My Power Struggle; Your Gas Bills Are about to Surge by [Pounds Sterling]180 a Year Unless Britain Can Break Europe's Energy Monopolies, Warns Centrica Finance Chief Phil Bentley, Who Has the Top Job in His Sights THE INTERVIEW
Byline: LUCINDA KEMENY
All white teeth and perfect hair, Phil Bentley, finance director of Centrica, strides across the room with hand outstretched.
If he realises just how prickly he is perceived to be by the City, it certainly doesn't show. His apparently brusque manner, so at odds with that of predecessor Mark Clare, has left a slightly sour taste in the mouths of many analysts.
But five years into the job, the 46-year-old Oxford graduate has reached the defining moment in his career. Chief executive Sir Roy Gardner has announced his intention to leave next year to take up the chairmanship at catering group Compass, and Bentley is a serious contender to replace him. From now on, charm could be Bentley's middle name.
Then again, his bruising image might be largely undeserved. While his early years in the job coinbycided with Centrica, owner of British Gas, at its peak, the latter years have been characterised by a City audience left wondering whether the company has an independent future. Not to mention angry customers fed-up with paying everhigher bills.
Neither problem was of Bentley's making. Gardner was the architect of the multi-utility strategy that led Centrica into marketing everything from financial products to car breakdown services. And it was also his idea to spend [pounds sterling]1.2 billion on acquiring ten million customers in North America by 2003.
One by one, the ambitious plans were revised and businesses sold off - credit card Goldfish in 2003, the AA in 2004 and finally OneTel, which is expected to go the end of the year. The Carphone Warehouse and BSkyB are among potential bidders. And as for those ten million American customers, Centrica is barely halfway there.
But when the City has put pointed questions about whether the disposals have left the company vulnerable to a takeover by Russia's Gazprom or Gaz de France, Bentley has been left facing the flak.
'We are a better business for being focused,' he says. 'We needed to be because our competitors are more focused. It is a big boys' game. The markets have become more global - and size matters.' Though Centrica is still small on the global stage, with businesses in Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and North America, the company's international reach has given it the muscle to tackle the controversial issue of rising gas prices. It's a situation where Bentley has become Centrica's frontman.
He gained a global business perspective during 15 years working in the international operations of BP, and in January his role at Centrica was extended to encompass its European activities. …