The Big Interview: Brendan Dick, chair of Openreach in Scotland

Brendan Dick, former director of BT Scotland, is enthusiastically explaining the potential of a fully fibred Scotland.

Brendan Dick is passionate about making Scotland successful  economically and socially  for future generations. Picture: Jeff Holmes

“As far as anyone knows looking to the future, for all the things like wireless and mobile which have a role to play, fibre is the one technology that everyone knows is currently as future-proof as we know the future will be. Because every technology like wireless and mobile still uses fibre somewhere in its connections,” he says.

After 35 years at BT, latterly as director for Scotland and UK regions, Dick retired this summer to become chairman of the newly created board for Scotland at Openreach, a division of BT which owns and maintains the UK broadband and telephone network.

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The company is “continuing to invest heavily” in the UK’s fibre infrastructure, which is capable of providing superfast broadband speeds.

At the beginning of this month, Openreach completed its split from BT, transferring its 33,000 UK employees – more than 3,000 of whom are based in Scotland – to Openreach Limited, a legally separate, wholly owned subsidiary within the BT Group.

The decision to separate the division was made last year following a lengthy Ofcom review, which saw BT fined £42 million for breaching governing rules and ordered to compensate other telecoms providers, who rely on its network, for connection delays.

Now Openreach is looking to the future, with plans to recruit another 400 staff this year to its new £400,000 fibre training school for Scotland.

It isn’t just Openreach pushing to extend the nation’s fibre infrastructure. More than 97 per cent of Scottish homes and businesses now have access to fibre broadband, but the Scottish Government has committed to bringing superfast broadband (offering speeds of more than 24 megabits per second) to all premises by 2021. Dick praises this ambition, calling it “a tough call to make”, but one with which he agrees.

“They’re talking about investing £600m in this, to have the will and the bravery to do this, I think, is praiseworthy. If the network continues to grow out, which it is even now with the current programmes, it means that premises and households get that connectivity and, by having a much bigger network across the country, it means a whole lot of other services can run in parallel with that.” This would include the provision of ethernet, high-speed business lines, for companies large and small, even in rural areas.

“There’s a whole lot of benefits the country will gain if we can get there. And we will get there. It’s just a question of when,” says Dick. The biggest determiner of when is not a technological issue, he says. “These are massive infrastructure programmes and just looking at the raw engineering, it’s like building the Forth Road Bridge but underground. It’s a big engineering job and that takes time and it takes human resources.”

Alongside working to ensure the network is rolled out effectively, he stresses the importance of promoting the “so-what factor”; what we as a society stand to gain from migrating to a fibre-powered superfast network. This is one of the issues which interests him most, as missing the point could amount to squandered effort.

He warns: “Unless we can push fast on creating an economy that is exploiting digital services as much as we can, we will lose out. Any infrastructure costs hundreds of millions of pounds. If you deploy infrastructure and don’t do anything with it, then it is sort of a waste of money.”

What he’s keen to see is how the nation, particularly businesses, can capitalise on the benefits of enhanced connectivity to drive up productivity. He uses the example of taking advantage of fibre-to-the-premises broadband to support flexible working, for instance home offices, which in turn would ease congestion and the burden on transport infrastructure. He adds: “I don’t mean to say working from home all the time, that would drive most people stir crazy, but having flexibility in how we work to be more agile, so you’re travelling some days, you’re not travelling others.”

If everywhere is securely, speedily connected to everywhere else, location has no bearing on where we can do business, says Dick. In the digital age, remote and agile working is a vital aspect of many business models, but it also creates a better balance between urban and rural living, allowing people to “live and work in parts of rural Scotland that we couldn’t do before”.

“Digital technology is the one big thing that is going to help not just sustain, but grow and transform, economies and, critically, communities. If you don’t have good little local economies, you can’t have good communities,” he says.

He is keen to stress that the world changes faster than many of us think, especially with the correct motivation. He says: “Way back at the turn of the century, I was talking at a conference in Inverness. This was before first generation broadband had really been deployed. Someone in the audience asked me how long I thought it would take to get first generation broadband deployed across Scotland and I said ‘Hmm, ten years, give or take’ – I was way wrong. It ended up being deployed to virtually everybody by the end of 2005. That was a combination of commercial investment and some government intervention.

“Given ambition, it is quite amazing what organisations can do. And that applies in many walks of life.”

Dick joined BT in 1980 after graduating from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in economics and business studies. He began in a micro computing role, which he left several years later after being headhunted by a supplier of computing services to Openreach and BT in Scotland. He rejoined the group in 1984, just after it had become privatised, and spent the next 15 years or so working in the computing sector, initially in Scotland and then in the UK, becoming a programme director. Towards the end of the noughties – as he remembers it “around the time of devolution” – he fancied a career change and secured the chance to move into more general management. He was appointed director of BT Scotland in 2006, and managing director for the UK regional work across the country.

He holds a range of external leadership roles, including chair of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, honorary president of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, and – particularly close to his heart – a director of Scottish Golf. He is also a member of the CBI Scotland Council. Dick views his many leadership hats as complementary to one another.

He says: “One of the great opportunities in Scotland for people like myself, and many other people I know in business, is we all feel passionately about making Scotland successful, economically and socially.

“It’s not as if one comes to work and puts a commercial hat on and nothing else matters, other than making money, although clearly that does matter. My philosophy is very much about my day job contributing to where I live. I have children and grandchildren, so I do care a lot about what the country will be like for them and the generations to come, and I think most people feel that.”

He also thinks this is important in terms of personal development, gaining exposure to other people’s thoughts and inputs, challenges and questions. He encourages his younger colleagues to exchange views in this way with peers who work in other sectors and other industries.

He adds: “I think that’s important because it is quite easy to end up being blinkered and blinded by one organisation and I don’t think that’s healthy from a personal perspective. You need external stimuli.

“What drives me is, and I genuinely mean this, when I come to work each day I do think I’m making a difference for Scotland. What I do, I hope, does make a difference. If it was all about just making money, I wouldn’t be that bothered. There’s more to life than making money.”