KPN cancels CEO appointment following insider trading investigation

Dominique Leroy was due to switch from Proximus to KPN but now she’s CEO of neither following an investigation into insider trading.

Leroy (pictured) was unveiled as the new CEO of Dutch telco KPN earlier this month, having previously headed up Belgian operator Proximus. She was due to hang around at Proximus until December, but within days employees of the company protested the prospect of having a ‘lame duck’ CEO at a time when there was extensive restructuring underway. This led the Proximus board to bring forward Leroy’s departure date to 20 September.

Another reason for the staff kicking off may have been the revelation that Leroy had flogged a bunch of her Proximus shares on 1 August, just a month before calling it a day. No unreasonably this led to speculation that she may have conducted the sale in advance of an anticipated drop in the share price following the announcement of her resignation. Leroy addressed the matter in a personal message published on the Proximus site. Here is it in full.

I would like to comment my sale of Proximus shares on August 1, 2019.

A CEO of a stock quoted company has few moments in which he can trade his company shares on the stock market. As for me I was in a closed period- this is a period during which no transactions are allowed- since November 22, 2018. I had the intention to trade my shares since several months, but this was not possible. After the publication of the results of the second quarter, August 1st was the first day on which new transactions were possible. I have therefore instructed the bank end of July to sell shares that day, what happened with notification to the financial regulator on August 5, as it needs to be done and with publication on their site on August 6.

At that moment I had not decided to leave Proximus. I was in discussion about the renewal of my contract with Proximus and had some conversations with several external parties, amongst which KPN.

I understand that with hindsight the timing can create the perception that I did this exactly prior and because of my departure. This is surely not the reason for my sale of shares, but this can –now that the discussions with KPN are closed soon after my holidays and the communication on my departure already had to happen beginning of September- be understood in such way by the external world. I regret that this perception has been created, this is not in line with my values where integrity and transparency are very high.

Belgian authorities don’t seem to have been reassured by this explanation, however, and launched a formal insider trading investigation, even going so far as to search her home for incriminating evidence. Typically this isn’t the kind of stuff companies like hanging around their new CEOs and KPN seems to have decided Leroy is not worth the extra aggro.

“KPN regrets to announce that Mrs. Dominique Leroy is no longer a candidate in the process to become the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Management of KPN,” said today’s announcement. “The duration of the procedures which concern Mrs. Leroy by the authorities in Belgium is unclear and unpredictable. The Supervisory Board of KPN considers these uncertainties around timing not in the interest of KPN and its stakeholders. For this reason, the Supervisory Board has taken the decision to withdraw the intended appointment of Mrs. Leroy in the position of CEO of KPN.”

“This was a difficult decision for the Supervisory Board given the track record of Mrs. Dominique Leroy as a very accomplished executive,” said current KPN Chairman Duco Sickinghe. “However, the uncertainty around timing results in a situation, which the Supervisory Board considers not in the interest of KPN. We wish her all the best.”

In other words: you’re on your own, kid. While it’s understandable to rethink a decision in the light of new information, it’s notable that KPN isn’t willing to wait to see if Leroy is exonerated by rhe investigation. Either they think there’s little chance of that happening, they think she’s irredeemably tarnished regardless or they just think the process will take too long.

Leroy presumably did her due diligence before selling the shares, but it’s hard to see how she can justify selling the shares before the announcement of her departure was made, since she already concedes she was considering doing so when she sold them. Meanwhile both Proximus and KPN are CEO-less.

KPN poaches Proximus CEO

Dominique Leroy has played Benelux musical chairs by moving from Belgian Proximus to become Dutch KPN’s new CEO.

The CEO vacancy at KPN was created by the sudden departure of Maximo Ibarra earlier this year for family reasons, which coincided with a major outage for which KPN was culpable. Leroy has been CEO of Proximus for five years but her new salary of around a million euros a year was presumably a factor in convincing her to seek new challenges.

“We are very pleased to appoint Dominique Leroy as the new CEO of KPN,” said Duco Sickinghe, KPN Chairman. “Dominique is a dynamic, customer-focused and engaging leader with a wealth of experience in the telecommunications industry. With her strong strategic, operational and communication skills, we are convinced that Dominique will be able to successfully execute on KPN’s strategy.”

“At the end of last year KPN unveiled its 2019 – 2021 strategy, prioritising sustainable growth in the medium term. Good progress has been made to date, driven by our dedicated Board of Management and Executive management team, and executed by our colleagues throughout the firm. With Dominique at the helm, the Supervisory Board is confident that we will see further progress in the delivery of KPN’s strategy, positioning KPN for further success in the years to come. Continuing to execute against that strategy will remain KPN’s focus.”

“I am very excited to be nominated as the next CEO of KPN,” said Leroy (pictured). “KPN has a high-quality reputation and an excellent leadership team. I am looking forward to working with them and the wider KPN team to execute on the existing strategy and help KPN to become a premier digital services and communication provider with the customer at its heart.”

Ibarra’s resignation was due to complete on 30 September but Leroy isn’t available until 1 December. It looks like COO Joost Farwerck is going to be super-sub CEO for October and November, but since the board doesn’t seem to have been able to come up with any strategy beyond the basic default for any company, that shouldn’t be too tricky.

Coopetition is becoming permanent fixture of 5G world

It might be a management consultant phrase, enough to have some clawing their eyes out, but coopetition is quickly becoming the norm as telcos drive towards the elusive goal of ROI.

The latest firms to enter into the new-era relationship are Orange and Proximus. Announced this week, the duo has signed a term-sheet to enter into a mobile access network sharing agreement by the end of the year. The scope of the partnership will be to meet raising demands in terms of mobile network quality and indoor coverage.

“The signing of the term sheet is an important step in reaching a final mobile access network sharing agreement between Proximus and Orange Belgium,” said Dominique Leroy, CEO of Proximus. “It will allow us to embark on a faster and broader 5G roll-out while improving mobile network capacity and coverage to the benefit of our customers and while keeping a strong and differentiated customer experience.”

“Mobile access network sharing is a trend in Europe which benefits consumers, as it enables more efficient investments to cope with the increasing data consumption,” said Michaël Trabbia, CEO of Orange Belgium. “The timing of this mobile access network sharing agreement is important as it will allow us to accelerate 5G roll-out, while bringing significant environmental benefits by reducing the combined energy consumption by 20%.”

This is a very simple partnership ultimately. The two telcos will enter into a shared infrastructure agreement, it seems both passive and active infrastructure is included but will rely on their own spectrum to differentiate on customer experience. This does appear to be an increasingly common strategy across the European continent to drive the commercial appeal of the connectivity business.

Another example of such business is in the UK, where the telcos have paired off to create joint-ventures to own and manage passive infrastructure in certain regions. CTIL and MBNL are the JVs in question and allow the four MNOs to share the expensive job of civil engineering but differentiate their offerings on the active equipment being installed on the masts and spectrum assets.

One of the reasons such partnerships are becoming more common across Europe is scale. With more than 100 different telcos across the continent, the telcos cannot achieve the same subscriber bases as counterparts in the likes of the US and China. This impacts procurement strategies as well as the ability to drive ROI in the mid-term.

Bearing this in mind, densification and network rollout into the rural communities becomes a problem. 5G is eventually going to force the telcos to acquire more mobile sites in the urban areas, to deal with the traffic increases but also to compensate for shorter spectrum ranges on higher-frequency bands. The rural environments are of course less commercially attractive due to the lower population density, but there are both commercial and regulatory demands to prevent a digital divide.

“The deal between Orange and Proximus is just the latest in a series of network partnerships designed to keep a lid on costs and accelerate deployment,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “This is particularly important at the start of the new 5G era as operators continue to scratch their heads over the business case for investment.

“Although the approach could limit opportunities for operators to differentiate based on connectivity, it could free up investment in other areas such as content, vertical markets and new services. This can only be to the benefit of the consumer.

“We should expect further industry collaboration going forward. This could include the possibility of more innovative models such as shared networks between all operators in a single market or ownership of assets such as spectrum and infrastructure by independent third parties or even government.”

Another recent example of this type of coopetition is in Japan. Last week, KDDI and Softbank came to an agreement to share infrastructure in rural environments. This initiative is also geared towards reducing the burden of capital expenditure in delivering 5G to every corner of society. TIM and Vodafone Italia are another duo exploring the coopetition play to tackle the issue of rural 5G connectivity.

Elsewhere in the telco world, coopetition is emerging in the services game.

There are numerous examples of telcos buddying-up, for most cases with telcos outside of their commercial jurisdiction, to jointly develop services for 5G epoch. As it stands, 5G is nothing more than a ‘bigger, badder, faster’ version of 4G, though if the financial promises are to be realised differentiation is needed. For most, this means venturing into the murky world of enterprise services.

Last month, SK Telecom and Deutsche Telekom announced a partnership which would develop various technologies to improve indoor coverage and explore low-latency media services. A long-standing partnership between DT and Orange has led to the emergence of Djingo, a smart-assistant to challenge the dominance of the OTTs in the smart home.

Coopetition might sound like a buzzword fit for boardrooms of coffee drinkers and overpaid management consultants, but it is a trend which is slowly emerging in the telco world. And in some cases, it might just be the perfect solution to drive towards the long-overdue profits.

Proximus bags €400mn loan for fibre rollout

Proximus has announced it will be the recipient of a €400 million loan from the European Investment Bank for the roll-out and upgrading of its fixed broadband infrastructure in Belgium.

The money will be used as part of the Fiber for Belgium project, with the telco committing to bringing fibre to 85% of businesses and to the centres of cities and communes in Belgium. Over the next 10 years, the project will aim to invest $3 billion to future-proof the network.

“We are pleased to support Proximus in this unprecedented investment to roll-out their fiber-optic network across Belgium,” said EIB Director General Jean-Christophe Laloux. “This investment will significantly enhance access by both residential and business users to ultra-high speed broadband. This is key today – for citizens and companies alike – to reap the benefits of the digital single market.”

“Through the EIB loan, we have gained a cost-effective long-term, reliable financing partner for one of our most important strategic projects,” said Proximus CFO Sandrine Dufour.

Progress for the telco has seemingly been pretty positive so far, as 6,000 enterprises were already connected to fibre, while the telco has short-term implementation plans for 24 cities and communes. The last mile seems to be the big problem here however, as Proximus claims to have hooked up 94% of properties with fibre-to-the-curb. Unfortunately for those who want the full-fibre diet, Proximus has been making vectoring noises though this loan might change the tune.

Looking at the financials of the business, there have been some mixed signals. Over the last twelve months, total revenues declined 1.6% to €5.78 billion though domestic revenue grew by 1.1%. The business claims to have completed its 4G rollout, now providing an outdoor coverage of 99.8% and an indoor coverage of 98.1%. Smartphone penetration on Proximus’ network increased to 73%, with a 4G penetration of 63% at the end of the year. In total, there are just over 6 million mobile subscriptions.

On the content side, football is the big focus here. During the year, Proximus renewed the Belgian professional football broadcasting rights on a non-exclusive basis and announced the extension of its exclusive coverage of the UEFA Champions League to the next three seasons. The team also announced plans last month to launch Stingray Hits, a new music video channel focusing on local and international artists. The TV business currently has 1.56 million customers, a net gain of 71,000 subscriptions across the year.

As far as telcos go, Proximus seems to be in a relatively solid position with a good subscriber base and a solid content business. The loan from the European Investment Bank to complete the fibre rollout could be the last piece of the puzzle needed.