500 phone jobs at Virgin

RICHARD BRANSON and One2One will this week announce the creation of 500 new jobs as they finalise plans to bring out a Virgin-branded mobile phone service.

The recruits will be used to man a call centre in Trowbridge, Wiltshire in readiness for the launch of the joint venture. A team of 50 staff has already been put in place to oversee the project.

Mr Branson, the entrepreneur whose interests range from bridal wear to air travel, has been exploring for over a year ways to exploit the boom in cellular phones. Almost 2 million new customers signed up for phones in the first quarter of the year and the boom shows no sign of abating.

Talks with One2One are at an advanced stage but it is understood that the deal has yet to be finalised. Reports that there will be an announcement this week detailing the precise terms of the joint venture are thought to be premature.

Virgin would bring its successful brand to any joint venture while One2One, which has 2.2 million subscribers, would contribute its operational expertise. Any venture would also benefit from Virgin's undoubted marketing skills and the ability of its founder to generate publicity.

Speculation has already begun to centre on the gimmick which Mr Branson will choose to mark the launch of his incursion into mobile telephony. The hot-air ballooning tycoon has been known to dress up in full bridal wear to publicise the inauguration of one of his innovations. However, the Virgin brand has also been associated with failure, notably its foray into cola.

The potential arrangement with One2One is a familiar one for Virgin, which tends to lend its name to ventures which are operated behind the scenes by market specialists. Virgin Direct, its financial services arm, for example, is run in partnership with Australian specialist AMP.

The prospect of a deal with Mr Branson will be welcomed by One2One's parents, Cable & Wireless and America's MediaOne, which are preparing to auction the company.

Five European groups - Vivendi of France, Telecom Italia, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom and Mannesman of Germany - are competing to buy One2One in a deal which could fetch up to pounds 10bn even without a deal with Virgin.

However, One2One is in need of a stimulus after slipping to the bottom of the league of British mobile phone networks behind Vodafone, BT Cellnet and Orange. One2One recently slashed its tariffs in an attempt to improve on its 15 per cent market share.

Wiltshire County Council has expressed its delight that Virgin has elected to locate its call centre in Trowbridge.