Swisscom chiefs warn off Bern

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Swisscom’s chairman and chief executive on Monday accused the government of political interference and warned of resignations if the crisis at the Swiss telecoms company was not resolved swiftly.

The attack came as Swisscom confirmed it had broken off take-over talks with Eircom of Ireland following last month’s surprise veto by Bern on big foreign acquisitions.

Markus Rauh, chairman, and Jens Alder, chief executive, said Swisscom’s credibility was at stake. Both called on Bern to clarify corporate governance at the state-controlled company and respect executives’ rights to operational management.

Both executives also warned that resignations were inevitable if the government failed to respect corporate governance and growth criteria in strategic guidelines being drawn up.

Swiss ministers have set a year-end deadline to prepare new guidelines for Swisscom’s strategic priorities up to 2009. While the rules will not exclude acquisitions, takeovers of companies with statutory responsibilities for telecoms services abroad will be forbidden.

“We have a crisis in relations between the company and its major shareholder,” said Mr Alder. “In such cases, I am convinced the captain should remain on board until the crisis is settled. Only when the crisis is settled and Swisscom is given a new growth strategy – and I stress a new growth strategy – do questions of whether I should stay become relevant.”

Mr Rauh, obliged to step down as chairman next year after serving two terms, said the government had been kept informed about acquisitions. The first contacts with Eircom dated back one year, and no objections had been raised.

He also confirmed Swisscom had been approached by TDC, the Danish telecoms group under siege by private equity buyers until its sale to a consortium last week, as well as unspecified private equity investors.

Political observers said Swisscom was a victim of party political infighting in Switzerland’s notionally consensual political system. Although leading parties traditionally form a coalition government bound by collective cabinet responsibility, the system has been breaking down in recent years.

In the past 10 days, Bern has successively proposed the total privatisation of the 66 per cent state-owned company, banned all foreign acquisitions and then redefined the ban to cover only targets with a public service mandate.

“Swisscom didn’t deserve this,” said Mr Rauh.

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