Charles Gurassa: 'Serial non-executive sounds pejorative, I just decided to take a different career path'

A day in the life of the Chairman of Virgin Mobile
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Charles Gurassa, non-executive chairman to the stars, awakens in his Tuscan farmhouse and gets ready for his daughter's seventh birthday.

If Mr Gurassa is completely wiped out, then he's perfectly entitled. This week the chairman of Virgin Mobile secured the sale of the business to the US cable group NTL for a little less than £1bn. He had flown from New York the night before after meetings with Alamo National, the US car rental business he chairs.

Has the man dubbed a serial non-executive - a term he finds slightly abusive - ever wondered if it was worth it? Those of us who find negotiating tea with milk and half a sugar problematic couldn't bear the aggravation that comes from being chairman of a business such as Virgin Mobile.

The sale to NTL was, by his own admission, an "unusually complicated transaction".

The list of people who needed to be made happy before they signed on the dotted line include: the Virgin Mobile board; the minority shareholders; NTL; its shareholders; Virgin Group; T-Mobile, which provides the mobile network that Virgin hires and, of course, T-Mobile's owner, Deutsche Telecom. There's also Sir Richard Branson himself, who held 71 per cent of shares in Virgin Mobile.

All the above, the above's lawyers and their PR men, wanted reassurances and last-minute changes to the deal. Mr Gurassa is the person they were calling.

If he was feeling flustered, it isn't showing. "Businesses succeed on the basis of their ability to work together. It is more than what the contract says. It can be frustrating. Things arise that nobody foresaw and people get tired."

Did it ever look like the deal might collapse? "I always thought it was more likely to happen than not. But there were times when I thought 'we have hit some serious issues here'. But then the deal makes such sense for all parties."

The deal does make sense, but that isn't the same as it working out.

The plan is for NTL to become a"quadruple" communications player, offering television, internet, and home and mobile phones under the Virgin brand. NTL wants to take on Sky and will bid for the rights to Premier League football - a full-on battle for control of the UK living room.


Mr Gurassa, who as chief executive once sold Britain's Thomson Holidays to TUI, has had his farmhouse for about eight years. It an escape from London. It is between Pisa and Florence - a 1 hour 45 minute flight from London with an hour's drive at the other end.

This morning the family makes a trip to a cake shop as part of the birthday celebrations. But Mr Gurassa is still pondering the deal of Sir Richard's life (the entrepreneur put in £50m and took out nearly £1bn).

To help the deal go through, Mr Gurassa had to persuade Sir Richard to take less money. Shy he may be, but that sounds like an awkward conversation to have. "I found him extremely pleasant and straightforward. The conversations with himself were good. One to one, he is very comfortable. He is not a natural, articulate presenter, but that is part of his attraction."

NTL wanted the Virgin brand above all. Mr Gurassa is stung by the suggestion the brand appeals only to teenagers. "Everyone thinks it is just the younger profile. It is not."


Mr Gurassa is happy to admit he isn't an expert in the businesses he helps run.

When he joined Virgin, he had no telecoms background. "I don't believe in half-guessing or trying to pretend I am as expert as they. My job is to test the thinking and be a mentor for the chief executive. The chairman's role is to be chairman of the board, not to run the business".


Mr Gurassa answers his e-mails and checks the press coverage of the NTL deal.

"As chairman you are very conscious of the image of the business. The press get it wrong sometimes, but you do have to accept the rough with the smooth."

He takes a call from Tom Alexander, Virgin Mobile's chief executive and founder.

At the press conference unveiling the deal, the US NTL executives are quick to praise Mr Alexander for building the business, though there is a feeling the message might have been: "Thanks and goodbye".

Mr Gurassa isn't saying, and anyway has paperwork relating to Whitbread - the gyms to coffee group where he is also a non-executive - to deal with. "Serial non-executive has a pejorative sense to it. I just decided to take a different career path."


Part of that path includes making wine and olive oil. A vineyard in the garden is big enough to produce 750 bottles a year - not enough to sell, but more than enough to drink. His bit of Tuscany produces the best olive oil in Italy, he claims.

If the wine and olives are going well, Chelsea Football Club is not. As a season ticket holder, Mr Gurassa is feeling nervous. It would take a display that would give incompetence a bad name for Chelsea not to be crowned champions, given how far ahead they are, but it suddenly looks possible.

"I never felt it was a done deal. I think we can lose."

Claims from City grandees to be football fans require close examination, but Mr Gurassa is the real deal, rattling off the past four results alongside complaints about the referee in each game. "Never offside".

If he isn't a typical chairman, he is clearly a typical Chelsea fan.


There is cake for his daughter and talk of a late-night trip to the beach (they are 30 minutes from the sea).

In the end the plans for the night are simple: "Collapse exhausted," Mr Gurassa says with anticipation.

He is almost surprised to discover he turned 50 this year. He passed the point where money was a factor long ago, so when will he stop? Why not now?

"I'm not sure I'll ever stop. I'll stick to part-time roles rather than take another big corporate job. But I have come to the conclusion that 'should I stop?' is the wrong question. People always do something. For some that is playing golf or writing the novel that was always in them. But not for me."

What about the novel inside him? "It should certainly stay there."