George Cope wanted to clear the air, he said, since a conspiracy theory appeared to be emerging on the Friday morning of the Canada Day long weekend, one suggesting that the long-serving president and CEO of BCE and Bell Canada was retiring in January 2020 because the Toronto Raptors had (finally) won their first-ever NBA championship.
Cope, after all, is a full-blown basketball nut. The former high school and university hoops player was among the lucky eyewitnesses — a perk of being head of a corporation that has an ownership stake in the Raptors — at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., watching as the Canadian franchise made history in beating the Golden State Warriors.
“I may have been yelling at the referees a little louder than usual, I have to admit, knowing what was at stake for my wife, Tami, and I,” Cope said, before clarifying that, no, the Raptors victory did not have anything to do with his decision to retire, and that a succession plan at BCE and Bell had been in the works for some time.
But he added that the fact the team actually did win made his planned departure doubly sweet.
“Given my own personal passion for basketball, it was particularly fulfilling, given what was about to be announced for me personally.”
Cope is stepping aside after a 12-year run at the top, a tenure that has overlapped with 54 consecutive quarters of year-over-year adjusted EBITDA growth for BCE and Bell, and average annual shareholder returns of 14.4 per cent. With so much good news to report, in terms of the financials, it is easy to forget that when Cope took over in 2008 the global economy was in the dumpster. Bell, back then, was viewed as the hapless cousin to Telus and Rogers in the race to grab wireless market share. The company was teetering on the brink of insolvency. Things, as they say, did not look good.
But Cope didn’t blink. He restructured, slashing jobs in the executive ranks, shuttering BCE’s ill-conceived venture capital arm, pumping money into infrastructure, snapping up key assets, such as Manitoba Telecom Services, Quebec-based Astral Media and the aforementioned chunk of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Leafs and Raptors, while transforming a pokey, underperforming, headed-for-the-dustbin-of-history home-phone-line-based company into a broadband/wireless/multimedia giant, whose shares have shot up 311 per cent since his first day on the job.
“I think George is possibly the best telco executive in the world,” said Gord Nixon, former CEO of Royal Bank and current chair of BCE and Bell Canada’s board. “You know, for those of us who ran companies, we all like to think we knew the whole business, but there were technical areas, and things like that, where you would rely on other people.
“But George was just a great operator. He understands it all.”
That understanding extends to his decision to leave, paving the way for his successor, Mirko Bibic, the company’s chief operating officer, a lawyer by trade and a Bell employee since 2004.
“You have to make sure you don’t overstay your welcome,” said Cope, who turns 58 in July. “Mirko and I have worked together my whole time as CEO. He was in charge of the corporate strategy and development files, as well as regulatory, which is a complex world for our organization.
“He sees around corners. He sees strategy.”
(Incoming CEO Mirko Bibic) sees around corners. He sees strategy
Cope will spend the next few months on tour with Bibic, introducing the new guy to the company’s major shareholders. He hasn’t thought about all the things he wants to do in retirement, but swears he is not gunning for another CEO job.
“I think I’ve done 100 quarterly investor calls since 1994, because I’ve been in the public markets for all those years,” Cope said. “It is time to let someone else take those calls.”
With fewer calls, Cope can deepen his involvement in charity and, when asked, apply his expertise to some corporate boards. It is the step back from the spotlight that every CEO eventually takes, but Cope’s departure, in a way, is different. For Canadians, BCE and Bell Canada’s connection to daily life only registers when, for example, an error gets made on a cellphone bill, or a home high-speed internet connection conks out, producing a string of invective from the aggrieved party.
I think I’ve done 100 quarterly investor calls since 1994, because I’ve been in the public markets for all those years. It is time to let someone else take those calls.
Cope, in his role as the boss, was never going to be able to alter the narrative of minor customer annoyances. But by being the driving force behind the Bell Let’s Talk campaign — Cope’s mother was bi-polar, in an age when such things were never spoken of — he arguably started a movement, creating a legacy that transcends business.
“Let’s Talk is a common reference point as people point to the evolution of public acceptance and understanding around mental illness,” David Goldbloom, a senior medical advisor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said. “I am not in a position to evaluate Cope’s fiscal and entrepreneurial contributions, but in the world of mental health, Bell is recognized nationally and internationally, and not simply for increasing awareness and discussion. It has also demonstrated huge philanthropy — across the country — to organizations large and small.”
Cope describes Let’s Talk as a team effort, but one aspect of it that has struck him, in the years since the campaign’s 2010 launch, is how the event has come to be characterized by a sense of corporate détente; it is a special day, instead of just another day, and it’s not for beating your competitors over the head but for pulling together to make common cause.
“Everybody kind of drops their corporate guards,” Cope said. “I really hope we’ve created a dialogue. I really believe family and friends and colleagues and peers are talking about mental health in a different way now, and to be a part of that legacy, is something I am really proud of.”
As the clock pushed past noon Friday, the not-officially-retired-until-January-2020 basketball-loving CEO said that he was eyeing a more immediate escape — to Ontario cottage country for the long weekend. Cope and family have some July 1 traditions, to be sure, but this year’s proceedings promised to be a little different.
Cope was headed for a concert near Barrie, Ont.
“I am ready,” he said. “Usually the whole family gets together, but a few of us are sneaking out to go and see the Rolling Stones.”