Nigel Whitehead (pictured above) reveals how PC World and a consultancy job proved to be the biggest challenge of his career
“Within the next five years, I’ll be happy if someone sits down as we are, puts their IMO device on the table and the person opposite says ‘Oh, is that IMO? I’ve heard of them, what are they like?”
These are bold words from the InMyOpinion (IMO) director of sales and propositions Nigel Whitehead, who is responsible for the Verve Connect brand and its distribution.
Over the last 23 years, Whitehead has also worked for manufacturers such as Sony, retailers Sainsbury’s and PC World.
He has drawn on that experience to spark interest in the new IMO brand, which recently chalked up sales of 250,000 units in the UK, and which now makes up 12 per cent of the UK pre-paid market.
Whitehead started his career as a PC World store manager when the chain had just four stores. He was there for 10 years, and worked as a general manager at the company for seven years.
“When I joined there were only four stores. At the time I left, there was 100 stores, and I was asked if I wanted to be head of retail.
“The time was right, I didn’t know a massive amount about mobile phones in those days because the industry was still in its infancy. But I had grown up with PCs – a market that started small and became huge.
Mobile phones seemed to be the next big thing and it seemed a good industry to get involved in.”
Whitehead left PC World for Ora in 2001. A year later he moved to Kondor working on Kondor’s Dixons account, which at the time made up 75 per cent of Kondor’s turnover.
“It was quite an interesting project to be involved with. It was our category management within mobile across all levels of accessories when Dixons had 300 Link stores.
“I worked for them for about four years until they pulled out of the Link stores. I decided then that it was time for me to work for a handset manufacturer.”
Soaring device sales
His first mobile vendor role was for Siemens staying there two years before joining Sony Ericsson in 2007, a month after the iPhone was launched.
Sony Ericsson was celebrating huge device sales of 21 million, with nine million of those bearing the Walkman brand. However, good as it was, Sony was still being outsold by Nokia, Samsung and Motorola.
Whitehead said these years of experience in each stage of the supply chain helped him to hit the ground running at the device manufacturer in a period which saw it take the best part of a third of the UK mobile market.
“I had an understanding and experience of the manufacture, distribution and retail triangle. I knew of the pressures in each of those three areas. This understanding helped me talk to the potential customers and partners.
“I joined when the W880 from Sony Ericsson was massive. It was an iconic Walkman phone that sold millions on the market. At the time, Sony had 30 per cent of the UK market, which is currently where Samsung is.”
iPhone beats Sony
The Cyber Shot and Walkman sub brands were, respectively, aimed at photographers and music lovers. However the launch of the iPhone blew Sony’s market position out of the water.
Overnight, it was possible to have one device that included phone music player and camera. Sony was unable to effectively respond.
“Customers knew Sony has strong technologies with brands like Bravia TVs, PlayStation, Cyber-shot and Walkman brands that had been brought into the mobile side.
“But then technology began to merge. People weren’t just buying a phone for music. Or a phone for images. They wanted a phone that did both.
“It was a really interesting exciting time. The exciting part was how we tried to bring some of the cool, more consumer- based technologies such as PlayStation into Sony Mobile.
But we never quite achieved it. We tried it a few times, but didn’t quite get it right.”
Whitehead stayed at Sony for two years as senior national account manager for Carphone Warehouse, O2, he was director of retail and distribution for MVNOs and the Irish market until December 2015.
He left Sony at the end of 2015 after eight years. But not before achieving £174 million revenue in Ireland.
“I just decided that the time was right to do something else. I had been there eight years and went through five or six restructures.
They were about to undergo another. The message from Sony was that they were consolidating and scaling down.”
He started his own business, NJW Consultancy to help challenger brands establish themselves in the UK and Irish telecoms market.
During his eight years with Sony the landscape had changed dramatically. Nokia, BlackBerry and Motorola had fallen. Windows OS was struggling and Apple dominated.
“When I started in the industry there was seven or eight massive brands. They fell away so now there is only half the number of top jobs in the industry. I did a bit of consultancy work when many others were also doing the same thing.
I found it quite competitive and I couldn’t charge clients as much as I thought I’d be able to.”
One of his clients was Verve Connect which was conceiving its IMO mobile phone brand.
That three months consultancy work turned into a full-time job that started two years ago.
“I had worked for big corporates like DSG, Sainsbury’s, Siemens and Sony. Kondor was the only small company I had worked for. Smaller businesses give me much more autonomy. I can have some influence.
We decide what we want to do and if we are in agreement we just go for it. We don’t have to go through layers of approvals and the project changes into something you didn’t intend at the start.”
In September 2016, Verve Connect launched its first handsets with the goal of achieving three per cent of the prepaid market. The phones are now ranged in
Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Carphone Warehouse and Whitehead now has a network in his sights. After one year, IMO had sold a quarter of a million devices and achieved its three per cent market share ambition.
The next target is for 750,000 devices, which Whitehead thinks is achievable now that the devices are in Carphone Warehouse.
“Launching three products from the start with a tier one MVNO like Virgin Mobile was great for us. That really helped put us on the map and has given us a platform to go talk to other customers to sustain that growth.
“We are wary to not try to grow too quickly. There have been some new brands who have come and gone.
We have to ensure that the business is sustainable when it’s small and growing, and to ensure that we deliver and don’t over-promise to the customers.”
The IMO brand has smashed all targets it has set. Once an operator is signed up, those targets will shift again.
But despite all of the excitement, Whitehead acknowledges that Verve needs a full portfolio to get the brand into network shops.
He says that Verve will be moving up the device tiers in due course and is confident that the company can move quickly to fill any new niches.
“Obviously, we would like to move into the higher tiers, but at the moment it’s all about getting the basic things right, not trying to run before we can walk and working the network operators in the areas they need us to be in.
“If there is a gap in other areas we can fill, then hopefully the networks will approach us to fill them.
“It’s pointless trying to spin a yarn to these people [the networks]. They have heard it all before.
“We tell them what we can do and that if they can get something cheaper or better value then they should fill their boots because we can’t do that. Customers have found our honesty to be
“Sometimes there are partners you can’t work with. This may be because they are not focused on our section of the market at the time and there is no real gap for our products. That can be frustrating.
“But we know what our capabilities are and we’ll be ready when that opportunity presents itself.”
Aside from IMO and Verve Connect, even at the price point that Whitehead targets he can not escape the looming cloud of 5G.
However instead of thinking about the possibilities of the new technology, Whitehead is more interested in focusing on the consumers that won’t be joining the revolution.
He said: “Everyone is talking about 5G and what it is going to do but there are millions of consumers who are not even on 4G.
“So, in my opinion what the networks need to do it get as many customers as possible on 4G because that’s what they have been investing in for so long.
“Obviously they need a device to do that and a £200 Samsung or Sony probably isn’t the most cost effective way of doing that because a consumer is going to ask what’s in it for them.
“We can help the operators convert people and get everyone on their books 5G ready, which is a big job.
“I think that’s a key growth area in the market and an area we can provide value in.”