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

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.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Recruitment Consultant - Soho - IT, Pharma, Public Sector

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35,000 first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

Sales Executive

£20 - 24k (Uncapped Commission - £35k Year 1 OTE): Guru Careers: We are seekin...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week