Tom Alexander: Former racing driver intent on steering Orange past its rivals

He admits to a thirst for speed, which may be why he was picked to lead Orange UK in the fast-changing world of mobiles. The figures suggest he is winning.
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The Independent Online

In 2006, after launching, floating and selling Virgin Mobile, Tom Alexander retired. But when the opportunity arose to take the helm at Orange, it was just too good to miss. "Orange was the attraction, where most companies wouldn't have been, because it is such an iconic brand," Mr Alexander says.

In June, after six months in the job, he launched his strategy to put the zip back into the business and take it to the top spot in the mobile market by 2012.

"If it was just about running the business I wouldn't have been interested, but France Telecom [which owns Orange] were looking for a major transformation, and to take on a brand with so much potential, and re-energise it, is fantastic."


The day starts early, watching a TV rolling news channel over the first of umpteen cups of black coffee and a bowl of cereal at his Bath home. Being the summer holidays, Mr Alexander's wife and two young children are at their house in the South of France, where he will join them at the weekend. With offices in Bristol, London and France Telecom's Paris headquarters, no two working days are the same.

Today, after scanning the morning's press cuttings on the way to the station, Mr Alexander gets the 7am train to Paddington. "I have a pack of stuff from my PA for the train," he says. "On the train first thing in the morning, still waking up, is a great time for reading and catching up on what's happening."


The day's meetings, which will run back to back, start immediately. A new strategy means a massive amount of change. Some 450 middle management jobs are going, 500 new customer-facing positions are being created, and around 2,500 staff are changing their roles. The company is also opening shops, investing in the network infrastructure, bringing call centres back from India, and spending millions on marketing – all with a view to becoming the UK's "best-loved communications business".

For the chief executive, this means a huge range of priorities. "My days are very varied from one hour to the next," Mr Alexander says. "One minute I am working on the new brand and TV campaign, the next minute I am sitting down with the chief technology officer looking at major plans for the roll-out of a high speed data network."


A key focus at the moment is the Orange brand, and one of the day's most important meetings is with the company's marketing team to talk through the current plans. There is plenty to discuss because phase one of the television campaign – the "everyman" ads – will next week give way to phase two – "together we can do more".

"We want a whole new style of Orange and we want to stand out from the crowd," Mr Alexander says. "People want something different from Orange, and we have to keep it fresh and make people think."


Lunchtime is either a hasty sandwich en route to the next meeting, or a working lunch. Today Mr Alexander is eating with Charles Dunstone, chief executive of Carphone Warehouse, at Cecconi's in Burlington Gardens, to catch up on what is happening in the industry, and also the state of play at one of Orange's biggest distributors.

With a few spare minutes before the car arrives to whisk him back to Paddington, Mr Alexander takes a walk up to Oxford Street for a quick stint as his own mystery shopper. "I walk into our shops and buy a phone in order to get the whole customer experience," he says. "My wife thinks I'm crazy because I quite often do it at the weekend, but it is the only way you can really see what the customer goes through."


Back at the office, the afternoon's meetings pick up immediately. With so little downtime, email and text messages are vital. "I'm on the phone, texting and using email all the time," Mr Alexander says. "I couldn't live without texting – not just because I'm the chief executive of Orange, but because it is so embedded in my life."

He is also reliant on endless cups of black coffee, as many as one an hour throughout the day. "Without the coffee I'm terrible, but so long as I have it I'm fine."

The afternoon's main meetings focus on the significant investment going into network upgrades. Some 450 new 2G base stations are being rolled out to improve the coverage of the existing service, and by 2009 the company will have built a new super-fast data network running at speeds of more than 14 megabits per second.

"I have lots of contact with our head of networks and IT around both the new investment and how we can build on our existing network to differentiate us from the competition," Mr Alexander says.


Get-togethers with the chief financial officer (CFO) are also regular. "I work very closely with the CFO," Mr Alexander says. "Orange is a complex and sophisticated business, which produces a huge amount of management information, so we do a lot of analysis of data from across the company in order to optimise performance."

No sector is immune to the worsening economic climate, as a slew of patchy results from communications companies last week shows. But Orange's first-half results, also last week, showed some resilience: revenues were up by 9.7 per cent to £2.23bn, on a like-for-like basis, and gross operating margin was up by 14.5 per cent to £531m. Despite the gloom elsewhere, now is a good time for reorganisation, according to Mr Alexander.

"We have got to be mindful that the credit crunch is going on, but it is a fantastic time for us to expand," he says. "We are going out and opening new stores when everyone else is looking at closing them, which is great."


With so much change, it is vital to communicate with the company's 18,000 staff. So with the day job out of the way, Mr Alexander heads for a train to North Tyneside – one of the company's 21 sites across the UK – for the following day's roadshow.

"We've been making major changes and I want to get everyone across the business working behind it, so I am talking to as many people as possible, as informally as possible," Mr Alexander says. "The most important people in the business are the ones talking to our customers, and I can learn so much from talking to them."

Outside his enthusiasm for the mobile industry, and the time spent with his family, Mr Alexander's chief passion is motor sports. He started his career as a professional driver and still races, as an amateur, in the British GT Championship.

"I'm getting a bit long in the tooth for it now but it's good fun and I have a little bit of a thirst for speed," he says.

The CV

Name: Tom Alexander

Age: 49

Marital status: Married with two children, aged 6 and 10

Education: Millfield School,Somerset


1985-92 Telia, strategic business development

1992-98 BT Cellnet, deputycommercial director

1998-2006 Chief executive and founder of Virgin Mobile

2006-08 Retired

January 2008 Orange UK,chief executive