The Andrew Davidson Interview - Sir Peter Bonfield - He's a doer, straightforward and straight-talking. He got results for Texas Instruments and sorted out ICL. Now, after a failed merger and profits fall, BT's driven CEO is trying to transform the former

The Andrew Davidson Interview - Sir Peter Bonfield - He's a doer, straightforward and straight-talking. He got results for Texas Instruments and sorted out ICL. Now, after a failed merger and profits fall, BT's driven CEO is trying to transform the former

by ANDREW DAVIDSON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Can Sir Peter Bonfield, boss of BT, see the sharks circling from where he is in Newgate Street? I wonder. 'I always ignore sharks,' he says, a grim smile cracking his close-cropped, white-whiskered face. 'I am paid to run a business and as soon as the board tells me I am not running it, then I will go and do something else.'

That's OK then, for on the morning we met I thought you could see the odd fin from the chief executive's office, high up in the BT building next to St Paul's. Bonfield, a straightforward, driven, resourceful man, four years in the job, had just announced the first fall in profits since BT was privatised. Analysts were sucking in their cheeks. The City press were writing with a perplexed tone. One newspaper even carried a back-shot of Bonfield, plus chairman and finance director, walking away, down a flight of stairs, from the results press conference. Subtle, I thought.

But if Bonfield, 56, is under pressure, he doesn't show it. Trim, medium-height, white-haired, with a young face aged only by dark, tired, wrinkled eyes, he sits comfortably in his shirtsleeves at the head of a long meeting table. The room, a corner office, is wide and clean and anonymous. The only trace of ornament, besides the tasteful, abstract painting opposite his desk, is the curiously large black-and-gold Texas Instruments watch on Bonfield's wrist. Then the electronic, sliding-wall door - so popular with chief executives now - whooshes shut. Very Man from UNCLE. Bonfield chuckles. 'It's supposed to symbolise an open-door management policy.'

Which is better than revolving-door, of course. Running the pounds 22 billion-turnover BT brings its own pressures, the biggest of which is dealing with the sheer level of public interest in what is going on inside the company. Bonfield is one of the few FTSE 100 bosses to have appeared on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, for instance. That puts him up there with Gerry Robinson and Michael Green as near-household names.

Oh, he says, it just came about because of a conversation he had with John Humphrys at the 'Not-John-Birt's-leaving-do' party in the BBC. But what was he doing at that? Well, BT bosses get around, a legacy, perhaps, of the company's public-sector roots. Bits of that - the recognition, the invites, the knighthood that seems to come with the job - he clearly enjoys. Other bits ...

Bonfield hesitates. Nothing prepared him for what it was like managing a company under this sort of scrutiny. 'Every decision we make, good or bad, small or large, is in the goldfish bowl.' But couldn't nearly all the really big companies say that? 'No, this is different. You don't know every decision John Browne makes at BP, do you? The image and regard and interest in BT is different.' Perhaps having 22 million customers has something to do with it.

Because, rightly or wrongly, many of us still feel BT is 'ours'. So when the company is doing well, the boss is heaped with plaudits. When it stutters, as recently, he is for the chop. He's not whingeing, he says, just stating a fact. Until you have experienced it, you cannot understand it. It affects everything you do: strategy for the future, getting your arms round the workforce, any kind of communication. Executive salary too, of course.

Bonfield got paid nearly pounds 1.5 million in 1999, salary plus bonus, the first BT boss to break the million-pound barrier. He earned less last year - salary higher at pounds 780,000 but a reduced bonus making just pounds 1.28 million.

But it may be unwise to castigate Bonfield. Many think BT is on the verge of getting a lot of things right - it just takes time. Bonfield's latest restructuring of the company, announced in April, which split the UK business in two and divided the rest into four separate global operations, was a response to investor pressure to get more value out of the group. Some analysts believe the BT shares, which hovered above pounds 8 after the results announced in mid-May, will go up. What will it take to convince others?

Execution and delivery. As Bonfield himself puts it: 'The main issue the City has with us is how well we can execute some of these things because of the size of the business.'

He doesn't seem like the kind of man who would be sensitive to criticism. A workaholic and exercise addict, Bonfield charms those who admire his uncomplicated approach and irritates others who would prefer more subtlety. 'Peter,' explains one friend, 'has absolutely no front or pretension whatsoever. He is very at ease with himself.'

If he has an affectation it can only be his accent. Hertfordshire-born, he makes no secret of his preference for America over Britain and speaks with a determinedly mid-Atlantic twang, supposedly a hangover from his early years spent working in Dallas for Texas Instruments, although it sounds peculiarly Australian to me. Bonfield apparently does a full-on Texas drawl as well, something that slips back into his intonation the moment he sets foot in America. 'My wife hates it,' he says with the kind of grin that makes you think he feels rather the reverse.

He says he plans to settle in America when he has had enough of running companies over here. It is the kind of blunt admission that makes some prickly Brits frown, as if implying that Bonfield is not really committed to life here.

But PR and politicking is not in his character or on his CV. Trained as an engineer, he has worked at only three companies in his life: Texas Instruments (TI), ICL and BT. Loyalty is one of his core traits (hence the TI watch, from an early liquid-crystal range that bombed), along with dedication and perspiration. In fact, say friends, a lot about Bonfield is just deceptively straightforward. He idolises Eric Clapton, for instance, and has even been accused of modelling his look on post-heroin, Armani-clad Clapton: the cropped beard, the toothy grin, the brushed-back hair, the sharp suits. A bit unsubtle, maybe, but part of Bonfield's disarmingly direct approach.

To understand Bonfield's motivation, you have to delve into his background.

He was brought up in Baldock, Herts, the third son of a Letchworth engineer and his Welsh wife. Post-war Britain, he remembers, was a place of ration books and shortages. Home was a semi on the outskirts of town. His dad, self-taught through night school, worked on early computers. But it was Bonfield's mother, a coalminer's daughter and former TB nurse, who was the key influence on his early ambition and drive.

'She gave up nursing but was always massively keen on education; that was the only way out of being a miner's child. She passed that on to us.' Dad, says Bonfield, worked for the same company all his life, and probably wasn't that ambitious. Mum was the driver.

It was Bonfield's mother who, despite being a Methodist, pushed her sons through Catholic convent school, a place so strict that the nuns regularly dished out beatings to kids who misbehaved or underperformed.

Bonfield didn't seem to mind. 'The discipline was excellent,' he says.

That got him into grammar school, despite being an unacademic child. There he was inspired by his maths teacher and pushed on to read engineering at Loughborough University. All the Bonfields are engineers, so clearly Dad exerted some influence too.

It was his father who told him to look to America for work experience.

TI fitted the bill. He was transferred to Dallas at the age of 23: the formative experience of his life. He got his own apartment, swimming pool and car. He couldn't believe it. TI was expanding at dot.com rates, hiring huge posses of young people, giving them heaps of responsibility, enthusing them with a work-hard/play-hard mentality. No wonder Bonfield chose Don MacLean's American Pie as his favourite song on Desert Island Discs. For Bonfield, The Levee ('drove my chevy to the levee ...') was the bar he and his mates used to hang out in after work in Dallas. Happy memories.

'TI had a big influence on me. It was like a start-up. We used to work incredibly hard, round the clock sometimes, then go off and do crazy things like drive for eight hours to New Mexico and go walking in the mountains.

Very buzzy stuff, very developmental.'

And something about the TI vibe chimed with what Bonfield had been brought up with. Both his parents had taught their son not to kowtow to anyone.

'My mum treated everyone the same, whether he was the milkman, the vicar or the company chairman, and Dad the same.'

He picked up the same thing from Pat Hagerty, the TI boss, when he was in Dallas. 'He had a similar attitude to Mum; he just treated everyone the same, whatever level you were.' It inflects Bonfield's own management style - open-door, direct, talk to anyone - and what others describe as his main weakness. 'Peter has no tolerance of unmerited egotism,' laughs Walden Rhines, ex-TI and now CEO of Mentor Graphics, 'and he has always had an inability to suck up to the people you should suck up to.'

Bonfield stayed at TI for 16 years and thought he would never leave.

He was married to a Brit; he met her just before his Dallas posting, and later proposed over the phone - very apt for a future BT boss. And he had already caught the eye of senior management, making more money for TI's calculator business than it had ever earned before. Then he got an offer from another TI man, Rob Wilmot, to help him rescue the beleaguered computer-maker ICL back in the UK. Both men were just 36. For Bonfield, who had already decided that management was his future - 'I was never an excellent engineer' - it was a chance to get on a company board. 'It was an opportunity I hadn't had before.'

It was also the early 1980s, when Britain was sinking into recession.

ICL was a mess, the portents bad. The balance sheet was shot, the technology changing, the company the wrong size. If anyone accuses him of not being used to bad headlines, he points them that way. ICL chairman Sir Christophor Laidlaw, who worked with both men, remembers that Wilmot and Bonfield were chalk and cheese, the former a conceptualiser, Bonfield the doer.

'Peter was always good at getting people to do things - and he would never ask them to do anything he wasn't prepared to do himself.'

A lot of tough decisions were taken. Bonfield helped restructure the company, laying off workers, closing plants. He earned himself a reputation for ruthless efficiency and very hard work, putting in the sort of hours that would make others blanche.

Another colleague, Sir Robin Biggam, now chairman of the Independent Television Commission, says Bonfield's devotion to duty was 'quite incredible'.

That kind of approach - 13 hours a day, seven days a week, no holidays - was fashionable then, less so now, of course. In the past Bonfield has told interviewers he worked so hard because he felt he wasn't as bright as some, so he made the extra effort. I wondered if having no children, and thus fewer demands on him at home, was another reason. His response is prickly.

'I've got no idea.' Those who know Bonfield and his wife say the fact that they haven't had children is a sadness in their lives and one he hates journalists referring to.

But people pour themselves into work for different reasons. When one door shuts, another opens. Bonfield's driven approach rescued ICL from total collapse. He helped guide it first into a link-up with STC, the American giant, then Fujitsu, the Japanese conglomerate, a relationship that, he says, was another influence on his management style. 'In the US it tends to be personalised decision-making, then you get everyone on board afterwards. In Japan, you get a consensus first, which takes more time, then when you have made the decision, you get on with it.' His style, he suggests, is a judicious mix of the two. 'I was really influenced by the Japanese. They were very high-integrity people at Fujitsu.'

Does he regret leaving?

'I never have regrets,' he says. 'I just get on.'

No worries about working for a chairman, Sir Iain Vallance, who had been chief executive? A lot of bosses will tell you privately that it can be a recipe for trouble. 'I never had issue with that,' says Bonfield. 'People said it wouldn't work, but I just got on with it.'

And what did he find at BT?

'A very good company, but very, very large, some years into its privatisation, going through changes. And it was very clear that, with regulation forcing competition to flourish in the domestic market, it had to get into new areas.'

The toughest thing, says Bonfield, is the sheer magnitude of BT. 'A hundred and thirty thousand people in as diverse businesses as you have got now - it is very difficult to get around and understand enough about the businesses to make sense of it.'

So why didn't he break it all up into smaller, more manageable units when he first took over?

Bonfield looks surprised. 'Well, let's make sure this is not fashion.

When I took over the City wasn't talking about splitting BT up but making it bigger. We did quite a lot of delegation of authority into units early on, and we have now moved on to the next stage.'

The restructuring splits the UK operation into a wholesale network business and a retail operation, the better to prevent both sides being dragged down by regulation. Then there are four new product-structured international businesses: Ignite, a pan-European broadband data business aimed at the corporate and wholesale market; BTopenworld, bringing together all the company's consumer internet operations; BT Wireless, bringing together all BT's wireless and mobile phone investments, including Cellnet; and Yell, its yellow pages operation and related e-businesses. Yell will be floated off by the end of the year. Other businesses may follow. At the same time, BT promises to raise gearing to 100% to boost expansion.

The problem for Bonfield is that the moves came a little too late for the growing band of BT critics. 'Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic' was one accusation thrown at him after the announcement, along with the suggestion that he would be retiring early. Why? Simply because Bonfield's long-term strategy, of pairing off with another global giant to create a world-leading business, hasn't paid off. His initial attempt to capture MCI in America proved a flop, even though BT made a healthy profit after it sold its 20% stake in the company.

Now all hangs on the hopes of a mega-merger with AT&T. To do that on an equal footing, Bonfield has to raise BT's share price, which has nearly halved in the past year. Just a passing phase, he says, as the company dashes for growth. 'When I joined we were growing at 4%, we are now growing at 20% a year. When I joined, 5% of the business was international, it is now 20%. We are well placed to capitalise on the future, but inevitably we are going through a transition phase.'

But isn't that what BT's bosses have been arguing since privatisation?

There is a sense that investors have had enough of transitions and excuses, and want to see results delivered. Look at Vodafone, they say. That, more than anything, is what threatens Bonfield's position.

What if it's not his fault? Bonfield, say his ex-colleagues, is a dynamic leader, one of the country's best professional managers, who is never happier than when talking to staff or leading by example. He is not an executive who has ever been strong on vision, or patient enough to deal with excessive bureaucracy. Some who have worked with him suggest he may have been better suited to running a fast-growing operation in a relatively unregulated environment rather than BT's lumbering leviathan.

Should the City blame him for delivery, or his chairman for not clearing the way and devising a strategy that produces obvious results quickly enough?

Bonfield, not surprisingly, won't be drawn into criticising his chairman.

Others say the two get on well, although one who has worked with Bonfield thinks he takes on too much, adding waspishly, 'I think Peter might make Iain work a bit harder'. Vallance, of course, used to be accused of doing too much, so perhaps he is a man who can't win ...

But for Bonfield, there is very little other than work. He is not, I suspect, the kind of boss who would readily know the price of a pint of milk or the cost of a tube ticket. Everything outside the office is organised by his wife Josephine. Friends who commend Bonfield on his suits are usually greeted by a shrugged 'Oh, Josephine got it for me'. She also manages his money - 'I hope she is saving it for my retirement,' he grins - and makes sure everything is where he needs it, in the house in Shepperton, or the flat in London or the home they keep in America.

He says he doesn't need to spend a lot of money on his lifestyle, 'because I was brought up in the war with no money'. That doesn't mean, he adds - perhaps remembering the salary issue - that he doesn't want a lot of money.

No, of course not. Friends say he is a generous man, known to help out his extended family, but private too. He rarely mentions his brothers or his background, and avoids talking about himself. He makes a big thing about being an ace at the barbecue, and holds large parties at his home, but the suspicion is he is just a man who can't sit still.

Hence he loves cycling and sailing and windsurfing and going to Eric Clapton concerts and just being busy. Laidlaw laughs and says his abiding image of the Bonfields when they last stayed in the country with him is of 'Peter and Josephine in their white trainers going off jogging together'.

And most believe that, if Bonfield was asked to fall on his sword at BT, he would just jog off to a slightly less complicated job, probably at a large company in America, with barely a regret.

'Peter gets offers all the time,' whispers a friend, adding that some of the fast-growing internet-based telecoms outfits now beginning to buy big would pay handsomely for someone of Bonfield's experience. Imagine what a relief that would be, adds the same source, after trying to run something like BT, so big, so slow, so hemmed in by what it can or cannot do. But Bonfield, counters Sir Robin Biggam, could never walk away. 'He's just not a quitter.'

One last job? 'Can't comment on that,' says Bonfield, adding, however, that he plans to be in business for a while yet. 'I am one of those people who feels you are as old as your mind. I keep reasonably fit. I think I'll keep going for some time.'

Rather like his watch, in fact. 'Just look at this,' he says, jabbing at the dial, delighted by my curiosity. The little screen lights up. 'Only 1,000 sold, this is probably the last working model ...' And it's hideous.

He laughs. Now that's loyalty.

BONFIELD IN A MINUTE

1944: born 3 June in Baldock, Herts. Educated Hitchin Boys' Grammar School and Loughborough University

1966: joined Texas Instruments

1981: appointed executive director and group marketing director at ICL

1984: appointed MD at STC International Computers and subsequently chairman

1987: appointed deputy chief executive at STC plc

1989: awarded CBE

1990: appointed chairman and chief executive ICL plc

1996: chief executive BT plc, knighted.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today