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Orange Names Heydemann First Female CEO at Key Time for Telecoms

·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Orange SA named Christel Heydemann chief executive officer, making her the first woman to lead France’s biggest phone carrier.

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An engineer and graduate of France’s elite Ecole Polytechnique, Heydemann, 47, replaces Stephane Richard, who stepped down after he was convicted late last year over his handling of a dispute at the French finance ministry more than a decade ago. Heydemann will take office on April 4, the company said in a statement Friday.

Stephane Richard will continue as chairman and CEO until Heydemann takes up her new role, and will stay as non-executive chairman until a new chairman is found, at the latest until May 19, the date of Orange’s Annual General Meeting, the company said.

Heydemann becomes one of only two women to lead a company in the benchmark CAC 40 Index of France’s biggest listed firms, the other being Engie’s Catherine MacGregor. With more than 15 years of telecom industry experience, Heydemann takes the helm at Orange at a time when the highly competitive sector in Europe is facing a long-awaited consolidation. She’ll also be under pressure to reverse the drop in Orange’s shares, which have tumbled more than 27% in the past five years.

The new CEO will have to navigate a rapidly changing landscape in Europe, where phone carriers are under pressure to raise cash and cut the bill for new network investments -- making consolidation of assets imperative. Deutsche Telekom AG is weighing a potential merger of its mobile towers with rivals, including Orange’s Totem tower company, Bloomberg reported yesterday.

She also must grapple with intensifying competition from the big U.S. tech companies in areas like the cloud, where her predecessor Richard has been blamed for not moving fast enough. Another task is deciding on the fate of Orange Bank, a digital banking service launched in 2017 that has yet to take off.

With her appointment, Heydemann beat short-listed candidates Frank Boulben and Ramon Fernandez. The French state, Orange’s biggest shareholder with a 23% stake, had backed Heydemann in the final rounds. In early January, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said, all things being equal, he was in favor of a woman candidate.

Unlike Richard, Heydemann will lead Orange with a non-executive chairman, a new role created as the two top positions are being split for the first time. Headhunting firm Spencer Stuart is working on a list of potential chairman candidates.

Heydemann started her career at the Boston Consulting Group before joining Alcatel in 1999. She worked for a total of 15 years for the telecom equipment provider, which later merged with Lucent and was bought by Nokia. She spent two of those years in California as a vice president for strategic alliances and then as a VP for Human Resources from 2011 to 2013, while the company was undergoing a restructuring.

That experience should come in handy at Orange, which has been dealing with major management crises in recent years. The company is now in the midst of cost-reduction plan that includes voluntary departures of senior employees.

In 2014, Heydemann joined Paris-based Schneider Electric, where she led French operations before rising to the position of executive VP for Europe. She was named an independent director on Orange’s board in 2017.

At Schneider, Heydemann was a strong advocate of gender equality and work-life balance and “banned meetings before 8:30am and after 6pm,” said Philippe Bordas, a union representative.

In a recent LinkedIn post on World Mental Health Day, she highlighted her passion for running.

“A quick run before going to work or a quiet walk and fresh air after a day of meetings are vital to me,” she wrote.

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