Svein Aaser, the former chairman of Telenor who also has ranked as one of Norway’s top business leaders, broke his silence on Wednesday over the controversy swirling around Telenor. He claims Telenor, currently caught in a bribery investigation and other controversy, is the victim of “personal and political agendas.”
Aaser finally responded to various accusations hurled against him and the company by writing a commentary in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday. He defended how he has handled what he characterized as “confidential information” tied to the bribery investigation at Telenor’s partly owned VimpelCom. He also defended the process that led to the hiring of Sigve Brekke as Telenor’s chief executive earlier this year. He flatly denied published reports this week that women were excluded from serious consideration.
It was the first time Aaser has commented on any of the controversy flying around Telenor since he resigned under pressure as Telenor’s chairman at the end of October. His resignation came after Norway’s government minister in charge of business and trade, Monica Mæland, announced she no longer had confidence in Aaser. Since the Norwegian state still owns 54 percent of Telenor’s stock and is the company’s largest shareholder, the trade minister can exert control over the board’s composition.
Mæland’s lack-of-confidence declaration came, she said, after Aaser and Telenor’s new chief executive Sigve Brekke presented her with information about the bribery investigation she claimed she should have received earlier. DN reported this week that authorities involved in the investigation, which is being carried out in the US, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland, thought Aaser had handed over too much information to Telenor’s largest shareholder.
Aaser addressed both accusations against him in his response published in DN:
“When I was chairman of Telenor, the board received confidential information we believed was relevant for the ongoing investigation of VimpelCom,” Aaser wrote. The information, he wrote, “was partly received from and partly shared with investigatory authorities. After an agreement with the proper authority, some of the information was taken further to our largest owner, who was willing to receive it in confidence. The company (Telenor), meanwhile, can’t control what happened with the information afterwards.”
Aaser, a former chief executive of Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, and chairman of several other companies, added that during his periods leading various boards of directors, he has “always” been on the side of all shareholders’ common interests, and aware of “the need to secure equal treatment between a dominant owner and other smaller shareholders.” He wrote that “state principles” are based on the premise that “dominant shareholders must be treated the same as other market players.” That, he suggested, explained why he didn’t share more information with Telenor’s state owners than he did with other shareholders. And his “agreement with the proper authority,” he suggested, absolved him of the reported accusation that he shared too much.
‘Someone … carrying out campaigns’ against Telenor
He wrote at the outset that he thinks the media is being used to further a debate over Telenor that’s characterized by “personal and political agendas where consideration for the company, its employees, its customers and its owners are rendered subservient.” He added that “someone has been been carrying out such campaigns for a long time.”
That explains his silence, he suggested: “I have not wanted to take part in a debate under such circumstances, and will still decline to do so.” He went on, however, to defend how he handled information and also to defend how he handled the much-debated hiring of Telenor’s new CEO. He blamed the debate again on someone who wants “to weaken confidence in Telenors processes.”
He ‘insisted’ on one female CEO candidate
While claiming that he can’t discuss unsuccessful candidates in the CEO selection process, or why they weren’t chosen, he repeated that “we had in the final rounds” both men and women, from both Norway and abroad. He said one female candidate, “whom I personally had insisted must be evaluated,” was interviewed in a meeting with both the “headhunter” firm Telenor had hired and a group of members of the board. The unidentified female candidate “received feedback both from the headhunter and myself as board leader about why she was not chosen.”
Aaser wrote that the selection of Sigve Brekke as Telenor’s new CEO was based on “a combination of international experience and company experience.” Brekke formerly headed Telenor’s important operations in Asia.
Aaser wrote that he “does not want to hold back relevant information” and denied that he did when grilled by a parliamentary committee. “But I can’t violate confidentiality imposed by authorities, and will not take part in the campaigns various players choose to conduct in the media.”