Cool and analytical, the head of the OFT chooses his words carefuly as he talks to Christ Blackhurst.
When Adonis, a group of male strippers, felt that their rivals, the Chippendales, were taking an unfair advantage recently by insisting that promoters deal with them exclusively, they complained to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Similarly, when concern was raised about the level of fees imposed by consultants at private hospitals, the OFT was asked to investigate. And again, just before Christmas, when consumer groups voiced concern at the price of Nintendo and Sega computer games, the OFT moved in.
The person responsible for dealing with these discrete issues is the formidable Sir Bryan Carsberg, who was appointed director-general of the OFT last July. The scale of his remit is astonishing: it allows him to delve into almost every facet of British industrial and commercial life, from the above examples to prices charged for staple foods and raw materials, the selling of life assurance and the impact of billion-pound takeovers.
Nobody, apart from a Cabinet minister, has such wide-ranging responsibilities. He can launch investigations, revoke licences, refer matters to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC), highlight malpractices, and make recommendations to the Government.
The man shouldering this awesome responsibility is no crusading do-gooder. Previously a university accoun-tancy professor, he is the author of such learned tomes as An Introduction to Mathematical Programming for Accountants, Economics of Business Decisions, Current Cost Accounting and Small Company Financial Reporting. In this capacity, the highest profile he could have aspired to would have been as an occasional business commen-tator, or head of a management school. But in 1984 his life changed. He was asked to take charge of Oftel, the new telecommunications watchdog and, as a result, was thrust into the limelight.
He became an unlikely people's champion. For eight years he was the scourge of the mighty British Telecom. His grasp of the minutiae of regulations, coupled with a hitherto undiscovered eye for publicity, tied the privatised monopoly in knots. BT was forced to adopt a formula to bring down its prices, and to compensate customers if it failed to instal or repair telephone lines on time. Finally, it had to accept its network being opened up to Mercury.
But Carsberg has not escaped criticism. At Oftel he was accused of not making enough information available for people to be able to judge the validity of some of his decisions, and of deliberately creating competition where it was not necessary, or could not be supported. And there are those who say that much of his success at Oftel was due to two factors: he was the first regulator of any of the post-privatisation industries, which meant he was always bound to have clout and attract publicity; and BT was in such a mess that he could not possibly fail.
His ability will be perhaps more clearly judged at the OFT. To date, he has been taking things quietly, feeling his way into what is undoubtedly a highly complex position. He acknowledges that, so far, his profile has been lower than it was at Oftel. Indeed, no momentous decisions have emanated from his desk. 'Nothing yet has gone down in the history books,' he says. He pauses, however, as if to indicate his belief that one day they will.
We are sitting in his office off Chancery Lane in London. It is solid, functional, workmanlike. On his desk and the shelves around him are reports and papers. Outside, two secretaries are scurrying around, dealing with yet more paper. Carsberg gives you the impression that, despite the frugality of his surroundings (the OFT, after all, falls under the cash-conscious civil service umbrella), he would not have it any other way.
He is a short (5ft 5in), wiry bundle of intellectual energy. Every word he uses is carefully chosen. He fires from the head rather than the hip. His piercing blue eyes - a legacy of his Swedish forbears - give him a cool, analytical intensity. So far his life has been a story of practically unrelenting achievement.
He was born in 1939, in London. He went to Berkhamsted School where he won prizes galore and scored more than 90% in his mathematics 'O' level. He was good with his feet too, it seems, as he played in the school soccer team. From there he went to the London School of Economics. In 1960 he decided to make accountancy his vocation and came top in the national professional exams. He rejected the chance of joining one of the big firms to practise on his own for a few years.
In 1964, he returned to the LSE as an accountancy lecturer. Five years later, he moved north to Manchester and a professorship. He eventually became dean of the economics faculty. Outside the lecture hall, he acquired a reputation among colleagues for keeping his cards close to his chest but always getting what he wanted - especially where budgets were concerned. In 1981 he was offered the Arthur Andersen Professorship of Accounting at his alma mater, the LSE.
The first step towards his break from university life came in 1982 when he was asked to join a handful of advisers helping the Government think through proposals to liberalise the telecommunications industry. His work was appreciated, and when British Telecom was due to be privatised in 1984 he was invited to head Oftel, the new watchdog for the industry.
At first he turned it down. He was happy where he was and had no desire to concentrate solely on one industry, and effectively, one supplier. Eventually, after much soul-searching, he took the plunge, but at first he only 58e agreed to a three-year term, not the five the Government wanted. In the end he stayed eight years.
Does he miss academia? 'I don't miss it. I enjoyed it.
I found it very stimulating but the positive interest of what followed has been so great I have not had time to look back. Being paid to think was a great luxury.' And with his eyes twinkling, he adds: 'It was good preparation for a job like this because it meant I had done my relevant thinking beforehand.' Contrary to the way it appeared at the time, he says, 'My objective was not to be the bete noir of BT; although it was inevitable (he became so), given what had to be done and given the way newspapers like to portray these things.' He adds, with a big, knowing smile, 'There were cases where BT offended.' He is keen now to play down his confrontation with the organisation. 'If BT did not think something I proposed was reasonable, it could refuse to agree and choose to go to the MMC. That never happened.' Carsberg is at his best when talking policy. Very often his language is that of the dry, studious regulator. Precise and meticulous, he says exactly what he wants to say - no more, no less. Very little information is volunteered. Even the simplest question, such as what was his biggest achievement at Oftel, is met with thoughtful hesitancy.
Yet some observers could quickly rattle off his achievements: teaching British Telecom how to behave, and turning it from an organisation that cared little about anything, to one that put the customer first. Carsberg's answer, when it comes, is measured: 'What we did was make the markets competitive. That gave us two insights in the UK: first, into the possibilities of competition at a local level, including cable TV companies; and into the role of mobile communications.' He is immensely proud of the BT customer compensation plan. 'It was a pioneering scheme, a forerunner of the Citizen's Charter' - something, naturally, in which he is a committed believer. 'It is a good thing - the key is incentives - making companies pay where they don't deliver.' At Oftel, he maintains, he did try to be open about his investigations: 'We issued consultative documents and spelt out the conceptual framework.' But there was only so much he could reveal, as BT's confidentiality had to be respected. Furthermore, it was a quoted company with speculators ready to pounce on any scrap of information.
His obvious faith in the need for competition seems to disprove any claim that he somehow artificially held back BT to let Mercury prosper. He is not, however, anti-monopoly. 'I don't believe the market is perfect. There are some companies where you have to accept a monopoly because the cost of competition makes it too unworthwhile to try and make the market work better.' That is not to say that he does not believe monopolies should go unexamined. 'They are not always a bad thing but they should always be challenged.' Competition though is his overriding goal. It is a word that crops up time and time again in his conversation. It is what the OFT is about; it is what he firmly believes in.
He said so in his first major speech after joining the OFT, at a conference in Cambridge. 'The mission of my office is to improve the lot of consumers. I regard the promotion of competition as generally the most powerful weapon I have for this purpose.' He went on to set out his creed: competition stops excessive pricing, encourages improved efficiency and greater use of technology, leads to more innovative products and services, and enables consumers to exercise choice.
After describing how once (long before he took charge at Oftel) he was told he would have to wait a year for a new telephone line, he said: 'The opportunity to compare and choose for oneself is regarded as a fundamental right and the anger at being told by a monopoly supplier that one cannot have what one wants is an anger of the kind appropriate to an infringement of basic human rights.' It is that anger which drove him on at Oftel and now motivates him at the OFT. On reaching the OFT, virtually his first move was to refer to the MMC for scrutiny the way some newsagents are denied certain newspapers. 'We had a pretty thick file of shops that wanted to sell newspapers and were being denied supply. How we judge the importance of something is a difficult and controversial area but low turnover does not mean it may not be important. Here, there was a situation where a self-appointed group was denying people a chance to earn a living. It was very important indeed.' His anger stems from an intense morality, a clear view of right and wrong. His convictions are so strong, according to a close Oftel watcher, that when one of Carsberg's staff left his wife for another woman, he waited for months before summoning up the courage to tell his boss.
He does not allow his thoughts to be clouded by materialistic gain or vices. He lives in a comfortable but not extravagant house in Guildford, Surrey with his wife, Margaret. They have two grown-up daughters. Every morning he jogs around the roads of Guildford before catching the train to London. He is a late convert to marathon running. He rarely drinks, claiming to have hardly ever been to a pub, and relaxes by listening to Wagner. He also admits to 'thinking quite a lot - it is not sustained analytical thought but more along the lines of, wouldn't it be interesting to have a look at X? I do quite a lot of preliminary thought.' Under Carsberg, the OFT is likely to become more proactive. He has indicated a willingness to clamp down on cases like the distribution of newspapers (mentioned above). One power he has declared an intention to use is price-capping. Implemented by the MMC just seven times since 1970, it has now become a standard tactic of the privatised utility watchdogs. Carsberg led the way at Oftel.
The whole complaints and investigation procedure, he promises, will be speeded up. 'I will see if more can be done about the time it takes.' He also wants to lessen the regulatory load. 'It is easy to allow regulations to creep up so they become overwhelming. Sometimes, the cost of having them can be greater than not.' Two specific areas of legislation he is examining are the Consumer Credit and Restrictive Trade Practices Acts. And there are always takeovers. So far, thanks to a lull in major bid activity, Carsberg has not had to pronounce on a hotly-contested battle. When he does, his stance may not be easy to predict.
The question of competition will, however, always be in his mind. Certainly, on takeovers, it will be how the deal affects competition that will guide him - not whether jobs will be lost or whether the person doing the buying is going to close bits down or sell them off. Frivolous issues like style do not bother him. What matters is the free market - provided, that is, it does not make him angry.
Born London. Attended Berkhamsted School. Exceptionally numerate. Good sportsman. 'I was a middle order batsman, a rather stodgy sort of one'
Studied for economics degree at LSE. Went into practice on his own as an accountant
Returned to LSE as an accounting lecturer
Appointed Professor of Accounting at Manchester University. Acquired reputation for thoroughness of preparation and considered approach: 'I am unusually analytical. I do everything thoughtfully and deliberately, never impulsively'
Moved back to LSE as Arthur Andersen Professor of Accounting
Appointed director-general of Oftel, telecommunications watchdog. 'Some people said I was crazy, that establishing competition wouldn't be possible, that the job would really be about regulating a strong monopolist'
Director-general of Office of Fair Trading. Determined to adopt a proactive role and investigate markets dominated by a few firms.