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With a strong unified communications proposition and Vodafone’s favourite indirect partner, Premier Telecom is riding high and has big targets, but the competition is snapping at its heels, reports Paul Withers

According to Vodafone, Premier Telecom was its top-performing indirect partner over the first six months of the new Vodafone Partners Services VPS restructure, launched in October last year.

At Vodafone’s annual awards ceremony held in April, the Whiteley-based dealer was named as ‘platinum partner of the year’ and ‘best One Net performance’ among its top-tier, beating 25 other leading dealers to the gongs.

Such recognition appears to have only spurred the company on further, and made it clear it wants to be bigger and better in terms of revenue and its customer base – which is already the biggest of its kind in the UK, topping 70,000.

But such are its ambitions, the company can reach the 100,000 connections landmark within 18 months, which would give it the biggest base ever amassed by an independent dealer. It intends to do this through a mix of organic and acquisitive growth.

Beyond that, it’s already dreaming of reaching a base of 150,000 one day, and even 200,000 beyond that. To some, its ambitions may be slightly fantastical, and only time will tell if such statements are more shifted towards hope than actual reality.

Premier Telecom’s managing director Darren Ridge is in a confident mood.

“We were the first to get to 50,000 connections and I want to make sure we’re the first to get to 100,000, which is our next benchmark,” says Ridge. “We have set a target of achieving that before the end of next year and currently we look like we’re ahead of that. Any acquisition that comes along in the meantime will just speed up that process.

“That 100,000 customers has to fit into our portfolio, which is low churn and high ARPU. Vodafone certainly doesn’t want me to go out and buy any business. It’s not something we’ve done and we have no intention of starting now.”

Former Vodafone SME sales director Rob Shardlow joined Premier Telecom in March to help take the company to the “next level” in achieving ambitious targets, explore new business opportunities and target possible acquisitions.

Since the interview, Shardlow has left the company. Premier Telecom has slightly altered its management structure with the appointments of John Fannon and Paul Thomas as regional sales directors.

Fannon was former national sales manager for independent partners at T-Mobile and oversees Premier Telecom’s operations in the north of England. Thomas takes charge of the company’s Camberley office. He has been working at Premier Telecom since 2009 as director of sales and previously spent nine years at Orange as a divisional manager.

Shardlow had said in June: “I felt the time was right for me to use the knowledge I built up within Vodafone, and bring that to a smaller entrepreneurial business that fundamentally has a very solid base, helping provide some structure, process and scalability.”

Multi-channel strategy

“We aim to be the biggest Vodafone platinum partner, but we can be significantly bigger and stronger, and my role is to help Darren achieve that. Vodafone has a multi-channel strategy to help it grow in the 10-50 SME sector. That is the area we want to be successful.”

Shardlow left Vodafone in March, having spent 18 months as SME sales director in charge of business connections via Vodafone’s indirect partners. He claims he was responsible for around £1 billion worth of revenue from partners and for 500 dealers in total.

He had previously worked at Virgin Mobile as sales and distribution director for almost nine years, building the business from start-up to £500 million turnover and a base of more than fi ve million. He was also responsible for the launch of the world’s first mobile prepay service, while working for T-Mobile.

So perhaps such brazen statements should be listened to with an open mind. In fact, Shardlow claims the company is already ahead of its targets to reach the 100,000 fi gure by next year.

And Ridge, who founded the company in 2002, has a credible history, too, dating back to 1987, when he set up mobile phone retailer KJC Mobiles.

At its peak towards the end of the 1990s, the company had about 60 shops and a call centre in Southampton. Ridge claims it was the first company to have a designated call centre in the south-coast city. He even claims KJC was the second company accredited to sell BlackBerry smartphones in the UK after O2, and even before Vodafone.

Ridge sold KJC in 1999 to mobile phone distributor PNC Telecom Group, and become chief executive of that company, before quitting in May 2002.

Vodafone only

Ridge says throughout his career he’s always retained a strong relationship with Vodafone. As well as having Vodafone as its partner of choice, Premier Telecom was selling a small number of O2 and Orange connections.

But he took the decision to become a Vodafone solus dealer a year ago, based on the operator’s strengths in SME, but also to establish a true partnership with a single operator. It’s something he claims has benefited the company substantially.

“The days of being able to negotiate one against the other have long since gone, and you need to nail your colours to a mast,” says Ridge. “Certainly my historic relationship with Vodafone, the amount of business we’ve done and the way it has treated me made it a natural, obvious choice.”

Shardlow adds: “Whatever happens in the consumer end of the market as different brands come and go, certainly in the enterprise space, Vodafone is still the strongest player and has the best reputation.

“The brand perception and network investment is phenomenal and I know having spent time at Vodafone how much is being invested into the network. It all works into our target marketplace of the 10-50 handset area.”

Targeting operators

Shardlow says Premier has no intention of going after Vodafone business that the operator’s other partners may have picked up. It is instead only interested in the parts of the market taken by Vodafone’s competition, the likes of which Orange, O2, T-Mobile and BT currently hold.

“Vodafone has around a 35 per cent share in the SME space, so for us the real opportunity is to go after the 65 per cent of the market that is available. It’s a huge opportunity and it’s about ensuring our guys know where the fight is.”

Full article in Mobile News issue 493 (July 18, 2011).

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