It could have been a headline this morning.
For the non-Belgians, Didier Bellens is the CEO of Belgacom – and Fortis was Belgian’s leading bank that was near-bankrupted by their management, and that got split up and sold to Paribas in a matter of days. Faster than any internet bubble ever.
Over the last year, Bellens was nearly outed for not having achieved bold international acquisitions. The leading man trying to fire him was Maurice Lippens, former President of Fortis and one of the heavyweights of the Belgacom board (and even Belgian industry). Even if unbelievable for many, it also indicates why CEO’s negotiate for incredible golden parachutes. Without those millions, Didier Bellens would have been fired for sure – but 7 Millions (I think) were just to much to pay.
Some call Didier Bellens a financial wizzard but a ‘human’ disaster. Others feel he has no talent for communication. More told he had no strategy. Well, I have worked with the man – and here is what I thought of him.
You may be surprised, but I actually liked working for and with him for some time. Even if I was pretty close to John Goossens, it was Didier Bellens that allowed me to become CEO of Skynet. I was only just 30, so telling he gives no chance to youngsters is not correct. I mostly worked with him at the time of the start of BelgacomTV, suddenly some of the leading project members were out (Philippe Lemmens, Bruno Chauvat, Wim Steenhaut), and only few of us were left. At the time, I was CEO of Skynet, and also of Skynet iMotion Activities, the company that had acquired the football rights, crucial to launch the digital TV plaform. JeanCharles Dekeuzer only joined the company 6 months after launched, so there was an incredible pressure on (relatively) young people including me to get it done. In this period, I had Bellens on the phone about every day, and met him at least every week.
And although pretty tough, I found him very correct, supporting and empoweringly clear. I don’t want to go too much into details today, but I much disagree with what is being told about him. I worked incredibly hard for many months, and even postponed my wedding date to get this BelgacomTV thing launched.
More generally – when Bellens arrived at Belgacom, I remember him stating 3 priorities: get the company to function in a simpler and more efficient way, get it to the stock market and innovate (with focus on ICT and media). Well, he successfully brought Belgacom to the stock market. He took the risks to buy football rights and BelgacomTV can be called an unexpected success, surpassing all expectations (it’s even normal now that they are the only contender for football rights nowadays), so he achieved the media break-in (even if I still cannot believe the strategic errors from Telenet at that time). He acquired Telindus, and even if the way it happend was far from perfect – it positioned Belgacom strongly in ICT. They only struggle left is to get a dynamic organisation that embraces efficient and innovation. So his promises and road forward at the start of his mandate were pretty much achieved.
Fortis on the other hand… It must have been 2 years ago that I was at a lunch discussion with Votron (Fortis’ previous CEO), when he said: we have a double strategy. First, grow while becoming less dependant on the Benelux. Two: remain loyal to shareholders and preserve divident at all times by achieving operational excellence. Well, buying another Benelux bank, stopping the dividend and leading it into near-bankruptcy wasn’t really the communicated strategy. Votron as a CEO simply wasn’t strong enough to counter Lippens, his president of the board – who was trying to showcase international businessmanship (and let’s be honest, he has done great in the previous year – it was just this 1 season too long). And the rest of their board seems to have been sleeping.
And I don’t know about the Fortis board, but at many boards the average age is over 50. Over 50 gives you a lot of experience, wisdom and network – but my experience is that the passion, the feeling with customers/employees and market plus the willingness to achieve are not very prominent. We talk a lot about the mix of woman vs men, it’s time to discuss the balance between generations.
Getting younger generations to the top of the organisation, and getting the older generation to the bottom of the companies. Everyone will be better off.
So is Bellens the perfect CEO?
Well – there is probably no such thing as a perfect CEO. The loss of culture, drive and talent at Skynet and Telindus is very sad (Especially if I see what they have done with ‘my’ Skynet is inexcusable, but that’s ofcourse a personal motion). The internal innovation or entrapreneurship within Belgacom is at an all times low. And I believe that ‘captains of industry’ – like him – have to do more in inspiring inside and outside of the organisation, at different levels. And there’s definitely more. But at least Bellens was strong, leads based on his beliefs and strategy, and got Belgacom in a pretty good shape. And that’s what a lot of companies need right now.