Meet Bell’s new CEO — a likeable, blue-collar, hockey-loving sports nut at heart
MONTREAL — The ritual was unfailingly consistent for Sunny Handa and his new friend, Mirko Bibic, a fellow Montrealer he met in the registration line at the University of Toronto law school in the fall of 1989. At the time, both were 22, hungry for the world and starving for hockey, specifically, Montreal Canadiens hockey, a hometown team they were devoted to in a hostile, Maple Leafs-loving city.
On game nights, the two law buddies would hang out at Bibic’s apartment not far from campus, hitting the books until precisely 6:45 p.m., when the frozen wings and pizza would go into the oven and the quiet, concentrated study of case law would give way to animated discussions of Les Glorieux.
“We were religious about watching the Canadiens games,” Handa recently recalled. “And I could never have imagined where it would all end up for Mirko. You knew he was going to be successful, because he was driven to succeed, but to be CEO of the one of the biggest companies in Canada? On the day the news came out, I sent him an email, a WTF-question-mark-email, because, I mean, oh my god.”
Bibic, a likeable, working-class bilingual son of immigrant parents, is the new chief executive of BCE Inc., a.k.a. Bell, the monster telecom with 56,000 or so employees — plus a minority ownership stake in the Montreal Canadiens (Bell also has a stake in the Leafs).
It is a pinch-me, look-at-me-now situation for the 52-year-old, who woke up Jan. 6, his first day on the job, with an admitted case of the butterflies. By 2 p.m., however, the jitters had subsided, even if the novelty of the occasion had not.
A Bell employee since 2004, Bibic started the day by meeting his senior executive team at the company’s Montreal headquarters on Nuns’ Island, a short drive from the city centre. Following a boardroom lunch featuring mineral water, a mix of salads and assorted holiday fare, the new boss was spotted, coffee in hand, near a Tim Hortons on the building’s main floor. Two Bell employees approached him, asking to get their pictures taken.
Bibic, looking sharp in a blue suit, with a silver Bell pin on the lapel, tossed an arm around each man’s shoulder and grinned.
“That’s the first time that’s ever happened,” he said. “I woke up this morning and it kind of all sunk in. I am from Montreal, and now here I am, and so I definitely had some butterflies, but I’m all good now.”
Keeping calm will be a strategic must for Bibic, given the country’s current telecom climate, one in which government regulators and federal politicians are eyeing the Big Three oligopoly (Bell, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp.) for, well, a serious makeover. Gone, at least in theory, could be the days when running Old Ma Bell meant pumping out profits and competition — wink, wink — involved dividing the spoils into thirds.
There are also market disruptors, such as Netflix Inc., Walt Disney Co. and whoever comes next; weary old landline customers cutting their home phone cords; and a young generation that almost exclusively consumes content on their phones. If all that’s not enough to disturb Bibic’s sleep, there is also the legacy of George Cope, his immediate predecessor, to consider.
Cope was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame two years before he left the top job at Bell. His 12-year reign was synonymous with dividends and year-over-year EBITDA growth. His charitable side project, Let’s Talk, was a campaign to raise awareness around mental-health issues that has since transcended the man and the company that started it.
To an outsider, the regulatory headaches, market uncertainty, placating shareholders and the big shoes to fill seem a little daunting, though Bibic said it is merely part of the “fun” of running a $55-billion enterprise. Part of what he learned from Cope, he said, was to plan meticulously, try to see around corners and “sweat the details,” even the small ones.
Unlike Cope, however, the new guy isn’t a telecom lifer, but a lawyer by trade, whose blistering rise from young associate to 36-year-old managing partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP, a blue-chip Bay Street Toronto firm where 36-year-olds don’t make partner, let alone become managing partners, was near the stuff of legend.
Bibic could have stayed in Ottawa running, as he was, the firm’s office there, earning big money, weeding through the minutiae of regulatory law and raising his three boys with his wife, Jackie Philoppoussis.
But Lawson Hunter had other ideas for someone he viewed as a protégé. Now a septuagenarian senior counsel at Stikeman, Hunter is largely responsible for drafting the country’s Competition Act. In legal circles, his career is the actual stuff of legend, and his past casework a staple on law school syllabuses.
Hunter met Bibic and Paul Collins, another young Stikeman associate, in the early 1990s, affectionately referring to the pair as his “mushrooms,” due to the crap load of work he piled on them.
“With Mirko, it’s obvious that he is smart, hardworking and that he has a great personality,” Hunter said. “He is the complete package.”
Hunter stunned his legal colleagues in 2003 by leaving Stikeman to join Bell as an executive vice-president and chief corporate officer. He stunned them again when he picked up the phone and asked Bibic to join him.
Bibic was already thinking about making a jump, he just didn’t know where to until his mentor answered the question for him: senior vice-president, regulatory affairs, Bell.
“It didn’t take me long to say, ‘This is perfect,’” he said. “I had done zero telecom work in my career. In fact, I tried to avoid telecom work at Stikeman. It just goes to show you: you have just got to throw yourself into something interesting — and any challenge can be interesting — and don’t pigeonhole yourself.”
You have just got to throw yourself into something interesting — and any challenge can be interesting — and don’t pigeonhole yourself
Bibic and his fellow mushroom, Collins, have stayed close, and grabbed dinner a few months back at Harbour 60, a pricey steakhouse near the Toronto waterfront featuring porterhouse for $90 a cut. Upon cracking the menu, Bibic, on the cusp of a promotion to a job that paid his predecessor more than $10 million a year, practically gasped.
Collins relates the story to make the point that both he and Bibic grew up first-generation Canadians. Neither is from a Toronto or Montreal establishment family, or had a father, grandfather and great-grandfather who all practiced The Law. They turned up at school — Collins is another U of T law grad — in ripped jeans and T-shirts, counting every penny as they went, relying on their smarts, talent and a tireless work ethic to get ahead.
“No one handed Mirko anything,” Collins said.
Bibic’s first summer job was working construction with his Serbian father, Veljko, a carpenter, on commercial builds around Montreal. His mom, Ginette, an administrator, was born in France. Bibic also did a stint as a janitor at a local hospital. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
“My parents taught me the importance of education and the importance of having a work ethic,” he said.
Hard work got him to where he is now, a top executive, earning 200 times (or so) more than the Bell tech driving around in a repair truck. It is a staggering sum given his roots and although money is a thing, it isn’t The Thing for Bibic.
“I am not one to live an ostentatious lifestyle,” he said.
His four oldest pals are guys he grew up with in Longueuil, the predominately Francophone city directly across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. (Bibic spoke French and English at home; his childhood hero was Guy Lafleur).
He met his wife when he was still a teenager. When their three boys, now grown, were younger, and Bibic was working maniac hours and travelling a ton, his family title was: Weekend Hockey Tournament Dad.
No one handed Mirko anything
“I have stayed in every crappy motel in Quebec, Eastern Ontario, Sudbury, Peterborough, Toronto. You name it, I have been there,” he said. “Those were fun years.”
Sunday nights around the Bibic home meant mandatory family dinners, and non-hockey season weekends involved going to the family cottage north of Ottawa. It is a phase of life Bibic leaves behind with his new job. He and Jackie have left Ottawa, and are renting condos in Toronto and Montreal, while Bibic splits time between the city he loved in his youth and the city he left immediately after law school.
“I am going to have to find a new rhythm,” he said.
Part of writing about Mirko Bibic involves the impossible (to date) task of trying to find someone with a bad or even lukewarm word to say about him. There are no obvious enemies, old foes with axes to grind, friends he double-crossed, clients he failed or colleagues he stabbed in the back on the way to the top. By all accounts, Bibic is, as he said, “grounded,” and he is genuinely well liked, a people-person quality that was evident early on to Sunny Handa, his Habs-loving pal.
Law school is cliquey. People jockey for favour and jobs. Some play classroom politics, a potentially fraught environment Bibic skated through, not by pissing people off, but by making people laugh and being honest.
“Mirko is a no BS guy,” Handa said. “He always tells you like it is, but not in a mean way, just in a very honest way, and you need to remember he is funny. Mirko sees the humour in life, he loves to laugh, and what is not to like about that?”
Being nice doesn’t mean being a pushover. One lawyer familiar with Bibic’s work said he is exactly the person you’d want to have watching your back in a “knife fight.” His instinct is that of a brawler, intellectually, and it comes with a self-confidence underpinned by a gentlemen’s understanding that being a jerk, in either life or business, isn’t particularly productive.
Bibic’s personality served him well during his many appearances before the Competition Bureau over the years.
“When Mirko didn’t succeed on a point, he would be very gracious, but he was tenacious,” said John Pecman, a former bureau commissioner. “He is tough as nails, and he likes to win, and he is going to be a great advocate for the company, but not at any cost.”
For example, later that first day on the job, Bibic’s nose is being powdered by a makeup artist at CBC’s Montreal headquarters in preparation for a taped television segment with Gerald Fillion, a French-language business reporter.
He is tough as nails, and he likes to win, and he is going to be a great advocate for the company, but not at any cost
Bell has 14,000 employees in Quebec, and Bibic views his bilingualism as a distinct advantage. But Fillion wasn’t about to show his fellow Quebecer mercy and asked, as others previously had in both official languages, about the Trudeau pledge to slash 25 per cent off cellphone bills.
Bibic’s stock answer, if people were willing to listen to facts, is that the facts are thus: prices are already coming down, and cheaper doesn’t mean better. A race to the bottom price-wise could fundamentally “sacrifice” wireless quality and coverage, thus limiting the country’s potential to be at the global “forefront of technology.”
It is a great argument and in making it, Bibic surely knows he is paddling against a populist tide. As he put it after the Fillion chat: “Everybody will find their own answer.” Translation: the public is going to believe what it wants to believe, and the public generally believes it is getting screwed by the Big Three, whether they are or not.
Outside the CBC studio on the streets of Montreal, as light snow falls, a day that began for Bibic before 6 a.m. wasn’t over yet. He had a hockey game to get to. The Canadiens are in town.