Just days after quitting Tech Data – Millar is already planning a return to the mobile industry
As success stories go, few could claim to have achieved more in the mobile industry than Rod Millar.
In a career spanning 15 years, Millar has built an enviable CV – having headed and established some of the largest telecom distributors in the UK, Europe and beyond. His track record makes impressive reading.
Having cut his cloth with John Caudwell back in 2000 as sales director, Millar achieved fast-track promotions, eventually heading 20:20 Mobile as managing director and overseeing a period which saw revenues increase from £50 million to above £600 million in just seven years.
Those achievements didn’t go unnoticed. In 2007, Millar was approached by Bolivian billionaire Marcelo Claure, who had pinpointed him as the man to head his expansion of Brightstar Corp from the US into Europe.
Despite doubts of its chances of success in an already crowded market, Brightstar Europe – a 50/50 joint venture with eventual and current owners Tech Data – went on to defy the odds, transforming from a “struggling start-up” to a firm with a presence in 18 countries and revenues understood to be north of £3 billion.
“It was down to a lot of hard work, a great team and support from Marcelo,” remarks Millar, as we sat down to discuss “life after Tech Data” following his decision to leave in September.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing and Millar admits pressure in the early days at Brightstar Europe was high, with its every move scrutinised by its rivals and in the press.
“It was a very challenging time setting up the JV with Brightstar and Tech Data, particularly in the first year where we actually lost money for the first six or seven months. The odds were against us and few expected us to succeed.
“But we kept going, gaining serious momentum, signing up some very significant partnerships such as Tesco and [the now-defunct] Phones 4u so it was clear we were in a strong position.
“It took us two years to do our first $150 million (£93 million) annually. Two years later we were doing $150 million a month – so that was a great achievement and we never looked back.”
Millar remained at the firm following Brightstar’s decision to sell its 50 per cent share to Tech Data for £106 million in July 2012.
Following completion, Millar was immediately promoted from his position as president of Brightstar Europe, taking on the global role of senior vice president at Tech Data Mobile Solutions.
Whilst many expected Millar to up sticks, particularly as former employer Brightstar Corp was sniffing around 20:20 Mobile, a firm it later acquired, Millar said he was determined to keep the momentum of the firm he built going.
“Statistically, most joint ventures fail within two years – the fact that ours didn’t is a huge testament to all the people that worked so hard to make it what it was and remains to this day.
“Once the sale to Tech Data had gone through, ending the JV, there was a fear and perhaps an expectancy from others that we might go backwards. That’s simply not the case – we continued to grow at the same rate post-JV as we did pre-JV, which again is down to the team.”
’Never say never’
So what now for Millar? Having relocated to the warmer climate of Florida in March last year whilst continuing to manage UK and Europe, Millar admits he and his family are now very settled and have no immediate plans to return to the UK, although he insists “Never say never” should such an opportunity arise.
“As a family we are really enjoying life in the US. We live in Naples, which is a place where many people like to spend their holidays, and we get to live there. Of course, you can never say never about anything in life, but certainly we are not feeling any desperate urge to change our current situation, but a lot will depend on potential opportunities going forward.”
It seems that Millar has no desire to sit back and take a break – something someone who spent more than 480 hours in the air travelling back and forth to the UK and across Europe in the past year might feel entitled to.
In contrast, he already seems determined to start his “next challenge” in the telecom space, although he insists, everything is far from concrete, despite some “flattering approaches”.
“It sounds clichéd but I feel ready for a new challenge within the telecom space. I really enjoyed my time at Tech Data, but seven years is a long time at one company and I feel it’s time for something new.”
With Millar’s experience and track record – both at home in the UK and abroad – it seems unlikely he will be out of work for too long.
He admits, after some coaxing, a number of enquiries and indeed offers have been made, which, he jokes, “shows I must have done something right,” in his career.
Those opportunities and approaches remain private for now, and despite attempts, he refused to be drawn on any speculation surrounding his next move.
However, from our meeting in London, it was clear Millar remains a man in much demand with barely a minute passing without his phone springing into action and buzzing violently across the table.
Whilst Millar remains quiet on his future, and was quick to ensure the identity of his callers stayed away from a prying journalist’s eyes, for now it appears unlikely we will see him in a role he’s perhaps become more accustomed to.
As is now standard, Millar has a one-year, non-competition agreement with his former employers. Millar’s opportunities in the channel, which, pending an unlikely year off, will see him move to new ground, something he appears to thrive on.
“I left Tech Data because I felt it was time for a new challenge, so I’m not sure going from Tech Data into a similar company would be right for me. Everything is open right now, we’ll see what happens.”
Radio show gave Millar all the right answers
Rod Millar’s career in the telecom industry may not have happened – but for a timely radio interview.
He recalls how he saw an advert for a sales director at the Caudwell Group offering “ridiculous amounts of money” and located in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.
Working as regional sales director for Thomson Local at the time, Millar admits to having had “zero” knowledge of the telecom industry, but had already passed two interviews at the firm’s head office – and was on his way to a third, with John Caudwell (pictured right) himself.
In a fortuitous turn of events, Millar switched on his car radio to BBC Radio 5 Live and was greeted with the voice of the man who in a few minutes would be deciding his immediate future – a decision which could have potentially reshaped the current distribution landscape. Caudwell had been invited on to the show to discuss his recruitment methods and what he looked for in an employee.
His answers gave Millar the perfect interview preparation and successfully kick-started his career in the telecoms market.
“I was living in Stoke-on-Trent and I saw an advert for a sales director position at Caudwell in the Sunday Times offering a ridiculous salary. I was around 28, it was local, so I thought, why not?
“I had no experience in the sector to my name so I had no idea how it would go.
“Listening to John [Caudwell] on the way to my third and final interview was uncanny. I could have been listening to any channel, but that morning it was Radio 5 Live. So I went to the interview, confident and was offered the job and spent six months as sales director before taking over purchasing and eventually becoming managing director for the next six or seven years before it got sold.”