Tony Salter: Keep it simple – just sell

Tony Salter, CEO of Boxman, talks about why his company has chosen not to the follow the information-rich, Amazon model
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The Independent Online

Have you seen the advert where a daft guy walks around with a cardboard box on his head? It's a simple gag but effective, summoning a chuckle and conveying the message without overkill. And there's little sign of the worn-out tag.

Have you seen the advert where a daft guy walks around with a cardboard box on his head? It's a simple gag but effective, summoning a chuckle and conveying the message without overkill. And there's little sign of the worn-out tag.

The advert is part of the marketing strategy of Boxman, now one of Europe's leading online retailers for CDs, videos and DVDs, turning over more than £12m of sales in eight countries last year. Tony Salter, who joined Boxman in March 1999 as its chief executive, believes he is on the brink of tapping an enormous market. He also wants to challenge the Amazon retail model which took the world by storm.

"In its first year, Boxman was probably more successful than Amazon in the US in a comparable period," he claims. "If you look at our competitors, they have tended to copy Amazon in the look and feel of their site. They tend to be more information rich.

"The Boxman site is very simple, very clean. I suppose it's a little bit Ikea. Our purpose is for people to go on to the site, find what they want, buy it at a good price and get a good delivery. We don't want to keep them hanging around so we can ram advertising down their throat."

Salter, 41, admits he is more interested in the pan-European challenge than in the music itself. His career has been spent carving out revenues in tough ground. In his twenties, after a degree in electronic engineering, he worked in the oil business in Egypt, slinging expensive kit down oil wells in the middle of nowhere, "real Boys Own stuff".

He came back to Europe and went to Insead, the business school, after which he considered setting up a scuba-diving school. Instead he got married and decided it was time to "get a real job". That turned out to be at the record company EMI. The company parachuted him into Greece to sort out a factory which had lost money for 10 years. It was a definitive time for Salter, who turned the factory around but had to close it anyway. "I decided I would only work in growth areas after that."

He was lucky enough to be offered one of the biggest: Eastern Europe in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "Setting up EMI there was directly comparable to what I am doing now at Boxman. The growth rates were comparable because the markets had been frozen. The mistakes made were similar, too."

Salter's introduction to new media came via his involvement with EMI's multimedia project, but it was not until 1998 that he seriously started to think about setting up alone. Boxman, he says, suited his mindset of the moment and guaranteed some autonomy.

"It was a combination of what I had done and wanted to do next." His first move was to instil patience in his team. "There was a gung-ho spirit, an element of doing things before we were ready," he says. Then he cleared out the management team and upgraded the UK operation. In October, Boxman merged with the British retailer iMVS/Yalplay. It is now headquartered near Oxford, with 120 staff throughout Europe.

There have been some disappointments, however. WAP technology still only generates "a few orders a day", according to Salter. "Did I think that many people would buy through WAP? No, it's clumsy, clunky, really painful. We have invested a small amount of money and we are experimenting. It's not user-friendly, but we need to be there."

He adds: "Our products are independent of the carrier, suited to digital delivery. Mobile devices, and the way we retail through them, are 100 per cent of our business in the future. Similarly with digital television, most things are just talked about at the moment, but it's a very key part of our strategy."

More immediately he has plans to launch a sister brand through Boxman for classical and jazz music, and in the future, a children's site. At the moment he is fund-raising and preparing for a floatation. In April, he took the decision to pull back from a flotation. "It seemed a smart move not to do it. At the moment it's hard to find investors who are not having knee-jerk reactions and who are looking more carefully. These days you have to kiss a few more frogs. But as more confidence comes back into the market, I don't expect it to get ridiculously frothy again."

Boxman will become "the avenue of choice", Salter hopes. "The internet is going to change everything about our lives, but it doesn't mean that everything has to be hidden under techie obscurity. We sell music to people. It's no different to when someone walks into a shop."