Telecoms chief sticks neck out to find formula for success

Business Profile: Head of Virgin Mobile gears up for court battle with T-Mobile that may lead to flotation
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The Independent Online

You wouldn't think it to look at him but Tom Alexander, the chief executive of Virgin Mobile, has a broken neck. He is not wearing a neck brace, nor is he in a wheelchair. In fact, he looks as fit as a fiddle.

The injury, he says, is an old one - suffered probably in the days when he was a racing driver - but which came to light only after a drunken dinner party two years ago. "I fell asleep after a dinner party after drinking a bit too much wine, got up to go to bed and fell over unconscious.... I couldn't move. I was paralysed from the neck down," he says.

"They [the hospital] discovered I had a broken neck. But it was an old break that I'd obviously done when I was racing many years before," he says, adding: "It's still officially broken but the damage to the spine is fine now."

What is perhaps more remarkable is his cheery disposition, given the company he heads is preparing for round two of a nasty court battle with its partner T-Mobile.

But then, Mr Alexander is set to issue financial figures for the third quarter of the year - expected to be Virgin Mobile's second best quarter so far with 3.2 million customers, after its blockbusting fourth quarter of last year. He also reckons that what he describes as "mild dyslexia" makes him better at dealing with tough situations and problem-solving. "When everybody else is panicking, I'm dead calm," he says.

He is certainly used to seeing life in a different way to most. The son of a "mad inventor", as he puts it, there were often quite "crazy" things appearing around the house when he was growing up.

"It was an interesting childhood," he says, remembering how he and his sister were so embarrassed by their father wearing a strange tracksuit sort of outfit to the shops, that they tried to hide it from him. "He's a real character and came up with a whole series of strange inventions," Mr Alexander says.

Perhaps it should not come as too much of a surprise then that his office in the company's London base in Leicester Square is unlike any other. Instead of a desk and computer, there is a large round table, sofas and a Scalextric.

And instead of the usual snaps of the family that litter many a corner office, there are shots of bikes and cars. It makes the room feel distinctly unlived in, although he often works from the company's head office in Trowbridge when he is not travelling, cannot stand computers and relies heavily on his PA, Sue.

He is also mad about motor sports, having started karting at the age of 13 and turned semi-professional when he was still at school with ambitions to move into Formula 1.

After finishing his 'A' Levels at Millfield - the private school renowned for its sports - Mr Alexander says: "I had to make a decision. Do I go on to uni or do I actually became a Formula 1 racing driver. And it was pretty damn obvious that I had to become a Formula 1 racing driver."

So he pursued his dream. "My racing was absolutely number one. My whole life was motor sport," he says, adding: "It was a great education, touring around Europe, living in hotels, living it up, spending everything I made on fast cars and women - and with my mates. It was a terrific time."

The dream came to an abrupt halt when he was about 21 when a sponsorship deal fell apart, forcing him to get a "proper job" for what he thought would be a short period of time. "I dropped out of motor sport thinking I was going to go straight back into it," he says.

The reality proved rather different. First came a series of jobs working for industrial robotics companies, followed by stints at the telecoms companies Telia, Ericsson and then BT Cellnet.

It was while he was at Cellnet, in the role of deputy commercial director, that the approach from Virgin came. Originally, Virgin approached Cellnet to put together a "consumer-focused, youth-oriented mobile business". Virgin was also looking at working with BT to secure a third-generation mobile phone licence.

Some five months after Cellnet decided it wanted to pursue similar plans but alone, Mr Alexander got a call from Virgin asking if he would be interested in jumping ship. "Richard [Branson] invited me to his house for the weekend and we talked about plans and what, if I came over and joined Virgin, we could do," he says.

The rest is history. Virgin Mobile was set up in 1999 and, at the end of June, had racked up 2.9 million customers. It made an operating profit of £37m in the first half of this year on turnover of close to £200m.

Not that is has been plain sailing. "You'd think that at Virgin you'd have a really good support infrastructure, an A-Z of starting a new business. But there was absolutely nothing. I even financed the first few months out of my bank account," Mr Alexander says.

And life is particularly difficult at the moment. T-Mobile lost the case it launched against Virgin and Virgin Mobile - largely designed to end the pair's venture - and its appeal is due to be heard in the middle of next month.

Separately, Virgin and Virgin Mobile have launched a case against T-Mobile, alleging breach of contract, which is due to be heard next summer. If Virgin wins that case, it could force T-Mobile to sell its share for a nominal sum.

While there has been much speculation about whether the pair will manage to resolve their differences out of court or whether they will battle on, it is still far from clear which way it will go. Since T-Mobile got a new boss in the UK in the shape of Brian McBride, relationships have, apparently, improved dramatically and an out-of-court settlement seems within reach, although it could see T-Mobile reduce its stake.

Mr Alexander is, understandably, tight-lipped on the issue. "It's a difficult area for me to speak about," he says, adding: "I guess I wish none of the last couple of years had happened and we had not had any contractual difficulties ... they [T-Mobile] are potentially a really good network partner".

Until it is all sorted out, the widely expected flotation of Virgin Mobile is on the backburner. Current estimates on the business's value range from a few hundred million pounds up to about £1bn.

In the meantime, Mr Alexander is also having to deal with increased competition from a number of sources, including the likes of the supermarket chain Tesco, although he is not overly concerned.

"When everyone is advertising, it shows the consumer there's more choice than just four networks and normally, during those busy periods, we do better," he says.

Despite the difficulties, he still manages to find the time to indulge his main passion in life, satisfying the petrol head in him by racing his Aston Martin DB4 Lightweight (one of only three ever made apparently) with his partner in crime, the TV presenter Tiff Needell.

And then there are the other cars.

He drives his Mini Cooper daily but also has "a collection of old Aston Martins" and a Series 1 Landrover. Then there is the Porsche Cayenne driven by his wife, Louise, and, you suspect, probably a few other vehicles tucked away somewhere.

You'd think having a broken neck might have put him off racing.

Not a bit of it. "I have to watch what I do. I have to be careful in what I do with my neck," he says. But surely racing cars doesn't fall into the "careful" category?

Mr Alexander, however, has an answer for that - he uses "a device that the F1 drivers use which straps the helmet to the shoulders." Another problem solved then - perhaps it is the dyslexic in him.


Position: Chief executive, Virgin Mobile.

Age: 44.

Salary: Not disclosed.

Career: After leaving Millfield School, he became a professional racing driver before working for industrial robotics companies and then for Telia and Ericsson in Europe and the US. He then moved to BT Cellnet, where he was deputy commercial director, before joining Virgin Mobile as chief executive in 1999.

Interests: Motor sports, antiques, paintings.