Probably the most successful thing John Caudwell ever did was flog his businesses at EXACTLY the right time for more money than even God could imagine. Not once but twice.
The first time was selling the service provision arm of Phones 4U, Singlepoint, to Vodafone at a price that made Vodafone’s eyeballs bleed. His sale of Singlepoint was done under such sufference by the Newbury-based company that Vodafone vowed never again to allow an independent service provider to retain such control over its customer base.
The second time was when he wrangled an incredible £1.5 billion out of venture capitalists Doughty Hanson and Providence Equity Partners for everything else. Not bad for a one-time apprentice at a Michelin tyre factory.
Of course his really great achievement was to build a business from nothing into the most potent force in mobile distribution the UK has ever seen. To paraphrase General George Patton, Caudwell built his empire through sheer blood and guts (his guts and others’ blood, some would say).
Whatever, Caudwell designed the blueprint for distribution in this country showing manufacturers how they could shift vast quantities of kit through the indirect and direct sales channels. Other distributors hated the aggression of Caudwell and his operatives who undercut them at every turn.
But there was no doubt the Caudwell model inspired others to raise their games. He also mentored and influenced employees like Rod Millar and Peter Jones who became industry leaders in their own rights.
Caudwell was obsessed with winning and it was a source of constant irritation that Carphone Warehouse consistently knocked Phones 4U into second place on any key performance indicator you cared to provide.
We wonder if Tom Alexander ever wishes he had kept and framed the envelope on the back of which, while working at BT Cellnet, he scrawled out some bullet points about a weird concept he thought someone like Richard Branson would be interested in.
The wild and whacky idea was that licensed mobile phone networks could ‘sub-let’ capacity to non-telco organisations who would then flog airtime and services under their own brand name, giving the parent network a kickback.
Branson went for the idea and on November 11, 1999, the world’s first virtual mobile network was born. Naked models paraded in Leicester Square to show that with Virgin Mobile there was transparency and nothing hidden (ho ho).
The idea was that Virgin Mobile users would have no idea that they were really hooked up to another network – T-Mobile. The joint venture between T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile for a time turned into a corporate re-run of the marriage of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But the MVNO concept was running.
When Virgin Mobile was eventually sold to NTL in 2006, Alexander was rich enough never to work again. So it was with some amazement that industry-watchers saw him dive back into one of the most challenging network roles, running Orange under the auspices of France Telecom.
Orange had by this time lost its lustre as the coolest brand in telecoms. Alexander has gone some way to revitalising it, also playing a key part in the ground-breaking new joint venture with T-Mobile, a prize Vodafone let slip.
You can bet that, within the corridors of Vodafone, men in suits are still stomping around and scratching their heads at how they managed to let their great rival O2 walk away with the equipment deal that turned the mobile phone market on its head.
Naturally we speak of O2’s great coup in landing a two-year exclusive with Apple and The Phone That Changed The World.
The key was Key. Vodafone’s finest brains analysed and dismissed – or at least drove too mean a bargain for – Apple’s ‘ludicrous’ business model to sell a weird phone without a keypad at full price, whilst at the same time retaining control of marketing and demanding an unprecedented kickback on subscriber revenues.
O2’s youngest chief executive Matthew Key realised that partnering with the world’s leading IT brand would give O2 a cachet of cool that money couldn’t buy.
It was Key’s belief in the power of Apple that endeared him to the charismatic Apple founder and brand tyrant Steve Jobs, and landed O2 the definitive handset deal of the Noughties.
Mark ‘Mister Mobile’ Mitchinson is the longest-serving UK manufacturer chief, and proof nice guys can finish first – although certain handset distributors may still be putting pins in ‘Mitch’ dolls.
Mitchinson’s achievement this decade is measured by the fact he has taken Samsung Mobile from a ‘nobody’ in the UK market 10 years ago to number one UK manufacturer at the turn of the decade, overtaking his old employer Nokia.
Credit must go to his Korean masters who have granted him unprecedented independence to run the local UK and Ireland units unencumbered by Seoul. He is backed by one of the slickest manufacturing operations in the world and has won several global launches for the UK.
By and large, his reading of the UK consumer market is excellent. He has been for some time the go-to man for network and retail customers looking to bolster their portfolios with something ‘new’, at short notice and at the right price.
Mitchinson has championed the Samsung brand in the UK through an eye-watering £50 million five-year shirt sponsorship of Chelsea FC, his team. No other manufacturer in the UK has lavished such sums on brand promotion.
Mitchinson does not miss a trick. Even his good charity fundraising – Nile bike rides and London marathons, among them – have usually seen some product placement. And raised thousands for charity, as well as some footfall for customers and employer.
The Korean culture holds great respect for seniority in age and rank, so it is an incredible sign of respect that Mitchinson was made Samsung’s first non-Korean vice president in 2008.
Mitchinson has also forced handset distributors to shape up. Data Select (since reinstated) and 20:20 Mobile have both felt the force of his ire. He is the only manufacturer chief with zero tolerance for grey stock, forcing the UK to play by his pricing rules.
Sir Chris Gent
The former chief executive of Vodafone may be gone (to GlaxoSmithKline) but the repercussions of the shake-up he engineered in the UK and global market are still with us.
He was the driving force behind Vodafone’s push into prepay which caused a huge shift in the UK mobile market from enterprise to consumer.
Gent transformed Vodafone from a local Newbury company to a worldwide mobile communications conglomerate that straddled the globe, starting with the takeover of Airtouch in the USA in 1998 and moving on to the £112 billion purchase of Germany’s Mannesmann in 2000.
This sparked a flurry of takeovers and mergers that saw organisations like Hutchison Whampoa similarly expand their reach from beyond their home borders.
His achievements were recognised in 2001 when he received a knighthood for his services to the telecoms industry. Invariably described as confident and unflappable, Gent did not miss a trick in launching Vodafone to the very top.
Jonathan who? Okay. How about ‘The Man Who Designed The iPhone’. Ive, as every Apple watcher knows, is the man who helped turn around Apple’s fortunes with the design of the original candy-coloured iMac range.
Best of all (sort of) is that Ive is one of us – an Englishman born in Chingford. He now sits at the right hand of God (aka Steve Jobs) as Apple’s vice president of design.
Sure, Ive isn’t the software engineer who came up with the iPhone’s revolutionary finger gesture interface. But he set the parameters for how finished Apple products should look and operate.
And, like it or loathe it, Ive’s iPhone design has been a watershed in the development of mobile phones. The iPhone defined the mobile phone as a personal communications centre and life-aid.
It has caused every incumbent manufacturer to re-think its product road map and strategy. The iPhone, if you’ll excuse the excruciating pun, upset the Apple cart of everything that had gone before.
In 2010, we can look forward to a range of new iPhone challengers powered by Android. Ive is doubtless working on his response as you read this.
Keith Curran has a work ethic that would test the determination of an SAS trooper on manoeuvres. He once famously flew to Australia for a four-hour business meeting before hopping the next plane back to Blighty.
He hooked up with John Caudwell in 1988, selling Motorola phones from a used car lot and becoming international director of the Caudwell Group, before moving to CellStar to set up the US distributor’s business here.
He features on this page because of the influence he has had over developing service provision through the dealer channel. His Yes Telecom business, set up in 1999, focused on high-value business sales from third parties, rather than obsessing on volume.
The Yes Telecom story turned into a power struggle with Vodafone, which swooped for it in a £22 million deal in 2006. Curran wanted to run things his way but clashed with Vodafone over its volume demands, and eventually the pair split in late 2007.
Despite a ‘sabbatical’, Curran has returned to the industry with several new ventures. These include Mavcast, a mobile marketing system that lets users create an SMS marketing campaign or multimedia broadcast in less than a minute.
He has also established Contact Secure which allows customers to instantly and securely purchase products using only a simple text message from anywhere and at anytime.
Its doubtful dealers will again benefit from a provider relationship that so acutely understands their requirements.
Curran’s 10-year old Yes Telecom business model of profitable connections now underpins every operator strategy in dealer sales. It was Curran’s free-thinking approach to profitable dealer sales that essentially informs the revenue share payment structure all operators will have in place by next year.
Nokia (deep breath) ‘executive vice president and general manager of the markets unit’ Anssi Vanjoki has had huge influence over Nokia’s rise to worldwide dominance since 1991.
That’s several lifetimes in mobile years and Vanjoki has been a visionary force in Nokia’s efforts to address the markets for mobile devices and services. His work has focused on developing the Nokia brand and positioning the company as the worlds of mobility, computing and the internet have converged.
Nokia is now facing the biggest challenges as it sees the rise of the BlackBerry, iPhone and Android beats eat chunks out of its smartphone market share.
He’s also Finland’s only ‘Knight, 1st Class, of the Order of the White Rose of Finland and Commander of the Order of the White Rose of Finland’ to have been fined €116,000 after being caught breaking the speeding limit on his Harley. Which makes him a bit of a hero (sorry HTC) in our vicarious wannabe book.
Twenty-two years ago, if you’d had have asked the head of NEC’s photocopier sales department who would be one of the UK’s most powerful retailing figures, he would probably not have pointed to the ex-Uppingham public schoolboy flogging photocopy machines to local businesses.
The roots of Dunstone’s incredible success and rise to the top of the Establishment (Mandelson and Blair attended his recent wedding) lie in his natural flair for understanding exactly what the Man On The Clapham Omnibus Wants.
The growth of Carphone Warehouse, from a single-store retail business to an international telecoms and retail colossus, all stems from a single-minded belief that people buy service, not technology.
Before Carphone, mobile communications were perceived as complex, high-end business systems with no relevance or affordability to the consumer.
Arcane cellular equipment was sold under complex leasing and finance agreements from strange companies called ‘service providers’. There were two choices: man in a bad suit visiting your office, or a trip to Dodgy Dave’s Car Radio Emporium under the arches.
Carphone changed all that – it brought mobile phones into the light and made the two networks – Vodafone and Cellnet – understand mobile phones could actually be sold to the public.
Forget, for a moment, how a skilled PR and media-grooming machine transformed the founder of Data Select and Phones International into a national A-list celebrity and entrepreneurial icon.
Let us recall the young man once nervous of the press, who ran John Caudwell’s pre-20:20 distribution operation before setting up his own rival business in 1998.
It’s easy to forget that he was once so broke from a failed computer business that he had to move back with his parents. And Jones was sleeping on the office floor when he started Data Select. Ten years later, he finds himself heading a £200 million empire that competes head-to-head with his old employer.
Under Jones’ drive and direction, the distribution model grew from bread-and-butter box shifting to fulfilment, device configuration, data communications, mobile content products, e-commerce development, web hosting and other related services.
Phones International wasn’t the first distributor to become involved in these areas, but it was probably the first distributor to make each of these parts equal to the sum of the whole.