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Telus CEO Darren Entwistle is the son of a Bell lineman and had an early job as a repairman for the rival phone giant.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and

The jaw is still firm, the face still unlined and the voice still thunders through long soliloquies like a freight train roaring down a canyon. But Darren Entwistle is no longer the cocksure 37-year-old who parachuted in from Britain to manhandle a sleepy former phone monopoly into a national communications force called Telus Corp.

That was in 2000 and his industry has undergone several revolutions since then, propelling him through stomach-churning megaprojects and impossible deadlines that created the scariest moments of his professional life.

Telus's young leader has also created a dilemma for the company. The Vancouver-based enterprise has suffered the curse of the kid CEO, an energetic force who built the company, made it into a national player and is still there, at 48, at the cost of ambitious executives who departed for rival firms, knowing Mr. Entwistle was going nowhere soon.

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"You don't want to coagulate the arteries of an organization forever," he says, speaking in that florid oratorical style that is the Entwistle trademark. But he has not lost the old intensity and insatiable lust for the deal. "I have some pretty profound desires in what I'd like to see us achieve operationally and strategically," he says. "I'm just not quite exhausted yet."

We are entering a new phase of Mr. Entwistle's bold stewardship of Canada's No. 2 telecom carrier, a once-regional company that he pulled across the east-west divide and into the data and wireless business, and now into Internet protocol TV (IPTV) service. The years ahead shape up as the culmination of what is already an 11-year run - a tenure almost unheard of in the tumultuous telecom sector - as he tends to a list of unfinished business.

But what a list it is. As active as Telus has been since his arrival, the final years of the Entwistle era will present some of the most daunting tests the company has ever faced.

Mr. Entwistle still wants to complete his national wireless dream, anchoring Telus in the backyards of Bell Canada and Rogers Communications and growing beyond its traditional place as the distant third-place entrant in Ontario. In its home base of Alberta and B.C., it is playing defence - with powerful western rival Shaw Communications Inc. making its long-awaited push into wireless service - and offence. Telus's high-tech television venture has so far captured about 10 per cent market share in those two provinces; it will have to gain much more than that in order to reap a return on the multibillion-dollar investments necessary to be competitive with cable.

And then there is the newest challenge: grappling with the industry's second wave of convergence. Friday's announcement that BCE Inc. closed its deal to buy CTV means that of the four telecommunications companies with a wide geographic presence - BCE, Rogers, Telus and Shaw - only Telus lacks a large stable of in-house broadcasting assets to produce entertainment and news content for cellphones, tablets, and yes, televisions.

Mr. Entwistle has stuck stubbornly to his decade-old game plan as a non-aligned carrier using content from wherever it can find it, without owning it. It has been a major test of leadership, as he has watched his two closest archrivals snap up the largest private broadcasting networks.

Regulators in the U.S. and Canada have indicated they don't like the idea of carriers locking up exclusive content, and Ottawa is about to run hearings to look at the issue. "You can see where the landscape is headed," the Telus CEO says.

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But if Mr. Entwistle seems outwardly comfortable, don't be deceived. It is his fundamental tenet that executives should be exceedingly anxious, and if they aren't, they lack necessary focus. It's what drives Mr. Entwistle, and what has driven many Telus managers out the door, unable to cope with the pressure. "The intensity just permeates everything that he does and the way he does it," a former employee says.

What makes managers most anxious are not the things they do, but the things they elect not to do, Mr. Entwistle maintains. There are always 10 exciting actions his company could be taking, but in a world of scarce resources, only five probably can get done.

It's the ones that get away that keep you awake, Mr. Entwistle says. His biggest sleep-killer arises from his decision in 2004 not to pursue a winning bid for wireless provider Microcell. He let the late cable entrepreneur Ted Rogers slip in and walk away with a prize that made Rogers into Canada's wireless powerhouse. Telus avoided a huge debt load, but lost a game-changing acquisition. Telus remains locked in third place. It still hurts.

And while Mr. Entwistle is making another large non-bet by not joining the content-buying craze, this too carries risks. "It could mean higher programming fees on their television business," one analyst says. "It could mean subpar access to news and sporting content. If wireless develops to the point where that's an issue, that could be negative."

If Convergence 2.0 is a success for BCE, it could mean something else, of course. The eastern goliath, now run by George Cope, who once belonged to his Telus team and was his heir apparent, would have the upper hand in the rivalry between the two.

Mr. Entwistle, famously, made a brief stab at buying Bell when it was in play in 2007, only to withdraw, persuaded that Telus could not win. But with the credit markets healing, another wave of mergers in the telecommunications industry seems not far off - witness AT&T's proposed $39-billion (U.S.) deal for Deutsche Telekom's U.S. unit - and many believe a Bell-Telus merger is an inevitability, even if it would be politically impossible to do right now. Everything Mr. Entwistle has done may be just a prelude to winning Bell and creating a giant known in the industry, rather cheekily, as "Belus"; for him, that might be a prize worth sticking around for.

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The acquisition ladder

Bagging Bell would mean coming full circle for Mr. Entwistle, who began life as the son of a Bell lineman in Montreal and had an early job as a repairman for the company. That was before, armed with an MBA, he headed out into the global telecom arena as a hot-shot manager.

He was recruited by a Telus board desperate for an outsider to inject energy into an amalgam of dusty old phone monopolies - Edmonton Telephones, BC Tel and Alberta Government Telephones - that joined to form the modern Telus.

What Telus got was less an executive than a force of nature, super-charged from a decade of international deal making in London with Cable & Wireless PLC, where he orchestrated the world's first four-way merger.

He didn't miss a beat, taking a battering ram to the status quo at Telus. It meant several years of management turmoil. Josh Blair, who heads Telus's human resources group, started with BC Tel and is the only senior executive left from the pre-Entwistle era. He remembers the dramatic entry of the 37-year-old outsider. "He came in and said 'We will shift from a voice company to data and wireless and we won't worry about being a Canadian leader, but being a global leader.' The talk on the shop floor was, 'Who was this young guy and what is he smoking?' "

Mr. Entwistle moved quickly with a $6.6-billion buyout of Clearnet Communications, making Telus a national wireless player. He then snapped up QuebecTel for about $500-million. A clear strategy was emerging: Focus on wireless and data and the future, doubters be damned.

But it was a rocky ride. It took stomach to carry that much debt through the 2001 telecom bust, and the company's reputation - along with Mr. Entwistle's - took a beating as the stock tanked from around $40 to less than $8, and the company's debt reached junk status. (On Friday, the stock poked through $50, a level it had not reached since 2007.)

As acquisitions piled up, Telus continued to face challenges in breaking down walls. Joe Natale, the company's chief commercial officer, came aboard in 2003 and could see the signs of a scattered organization. One day, a manager came to him with the classic good news-bad news story. The good news was that Telus had won a major bid proposal. The bad news was that other Telus groups had come in third and fourth.

Mr. Entwistle has beaten down those barriers, but some analysts think he could have gone harder, earlier, on revamping its land-line network and pushing the new TV service against Shaw, which is eating Telus's lunch in the home phone and broadband Internet markets. But no one says he lacked foresight. "Eleven years ago, they had it right," says Greg MacDonald of Macquarie Capital Markets Canada. "And as a result of that, they're one of the best-positioned incumbents globally."

Despite its growing presence in the business of selling TV packages, Mr. Entwistle has long maintained that Telus would never dabble in producing content, the way his telecom industry cohorts have done. His rationale is that his leadership team has expertise on telecom, but very few people have a track record on content.

Mr. Entwistle also feels that regulatory scrutiny is, if anything, stronger than 10 years ago. "The government would take a dim view of an organization that's abusive of a dominant position or undertakes anti-competitive behaviour because it's got a certain advantage due to vertical integration."

There is evidence to support that view. In January, the CRTC ruled that Quebecor's Vidéotron had violated "undue preference" by hoarding TV shows away from Telus and Bell. And in early March, as part of the regulatory approval of BCE's $1.3-billion purchase of CTV, the CRTC blocked telecom companies from making media content exclusive on wireless devices, such as smart phones or iPads, until after a hearing in June - which is likely going to guarantee some form of access to all television providers.

"If the CRTC continues with this line, then Darren's decision is going to look pretty good in retrospect," says Brahm Eiley, founder of Toronto-based Convergence Consulting Group Ltd.

Some critics say Mr. Entwistle is less visible as the public face of the company - certainly since the high-profile losses he sustained in 2006 and 2007, first having Ottawa slap down Telus's bid to become an income trust, then the aborted Bell bid. But he sees little correlation between public profile and operational effectiveness. He says he has been focused internally as Telus embarked on the double challenge of building a new national wireless network and a modern land-line link.

"Over these last few years, we had two huge pushes within the organization that were unbelievably consumptive of my time," he says. The fear of missing deadlines on those critical projects, he says, brought about "some of the darkest days I have seen in my career."

That overcrowded agenda puts tremendous pressure on its executives and front-line managers, and only the strong survive. Some former managers say his personality creates a culture of intimidation and fear, but current top executives say he simply sets the bar very high - for his team and himself.

"If you are strong, he is great to work for," Mr. Blair says. "You can have an all-out argument on a topic and then go for a beer that afternoon. It's important you have a strong, confident character because he is a big personality."

Mr. Entwistle says he has created a team in his image - hungry and combative - and his executives are well paid for their pains. "There are no shrinking violets on the executive team, so they will tell me exactly what's what," he says. And, he adds, "I have a permanent dissatisfaction with the status quo."

The future of Telus

When Mr. Entwistle speaks about life after Telus, he talks of teaching. But people who know him expect a global management role. Inside Telus, the succession countdown has begun. Mr. Blair says he is working on the process with the Telus board, which has identified some strong internal candidates.

One reason for Mr. Entwistle's seemingly lower public profile is that he gives other executives the floor at investor meetings and conference calls. That has given exposure to two obvious potential successors - chief financial officer Robert McFarlane and Mr. Natale, the Toronto-based executive who has consolidated much of the revenue-generating parts of the business.

The 47-year-old Mr. Natale, a former management consultant, leaves no doubt of his CEO aspirations. "If the opportunity is there, I would like to take advantage of it," he says. Analysts say they rest easy knowing he's around when Mr. Entwistle goes. The board, of course, could go outside - but that seems unlikely.

But what will be the exact dimensions of the business the new CEO will inherit? The major task ahead is to build the TV business. After years of muddling with various software platforms for the IPTV product, which is delivered over broadband Internet wires, Mr. Entwistle finally settled on a Microsoft product and began the real push.

The process is extremely expensive. The company has to roll out its wired network all the way to the neighbourhoods it wants to serve, instead of relying on distant cellular towers, like it does for wireless. But it allows Telus to offer bundles of services, and is necessary if it wants to truly go toe-to-toe with Shaw.

"He has to show the profitability," Canaccord Genuity analyst Dvai Ghose says. "History's proven Entwistle right, but the future remains to be seen."

Asked about Mr. Entwistle's future at Telus, industry observers always raise the topic of Bell. Ever since BCE was in play four years ago, the question has lingered: When will Bell and Telus get together? It only makes sense, industry insiders say.

Mr. Entwistle agrees a merger may be right for the long term. He calls it "a possible eventuality" as the Canadian industry becomes more mature. "It is critically important that you realize economies of scale and these are typically achieved through size." Then he adds: "But it's decidedly out of fashion now under the strategy professed by the Canadian government."

The industry agrees. It would create a wireless giant with roughly two-third of the country's subscribers and force rivals to seek similar scale, crimping the industry's competitiveness. But if, as some expect, the government eases foreign ownership for all players - instead of just smaller ones - expect either Telus or Bell to play the "national champion" card, arguing that a massive Canadian merger is required to maintain strong head office presence in this country.

So will Mr. Entwistle hang around to see the political winds shift? He has pledged to give way to the next generation of managers, but what drives him still is that anxiety about thing left undone. As one former employee says, his future has always been about: "Beat Bell. Buy Bell. Outperform Bell."

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THE LIFE OF THOMAS DARREN ENTWISTLE

The beginning: Born in 1962 in Montreal.

The training: Bachelor in Economics from Concordia University, MBA (Finance) from McGill; diploma in network engineering, University of Toronto.

First jobs: As a teenager. worked in a Coca-Cola bottling factory, doing 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift. As a university student, laboured as a Bell Canada installer and repairman.

The rise: From 1988 to 1993, he worked in various management positions at Bell Canada. In 1993, moved to Britain as general manager, corporate finance, with Mercury Communications 1993-2000: he assumed senior roles with Mercury and parent Cable & Wireless PLC.

In 1997-1998, oversaw four-way merger of Mercury with three cable companies. In 1999, appointed president of Cable & Wireless (United Kingdom and Ireland).

The pinnacle: 2000: Hired as president and CEO of Telus in Vancouver.

Six weeks later: Telus bid for Clearnet Communications in $6.6-billion deal.

2004: Telus bid $1.1-billion for Microcell Telecommunications, but lost out to Rogers Communications.

2006: Plans to turn Telus into an income trust scuttled by federal tax changes.

2008-09: Telus and Bell link up to build a new advanced wireless network.

January, 2010: U.S.-based Association of Fundraising Professionals chose Telus as world's outstanding philanthropic company.

March, 201l: Honoured with Canadian Business Leader Award by University of Alberta.

The other side of Darren Entwistle: On Halloween, 2006, as plans for the income trust collapsed, HR executive vice-president Josh Blair was about to make a presentation to the board. On one of the worst days of his tenure, Mr. Entwistle stopped the meeting to request that Mr. Blair's report be moved up in the agenda so the young executive could get home to trick or treat with his children.

Extra-curricular: Skiing, golf, yachting; watching his son play hockey and his daughter basketball.

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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