BT has lost the boss of Openreach – and the timing could have been better. Joe Garner is leaving to become boss of Nationwide in the middle of Ofcom’s one-in-a-decade deliberations over whether to force BT to spin out its broadband network division.
It’s also almost two years to the day since Garner’s predecessor Liv Garfield announced she was off to lead FTSE 100 water company Severn Trent. Although Garner seemed to pick up where she left off with the roll-out of ‘superfast’ broadband without too much trouble, losing another boss at such a crucial time is not ideal.
Garner will join the mutual building society in the spring, succeeding Graham Beale, who announced his retirement in May after nine years in the top job. Garner was a new recruit to BT, having worked at Proctor and Gamble and Dixons, before running HSBC in the UK.
‘I've greatly enjoyed my time at Openreach and deciding to leave has been an extremely hard decision, but Nationwide is a firm I long-admired during my time in financial services,’ he said (rather predictably). ‘The opportunity to become CEO of one of Britain's most important financial institutions and service champions just proved too good to turn down.’
If BT boss Gavin Patterson was irked at one of his top lieutenants jumping ship he didn’t show it. ‘I am sad to see Joe leave but he is moving to a terrific job and I wish him well,’ he said. ‘Openreach is a stronger and more customer focused business as a result of his leadership and he leaves it in good shape as we begin our ultrafast journey.’
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That ‘ultrafast journey’ may end up being one of forced divestment. Spinning out Openreach, which has to sell broadband access wholesale to other providers, is one of four options regulator Ofcom is currently mulling.
BT’s broadband rivals Sky, Vodafaone, TalkTalk and Virgin are currently loudly lobbying in support of that, claiming BT discriminates against them via slower installations and repairs. The former state-owned telco, on the other hand, says only it has deep enough pockets to fund the investment needed to keep Britain’s internet speedy.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the UK needs faster broadband. And Patterson has just lost one of his strongest allies in the fight to convince everyone that BT is the company to deliver that.