People are the most important success factor

After almost ten years, it is time for something different. Bart Van Den Meersche looks back fondly on his career at Proximus. But as one of the pioneers of the company’s transformation, the Chief Enterprise Market Officer also knows that the work is never finished. “To be successful, you have to stay ahead.”

Your departure is affecting quite a few people. The words invariably used in this regard are ‘leadership’ and ‘inspiration’. How does that make you feel?Bart Van Den Meersche: “I am an emotional person. The reactions are very satisfying. It was not an easy decision. I thought it through carefully and knew that saying goodbye would be emotional. But honestly, I didn’t expect the reactions I’m receiving now. These have been ten fantastic years at Proximus. I wanted to end on a high note. Look, getting the best out of people has always been my main motivation. The only way to accomplish that is when people feel good and do what they like to do. The reactions from colleagues only confirm this. It also shows that I made my decision at the right time. I definitely didn’t want to be the man who stayed on board a year too long.” You started your career at IBM. Twenty-eight years later – against all expectations – you moved to what was then called Belgacom. Bart: “True. I did the only job interview of my entire career with IBM. I studied mathematics in Leuven but I did not see myself entering education. I didn’t know anything about IT at the time, but I had already heard of IBM, which was then known as the most admired and innovative company in the world. I was allowed to start there as a half-time trainee, at the very bottom of the ladder. I commuted by train each day from Ostend to Brussels. I learned everything at IBM. I progressed through all levels until I was general manager for Belgium and a member of the European board.”

Belgian company

You had declined an earlier offer from Belgacom but accepted a second invitation. Why was that? Bart: “After a 28-year career, I had made it at IBM. Everyone expected me to stay there. But I wanted to do something different, preferably for a Belgian company, with the decision-making center in our own country and with the prospect of an exciting transformation. Which was exactly the challenge Belgacom presented when they approached me. I already knew the company well because IBM and Belgacom were customers of each other. However, my choice was not without a risk. In all honesty, at that time, Belgacom did not have the best reputation. Many couldn’t understand what I was thinking. But I was confident. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I never expected it to be so much fun.” You were closely involved with the transformation of Belgacom into Proximus. How do you look back on that? Bart: “The transformation of Proximus was above all a very positive story. In the original plan, “Proximus” would only be the commercial name. But in the end, the project grew into much more than just an exercise in rebranding. Enthusiasm and pride returned to the company. Employees wanted a Proximus e-mail address. On the day of the announcement, we raised the new Proximus flag over the towers of the headquarters in Brussels. Employees had been given the opportunity to sign the flag beforehand, and the response was massive. That clearly indicated to me that we were on the right track.”

BART VAN DEN MEERSCHE studied mathematics at KU Leuven. He worked at IBM for 28 years, including as Country General Manager for Belgium and Luxembourg. In 2011 he became Chief Enterprise Market Officer at Proximus.

“Belgacom did not have the best reputation. Many couldn’t understand what I was thinking. But I was confident. ”
Bart Van Den Meersche

Continuous anticipation

Concerning the result of the Proximus transformation, what gave you the most satisfaction? Bart: “The fact that we put the Enterprise Business Unit on the map. Prior to the transition, it was more or less the outsider at Proximus. Today this is completely different and Proximus is doing really well in the market of large companies. However, there was not one silver bullet that we used to achieve this. It was a combination of many things, with one clear theme: we always continued to anticipate. That is one of the lessons I learned at IBM. That company dominated the market with its mainframe technology, but in the early 1990s that product quickly became obsolete. The popularity of the PC grew rapidly, something IBM never anticipated. Suddenly, the market was not asking for technology but for services, and IBM was unable to respond quickly enough. Its stock plummeted and a major reorganization followed. IBM boss Lou Gerstner described IBM’s transformation in his book ‘Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?’. He argued that people are the most important success factor: getting people to commit, bringing out the best in them.” Did that experience inspire your work at Proximus? Bart: “Definitely. Proximus had a similar story. We evolved from a connectivity service provider to a complete telecom partner. Look, it’s tempting to focus on the strong products that do well in the short run, rather than on the tough ones that may have more to offer in the long run. In fact, we anticipated this at Proximus. And with success: today we generate 40 percent of our revenue from IT services.”

Proximus operates in a very competitive market. But how do you generally view business in Belgium? Bart: “Belgium has many assets, but it does not capitalize on them enough. There’s a lot of talent here with high productivity and extensive language skills. We are well located in Europe and are home to many international institutions. Yet we should be marketing ourselves better, like Ireland did for call centers or the Netherlands for e-commerce companies.”


Bart Van Den Meersche

While Proximus was going through a transformation, the competition of course was not idle. Bart: “True, but I think you should always start from your own strength. When the competition mimics you, you know you’re doing the right thing. And again: we continue to anticipate. We do this by focusing on fiber and 5G, but also through the Proximus Accelerators, the companies that were designated as permanent partners. In the meantime, the landscape continues to change and new competition is emerging, from cloud platforms, for example. That in turn is prompting us to look at SD-WAN and other software-defined solutions. At first glance, this goes against the traditional network model, which of course is still very important to us. But at the same time, it’s better that we do this ourselves rather than leave such a service disruption to the competition.”

Success demands a lot of work

What advice do you have for colleagues who will continue your work at Proximus? Bart: “We have all the assets needed to be and remain successful. But that in itself is not a guarantee! To be successful, you need to do a lot of work; you need to stay ahead. And when at last you’re successful, you cannot risk to fall asleep.” What will you do next? Bart: “No idea (laughs). I never did career planning. I wanted to be good at what I did, and you can only do that if you like what you are doing. And when you like to do something, opportunities come your way. I have always enjoyed sports and admire people like Wilfried Meert, co-founder and former organiser of the annual Memorial Van Damme athletics event. Maybe I’ll go in that direction. I don’t have any concrete plans, but I do have the ambition to only do things that I like to do, with people I like. Anything is possible, but nothing is set in stone.”