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Changing the language as TalkTalk finds its voice

Dido Harding has reshaped and turned around the broadband provider after a damaging row over bills and it is now pushing into TV
  • @mrjamesashton

When Dido Harding was trying to work out how to break into the upper echelons of British business, Tesco, her employer at the time, fixed up three coaching sessions with women who had made it.

The trio had diverse backgrounds but the advice they gave wasn't so different. Dianne Thompson, the boss of lottery operator Camelot, Belinda Earl, formerly of Debenhams and Jaeger, now at Marks & Spencer, and Val Gooding, the former chief executive of healthcare provider Bupa, now the chairman of electronics distributor Premier Farnell, all said Ms Harding's best bet was to be true to herself.

On the page, it looks somewhat hackneyed, like an empty phrase that crops up during a mentoring huddle on The X Factor. In practice, it seems to have done the trick. Not only did Ms Harding leapfrog from Tesco to lead Sainsbury's convenience stores arm, but soon after she was sought out to run TalkTalk, the broadband provider which was being spun off from Carphone Warehouse. Her advisers couldn't have staged it better themselves.

"They said I should stop worrying quite so much about what everyone thinks of you and decide who you are going to be," said Ms Harding, 45 and a mother of two girls. "It was a brilliant piece of advice for the transition to being a chief executive. You have to have your own moral compass because there is no one around really that you can defer to. You have to be the one that calls out when the ship needs to change direction."

In the past two years, Ms Harding has certainly navigated TalkTalk, which sponsors The X Factor on ITV1, on a different course. The company, whose reins she took from founder Sir Charles Dunstone, who is still its chairman and one-third shareholder, has been slimmed down and shaped up. With a push into television bearing early fruit, Ms Harding is confident of further progress.

What TalkTalk, now with a stock market value of £2bn and 4 million broadband customers, lacked for a while was sufficient services to sell to its customer base that had been wooed with the promise of cheap telephone and internet access.

That was until YouView came along, which is essentially an internet-enabled Freeview upgrade that lets viewers scroll back through the programme guide and watch BBC iPlayer and 4oD on their tellies. TalkTalk has piled on 29,000 customers since the end of September, adding 1,000 every day.

It's a start, but Ms Harding still has a long way to go if she wants to catch up with pay-TV rivals Virgin Media or BSkyB, which made great play this month of the fact it had eclipsed TalkTalk as Britain's third-largest broadband provider. Ms Harding doesn't feel the pressure, even though she sees scope for signing up 3 million TV customers over time.

"We are not squeezed between Sky and Virgin," she insisted. "There are 8.5 million Freeview homes. If you want an all-you-can-eat premium pay-TV you've already got it. You couldn't have missed the Sky advertising over the last decade. I've always felt there is a market for Freeview upgraders who want a little bit more telly and not a lot."

It's a sign of maturity for a business that experienced significant growing pains. Behind its brightly coloured advertising, TalkTalk wasn't in great shape when Ms Harding arrived in March 2010. Created from a string of acquisitions that swallowed Tele2, Onetel, AOL Broadband and Tiscali, it was creaking under the pressure of trying to make numerous billing systems and 24 call centres in six time zones communicate with each other.

The low point was a £3m fine last autumn from Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, which found it had been sending incorrect bills to thousands of customers, many of whom had already switched to another provider. It paidanother £2.5m in refunds and goodwill gestures. That fall from grace in customers' eyes was tracked by falling subscriber numbers and a tumbling share price, which has been reversed to rally by 60 per cent in the past year. Even now, its number of broadband customers is trickling down, although the figure Ms Harding watches closely, the more profitable base that uses TalkTalk's network, is climbing, to 3.8 million at the last count. The company also employs a third fewer people and uses just six call centres, explaining why profit margins have soared.

"I like to say to people internally, this is not a crash diet, it is genuinely a new way of life," she said. "In all honesty, the company is much, much happier. Nobody wanted to be part of an organisation that was getting things wrong for customers." Those that remain have been handed 1,000 free shares each, worth £2,200. If it is a different company, visitors emerging from the lift at its west London headquarters experience the same double-take they have always done. Ms Harding sits outside her office, not in it, and is still mistaken for her own PA by newcomers.

"It really isn't my office," she said. "I come in some days and find people there and I have no idea who they are. That's fine. I quite like that." Ms Harding comes from a family well used to high office. Her father is the 2nd Baron Harding of Petherton, a title inherited from his father, Field Marshal Lord Harding, who commanded the Desert Rats in the second world war, later becoming governor of Cyprus.

Until summer, her husband John Penrose was the tourism minister. He was sent back to the back benches in a reshuffle that raised eyebrows just as Britain was meant to be capitalising on its Olympics legacy. Ms Harding, one of David Cameron's contemporaries at Oxford, has little to say on the subject. "My standard line is that if he started commenting on my career, I'd shoot him."

Ms Harding might never have got so far in corporate life if she had made the grade as a jockey. Her hardest decision was to let a professional take the reins of her Irish thoroughbred, Cool Dawn, in the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup, because she knew she couldn't ride him to victory. Her legal name, Diana, means goddess of the hunt, although Dido, a childhood nickname, has stuck.

She headed to McKinsey, the management consultant, straight from Oxford. Retail soon won her over, and Archie Norman used her as a consultant at Asda. Thomas Cook and Woolworths followed before a six-year stint at Tesco. She quit for Sainsbury's because to prove herself at Tesco would have involved going overseas — impossible to combine with her husband's political ambitions.

On current reckoning, it's all worked out rather well. Better maybe, than her trio of high-powered advisers might ever have guessed.