One of Norway’s most powerful businesswomen has agreed to take over as the new chairman of embattled Telenor. Gunn Wærsted acknowledged that Telenor is in an “unfortunate situation,” but she claims she’s certain the company can restore its reputation.
Wærsted, age 60, has long topped lists of Norway’s most influential and powerful businesswomen. She had to resign her current post as chief executive of Nordea Bank in Norway, because Telenor is one of the bank’s major customers and both needed to avoid any conflict of interest. Wærsted will remain in Nordea’s top mangement, however, as head of its Wealth Management division, and as board leader for Petoro, the company that runs the Norwegian state’s direct ownership interests in offshore oil fields.
In taking over as chairman of Telenor, or as styreleder (board leader) as the position is called in Norwegian to reflect gender neutrality, Wærsted must tackle serious challenges on several fronts. They include an international investigation into corruption at partly owned mobile phone firm VimpelCom Ltd, the suspensions of several top executives and the firing of Wærstad’s predecessor in connection with that investigation, charges that Telenor has been run for years by a white male-dominated power structure, and even CV embellishment by Telenor’s new CEO Sigve Brekke.
“I agree that Telenor has a challenge regarding its reputation, and that it’s in an unfortunate situation,” Wærsted told news bureau NTB after her appointment on Thursday. “I will take time to look into these problems, and I am completely convinced that with good cooperation on the board and with management, we will be able to restore the reputation of Telenor.”
‘Best person we could get’
The charges that state-mandated gender equality have not been practised at Telenor, which is majority-owned by the Norwegian state, led to wide speculation that the company’s new chairman (to succeed the ousted Svein Aaser) would have to be a woman. The leader of Telenor’s search committee merely claimed that “we have found the best person we could get,” with Anders Skjævestad telling newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that the board had “thoroughly” evaluated various candidates, both men and women, and is “extremely satisfied with the choice of Gunn Wærsted.” He also claimed that when her appointment was confirmed, applause broke out in the room.
Wærsted, who was born in Telemark, is a graduate of Norwegian Business School BI and has had a long and successful career in Norwegian business. Much of it has been spent in the finance industry, beginning as a funds manager for Nevi Finans in Bergen and then at Norway’s biggest bank, DNB. She later became head of capital management at DNB and took on several top posts at industry associations, including becoming chairman of Norway’s largest, Finansnæringens Hovedorganisasjon. She became chief executive of the large banking chain Sparebank 1-gruppen in 2002 before joining Nordea in 2007.
Business magazine Kapital has listed her at the top of its annual list of Norway’s 100 most powerful women and national newspaper VG named her as Norway’s most powerful businesswoman in 2008 and 2009. Her appointment was well-received by both the politicians who’ve been highly critical of Telenor lately and by analysts. “This is important for two reasons,” analyst Daniel Johansson at brokerage Fondsfinans told Aftenposten. “It’s never good for a large company to be without a board leader (as Telenor has been for nearly two months). The situation at Telenor is also extremely unusual. We have a suspended chief financial officer (and chief legal counsel) whom we don’t know will return, at the same time the situation around (CEO) Brekke and his academic background (he has been credited with degrees and titles he doesn’t have) makes folks perhaps uncertain about the chief executive. That’s made it very important to get a new board leader in place.”
Declared confidence in Telenor’s CEO
Asked whether she sees any need to investigate the process behind Brekke’s appointment earlier this year, she said “No. The board has given their reasons for his unanimous appointment.” Brekke thus seems safe in his job despite the CV controversy. Asked whether she has confidence in Brekke, Wærstad answered “Yes.” She also called his CV embellishment “unfortunate” but added she needed more time to look into that problem too, before commenting further.
Wærstad told NTB there was “no doubt” that Telenor has done a poor job of promoting women into top management, and she intends to improve that. “I want to see diversity both in gender, culture and educational background,” she said. “I don’t think that’s good enough today,” despite Telenor’s broad international operations.
She claimed she’s confident her own qualifications won her the top post at Telenor, not the fact she’s a woman. “It has certainly not been a disadvantage during this process to be a woman,” she told NTB, “but I don’t think I’ve come in because of any quotas.” She’ll take over January 14, after a new chief executive for Nordea Norge is in place to succeed her.