MONTREAL -- In early May, just weeks after BCE Inc. had been thrust into an unwelcome auction, Michael Sabia knew his time at the company was nearing an end. As the sale process lurched into gear, the 54-year-old chief executive officer confided to his chairman, Richard Currie, that he planned to step aside if the phone company managed to extract a satisfactory price for shareholders.
Yesterday, at a special meeting to approve the $35-billion takeover of BCE by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and its U.S. partners, Mr. Sabia made good on that promise, telling investors that he was preparing to "move on" after having met many of the objectives he set for himself after taking the reins in April, 2002.
"I think it's the right thing to do," Mr. Currie said in an interview following the meeting. "I think it puts him in control of his life, and it also continues to serve BCE shareholders because he has no interest except their interest ... He has no interest, let's say, to please the new owners."
Shareholders who attended the gathering in Montreal, however, didn't seem all that impressed with the enumerations of BCE's achievements under Mr. Sabia.
Although 97 per cent of investors who cast a ballot voted in favour of the sale, yesterday's meeting seemed comprised almost wholly of the other 3 per cent.
Shareholder after shareholder streamed to the microphone to chastise management for selling the company, and to question why, if BCE had turned the corner, it was not allowing them to share in its future growth. Some were retirees, who depend on BCE's dividend payments, and don't want to pay the capital gains tax triggered by the sale; others dwelled on the handsome compensation management and some directors will receive following the sale.
"It kind of confuses me when I can sit in a meeting like this and I haven't heard one bad thing about the future of Bell Canada ... why would you deny to shareholders the ability to be in on that rosy future by us selling now," said Anthony Edge, a BCE shareholder and employee from Ottawa.
Mr. Currie, who appeared visibly exasperated as the meeting dragged on (and who acknowledged beforehand that he would have preferred not to have had to sell the company), reminded investors they had the right to vote against the deal.
"It's entirely up to the shareholders, what the shareholders want," he told Mr. Edge. "We're not denying anybody anything."
Toward the end, however, in a moment of frustration, he could be heard muttering into his microphone: "Jesus Christ. This will never end."
Mr. Sabia, whose workaholic tendencies verge on the legendary, said he would continue with BCE until the deal formally concludes, but declined to say what his future holds.
"Speak to me in the first quarter of 2008," he told a group of reporters after the meeting.
Some have speculated that as a long-time bureaucrat, he could gravitate back toward a public policy role. Others have suggested he could run for office at some point, but people close to Mr. Sabia said that option doesn't interest him.
Mr. Sabia provided investors with a thumbnail sketch of his five-year tenure, explaining that the notoriously bureaucratic telephone company was flirting with a financial crisis and had to be "pulled back from the brink" when he first arrived. The company was also in dire need of focus, and had to be returned to its roots in telecommunications after some disastrous forays into other areas.
Many investors, and indeed most of the private equity firms circling BCE this year, have generally agreed that Mr. Sabia took the right steps to fix the company and strengthen its balance sheet.
"He's done an enormous amount to bring the company where it is today," said Iain Grant, an analyst at telecom consultancy SeaBoard Group.
The criticism, however, is that he took too long, and that he is more a strategic thinker than a true operator with industry experience. Mr. Sabia might disagree with that assessment, but it's clear the new owners wanted someone with a strong operator's pedigree.
For much of Mr. Sabia's tenure, the company's shares barely moved. While Mr. Sabia and Mr. Currie talked about the high premium investors will receive for their stock, small shareholders still weren't overly impressed.