Cutting Room: Voda settles at a Price

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This piece started as a feature, a sequel to the article that ran in Mobile News issue 433 (February 23), under the headline ‘Vodafone recasts Yes Telecom in its own image’.

But two things became quickly apparent when researching it. Firstly, there is essentially one single opinion in the market of the circumstances of Tanny Price’s exit from Vodafone, and of the chief protagonists involved. Secondly, nobody wants to speak of it on the record.

Which leaves Mobile News in the position of either running a speculative piece or else of putting its own name to the opinions expressed therein. We have chosen the latter path.

The issue here is all parties involved in the saga have signed a binding document that precludes them from discussing the matter. Not with press, not with colleagues, not with friends or family. This is how big business keeps its secrets hid. This is Vodafone’s way.

Avenir’s injunction against Price, lodged in the High Court in London on February 23  is ultimately a decoy now.

 Because it was never tested. The exact terms of the settlement remains mysterious.

But Avenir got its way. Price walked, exasperated by the affair. Vodafone covered her legal fees, and handed her a severance payment.

The skeleton narrative up to this point is clear, but the detail is sketchy. Price agreed to join Vodafone from Avenir in October last year (having first been approached in March), to start January in an undisclosed role. The interim was described as a handover period at Avenir, to incoming managing director Andy Tow.

In truth, Price was at Borehamwood for a couple of weeks of the handover, at most. Her assistance was declined, it seems. Avenir was just about juggling five network suppliers, a rare accolade, as calendar Q3 closed. By the end of Q4, its T-Mobile and Vodafone accounts were in the balance.

This should have been clear. Sources claim it was.

Avenir came close to losing its T-Mobile account before, and ran most of its partner KPIs close at certain times. And Price, herself, wrestled with the wisdom of fighting to retain five network paymasters as she restructured Avenir for low-volume, high-revenue business connections.

It serves little purpose to speculate whether Price would have kept T-Mobile and Vodafone happy if she had remained. But without her, Avenir first preempted T-Mobile’s shut-out and, just as Vodafone at last confirmed Price as its new head of distribution with a leading hand in its service provision business Yes Telecom, it lost Vodafone.

Her appointment was directly preceded by the removal of former Yes Telecom directors Simon Howitt, Kevin Wakerly and Ray Bell, dumpings that bear an eerie resemblance to Vodafone’s rumoured treatment of Yes Telecom founder Keith Curran 12 months previously. In the immediate aftermath, burly security guards were stationed at the entrance of Yes Telecom’s Didsbury headquarters to stop the trio reentering.

Within 24 hours of Price’s appointment, Yes Telecom was in attack mode, contacting Avenir dealers to persuade them to switch – workable only with clear sight of Avenir’s base, with either certain intellectual property to hand or else with the kind of knowledge built up through 15 years’ loyal service. It was the only point last week both parties’ dealers failed to agree upon.

Either way, Avenir countered by issuing Vodafone customer data to dealers, backed by hefty new O2 commission payments and express instruction to churn.

Within seven days, Avenir’s application for an injunction against Price (as well as former head of services Toby Wickenden) working at Vodafone was granted by the court. Vodafone puts Price into the ‘garden’. Criminal trial at the High Court is set for May 5.

Around this time too, Vodafone strategy director Mark Bond stepped briefly back into an enterprise role to call up Avenir group chairman and chief executive Jean Daniel Beurnier to make clear Price had no prior knowledge of Vodafone’s intent to terminate, and also, sources claim, to make some conciliatory gesture to its old partner.

But Avenir’s back is up – it is personal; the fight is not with giant Vodafone, but with a private individual, an easy target, who knows its business better than anyone. Vodafone, at this point steps back from Price, and lets her down.

The single view in the market is Avenir was vindictive and Vodafone was neglectful. Price was caught out, between a desperate, spiteful ex and an illustrious, faceless suitor.

Of course, both characterisations can be explained away. Why shouldn’t Avenir fight? Its business has suffered hugely by the loss of Vodafone – and T-Mobile. Its longtime leader in the UK is ensconced within Vodafone, tasked with stealing the business she helped build for it in the first place.

Why shouldn’t it be mad? Why shouldn’t it fight tooth and nail to protect its concerns? It would be remiss if it did not take such action, surely? And what chance, really, does it have against the might of Vodafone? So, Avenir was all of things: desperate, ugly, calculated, clever.

And Vodafone’s apparent neglect should also be considered to be ‘in character’. Vodafone is interested in its brand, only. Individuals in the machine do not exist beyond shareholders. Its clichéd, but big business does not really give a damn about the human cost.

And Vodafone has dumped upon plenty in recent years. Even though Price was chased by Vodafone at great length, her loss will likely be put down as a minor sideshow at board meetings.

Whether Vodafone can dismiss the saga so simply rather depends upon how it does in the SME space in the next 12 months, for Yes Telecom is not perceived in the market as the power it once was and O2, for one, is making clear gains from it in terms of volume and value market share.

As for Price herself, one supposes she is relieved, and relaxed at last. She will reappear somewhere within the mobile industry, although it’s a reasonable bet after this she won’t return to the shrinking mobile dealer market. Which will be the channel’s loss, as well as Avenir’s and Vodafone’s.

 

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