about my score card," he says, adding, however, that there have been a few misses in the past.

The Dutch man is CEO of Paris-based telecommunications equipment supplier Alcatel-Lucent, a post he has been holding since September 2008. While he readily admits that the "Dutch are not the greatest diplomats", he takes pride in describing himself as a "great communicator." Communication is about understanding people, their cultures and giving people an opportunity to speak up.

It is perhaps this which landed him the job as the boss of Alcatel-Lucent two years ago. The task ahead was no walk in the park as Alcatel was going through the growing pains of having merged with Lucent, a US-based outfit, since 2007. There were concerns then about cultural differences that could derail the merger, something the company could least afford given the intense competition which made a business turnaround even more critical.

Vertical battle

"It was a vertical battle between product groups; they did not communicate. They were in silos and they talked only about their colleagues, not the company," he says. Technology companies, Verwaayen says, have a tendency to have silos and they have nothing to do with the respective French or American culture.

He aspires to transform Alcatel-Lucent from a product-centric business into a service orientated one. The good news – he is half way into that. "The job is far from over but I am loving it."

"This is a company with 80,000 people and operating in 130 countries. We are on a journey to become a company that sells solutions. When our customers say we are responding to them and not simply dumping a box.(we'd have completed our journey)," he says.

In terms of earnings guidance, he expects Alcatel-Lucent to turn cashflow-positive next year.

He adopts a rather relaxed management style, which stems from the fact that he knows the "essence of what drives people."

"I am intense in the way I do things. Customers and people come first. What I don't like is being lenient to bosses and tough to the front line. I am the other way. I think my management style is about allowing people to be better than me. I like debates and discussions and if 50% of the day is spent that way, it is a good day," he says.

"And I will not give up without a good fight."

He could well be talking about the battle of the mind given his propensity to debates back in his schooling years. Although generally speaking, such debating skills and wit are largely perceived to befit a politician, Verwaayen, who studied political science, admits that politics are never on his radar as far as ambitions go. Nevertheless, he is passionate about politics and has campaigned for candidates.

Verwaayen, whose favourite subject in school was history, says he used to harbour interest of becoming a journalist. It was this curious instinct that had led him to march up to his bosses some 40 years ago – when he was employed in ITT Corp's human resources division – and offered his "expertise" to investigate how and why a bomb could explode at the company's entrance. That move helped secure a meeting with ITT big boss in Brussels. Instead of landing in hot soup, he got himself a new task – to do public relations for the group.

"So, I have done a lot of "journalist" work," he says, gesturing "quote-unquote" with his hand.

ITT was the first company Verwaayen had worked for. Incidentally, it was later bought over by Alcatel, a company he would eventually helm.

He worked for ITT for 13 years after which, between 1988 and 1997, he served KPN, the Dutch telecoms group. He left for Lucent Technologies and in 2002 and later went to head British Telecoms (BT).

Call it coincidence but Verwaayen believes he has come a full "360-degree circle," and in the course, has become a wiser man.

Verwaayen was credited for bringing broadband to Britain when he was with BT. But it was not all rosy.

Following his resignation in April 2008, fingers were pointed at him for BT's dismal financial performance. When prodded on this, he chose not to provide any remarks. "When you leave an organisation, a new CEO takes over. The second you leave, you lose the right to make comments. I had a fantastic time in BT with my colleagues. If they want to comment, be my guest," he replies.

Verwaayen has his own blog which he posts on two to three times a week, a habit he started back in his days at BT to communicate within the organisation.

"We engage and communicate. It is true social network usage within the company. But I do not tweet."

Why exactly? "I have seen twittering going to the extreme. If you want to do it, you have to remain committed."

Verwaayen hails from Direbergen in Netherlands. He is the fifth of six children born to a family who owned a chemical business. Like many, he has faced a fair share of trials and tribulations. His worst, he says, was the unimaginable grief of having lost one parent some years ago, only to lose another nine months later. C'est la vie. Verwaayen is passionate about football and is an ardent fan of Arsenal. Ear plugs may be a requisite for those watching a game with him, for he admits to being pretty loud and animated during these sessions.

Interestingly, he can cook up Indonesian and Thai dishes but when it comes to French cuisine, he says, it's far too complicated. "I travel like crazy."

Sixty per cent of his time is spent travelling as Alcatel-Lucent has offices in 130 countries. He is also the chairman of climate change for the World Economic Forum, which he describes as a meeting of academics and business people.

So, where does he travel for pleasure? "Why, Asia of course, because of its fascinating food and diversity," he says.

And where does he see himself going in his career?

"I promise to do the things that I promised. I am not going anywhere. Leaders are like fresh milk, they only last that long. Most important for a leader is not to wait. Go, when they have to," he says.

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