ALEX BRUMMER: BT chairman’s sudden departure is not a good look

The sudden departure of Jan du Plessis as chairman of BT after just four years is not a good look.

It is normally the job of a new chairman to dispense with the services of the chief executive. That is what du Plessis did with Gavin Patterson after a short interregnum.

In came former Worldpay boss Philip Jansen, bristling with the confidence and ambition which comes from a stint in private equity, during which he turned Worldpay from a fintech bit player into a global leader before selling it to US rival Vantiv.

Departing BT chairman Jan du Plessis (pictured) saw the share price tumble from 300p to 100p last year

Jansen has found running BT a very different proposition. Instead of creating value, as investors might have hoped, the share price has tumbled from 300p, when du Plessis took over from former CBI president Mike Rake, to 100p last year.

It is now trading at just above 126p. At the current level, BT is valued at £12.5billion which is precisely the price that Patterson paid when he bought mobile network EE five years ago. 

Such wanton value destruction at the nation’s flagship supplier of landlines and broadband is unacceptable.

The tension between du Plessis and Jansen has been toxic. Du Plessis wanted to restore BT’s reputation as an infrastructure champion and mend the long-standing distrust between BT and its regulator Ofcom. 

Jansen wants wholesale change, including the partial or full sale of Openreach, which is responsible for the nation’s broadband services. 

He has contemplated bringing in a private equity partner, which would be a politically explosive move given Openreach’s central role in government plans to speed up fibre broadband to the door.

No one will miss the irony that it is Iain Conn, ousted chief executive of Centrica, who finds himself as the main player as BT’s future plays out. 

As senior non-executive director at BT, Conn is central to the current shake-up and has the critical task of finding the next BT chairman. 

Former Kingfisher boss Ian Cheshire, who until recently chaired Barclays’ ring-fenced UK bank, is mentioned as a possible replacement.

Being chairman of BT is an unenviable role. It requires keeping happy a diverse range of interests, including Ofcom, pension fund trustees, the unions, consumers and a battalion of small investors who have held shares since privatisation in 1984.

The newcomer needs to decide if he or she wants to persist with the transformation agenda of Jansen or tack towards laser focus on delivering fibre. Du Plessis’s departure might not be the last.

Humbled giant

Exxon Mobil is the granddaddy of big oil companies, which historically would have batted away dissident shareholders without mercy. The march of the climate change agenda is changing that.

BP, and to a lesser extent Shell, determined they have to change things from the inside, slowing exploration and production, and have set challenging carbon neutral targets. Both are investing in alternatives ranging from hydrogen to electric charging stations.

Investors in Exxon have been impatient. Remarkably, chairman and chief executive Darren Woods has decided it’s time for change. 

Rather than have the activists shouting abuse from the side lines, after he invested tens of billions of dollars on loss-making assets, Woods is embracing the cause and invited two outsiders onto the board in an effort to silence the clamour for change. 

The newcomers are Jeffrey Ubben, co-founder of Inclusive Investment Partners, which is focused on promoting environmental, social and governance, and private equity chieftain Michael Angelakis.

The plan is that the new independent directors will drive the sustainability agenda and see off an effort by activists DE Shaw and Engine No.1 to appoint their own slate of directors. DE Shaw has endorsed the changes, but Engine is fighting on.

Big oil may not yet be down and out, but with a market value of £175bn, Exxon looks like a dated tiddler when compared to Tesla and the tech behemoths.

Payback time

After the dividend cuts comes the restoration. Broker AJ Bell calculates that kept and restarted dividends in the period March 2020 to date come to £57.7billion, and now exceed those in the previous year – suggesting many firms have put the pandemic behind them even as lockdown continues.

That’s a shard of light for the pensions of the whole workforce ahead of the Budget tomorrow. But prepare for the worst. Rishi Sunak, like previous chancellors, has his eyes on freezing or cutting the lifetime allowanc

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