Flanders: De Lijn has to look for new top man
Roger Kesteloot will not complete his mandate as Director-General at the Flemish public transport company, De Lijn. He announced his plans for departure in an internal statement to the staff on Friday. At the end of this year Kesteloot – he leaves on his initiative – takes a step aside, while his mandate normally ran until 30 April 2022. “A new period requires a new face.”
Kesteloot announces his departure right in a crucial year for De Lijn, in which it will have to pass a benchmark that will decide on the continued existence of the public transport company.
De Lijn has been going through heavy weather for several years now. At least 2019 was a particularly difficult year: due to an unexpected lack of drivers, the number of canceled journeys peaked, as did the number of complaints from passengers about the punctuality and the catastrophic information at stops and in buses.
Internally, a reorganization made relations with part of the staff and with the largest trade union, the socialist ACOD, sour. The modest, diligent student feels like a fish in the water when it comes to themes such as strategy and climate. Solving operational misery suits him less.
Kesteloot says that all this did not contribute to his departure and that he made a “well-considered” decision to do so himself. “By staying on board for another seven months, I can “round things off nicely”, says Kesteloot (62) to De Standaard, who will have worked for De Lijn for 22 years, of which more than ten years as Director-General.
Also, the members of the board of directors, who in the past asked the Flemish government for a ‘new wind’ because of the poor performance, confirm that Kesteloot quit “without any pressure from outside”. “Although he certainly felt the dissatisfaction. He was tired and no longer came to work with pleasure.”
Rather negative last year
Officially, the Flemish government could only dismiss Kesteloot after two consecutive negative evaluations. His evaluation for 2019, in which he lost more than half of his bonus, was “rather negative”, according to an insider to De Tijd. “2019 was indeed not a good year,” says Flemish Minister of Mobility, Lydia Peeters (Open Vld). “But that doesn’t depend on one person. I look back positively on our cooperation.”
The Minister says that Kesteloot submitted his request to leave a few months ago. The Minister was still for some time opposed to his financial conditions. “He has put the modernization of De Lijn on track, and has shown himself to be an excellent crisis manager in recent months, but he thinks it has been enough. He gives us more than six months to find a successor, so I can only applaud that.”
Twenty years in the political snake-pit
Roger Kesteloot started his career as a journalist at De Morgen and ATV. In 1998, the sociologist joined the transport company, where he first dealt with European dossiers and later became director of research. “I wasn’t predestined to work at De Lijn, either. As a child I was always car sick on the bus,” he told the economic magazine Trends in 2018.
When his predecessor, Ingrid Lieten (sp.a), unexpectedly became a minister in the Flemish government in 2009, the brand new Minister of Mobility, Hilde Crevits (CD&V), quickly had to appoint an interim top executive. In the absence of an alternative, Crevits put an internal candidate with no significant management experience at the head of the public company with more than 8 000 employees: Roger Kesteloot.
After De Lijn had been buried under subsidies from socialist ministers for years, the emphasis shifted to savings and efficiency. Kesteloot, who attaches great importance to the social role of De Lijn, had to fight governments that were not wary of public transport. ReTiBo, the disastrous IT project that started in 2011, and cost the taxpayer 150 million euros, grew into a real nightmare.
Despite the poor performance, then Minister of Mobility, Ben Weyts (N-VA), extended Kesteloot’s mandate in 2016. The Director-General himself was surprised about this internally. As one of the last Flemish government managers, Kesteloot has – to his great annoyance – a socialist label. But the support of the N-VA defended the top manager against attempts to push him aside.
In 2017, Kesteloot finally announced a much-needed reform at De Lijn. He abolished all provincial baronies. But three years later the reorganization is still faltering. His relationship with the powerful socialist union became completely troubled. In the past two years, four managers left the ship voluntarily or not. “Kesteloot has few defenders yet,” one director recently observed.
Until 30 April 2021, Roger Kesteloot remains active as an advisor at De Lijn. One day later, on the socialist holiday of 1 May, he can take early retirement.