Bunhill: Above the crowd without a net

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The Independent Online
CHARLES WIGODER, the 34-year-old chief executive of Peoples Phone, the mobile telephone business, is very much a bright young thing - the kind of businessman who features in magazine articles called '40 under 40', alongside other rising stars who have done unlikely things at unusual ages.

Mobile phones is a sector that tends to attract the young and the thrusting. So there he is, all young and thrusting, sitting in the smart north London offices of his pounds 100m business. A sleek silver Mercedes is parked outside and a skiing holiday - to Avoriaz in France - is in prospect.

Already glinting at you from the pages of his CV is the chartered accountancy training at KPMG Peat Marwick, the two-year City stint as a media analyst at Kleinwort Benson, a further two as a mergers and aquisitions guru at Michael Green's Carlton Communications, and six years as an entrepreneur. An hour with Wigoder and you come out feeling like Bart Simpson, the cartoon under-achiever.

Peoples Phone has carved a niche in Britain's complex and growing mobile communications sector by buying bulk airtime from the likes of Cellnet and Vodafone and selling it on in carefully designed packages to consumers. Tell Wigoder what sort of phone calls you tend to make and he will have a package for you. A lot of business calls within the M25? This one will do nicely, sir. Tend to ring mum a lot in Newcastle? Perhaps this one will be more to your liking.

He founded Peoples Phone in 1988 with four chums and pounds 500,000 after remortgaging his house. Now his 10 per cent stake in the company looks very valuable indeed.

'You just can't be a small telephone company,' he says. 'We need to grow our market share in an expanding market and that will take extra money. There is no pressure to float but we will need outside funding.'

He spends a lot of time devising flexible tariff packages and on staff training. 'Going into a high-street store that happens to sell phones as well as washing machines, hi-fi and fridges is all very well, but the staff are not going to know everything about a twin tub washing machine and the latest mobile phone,' he says.

Wigoder is also keen on de-bunking certain myths about mobile phones. 'People will shop around for a phone that is pounds 20 cheaper and forget that the phone tariff might be pounds 20 a month more expensive. What people are really buying is a software package.'

Wigoder loves talking about the phone market. In fact, it is hard to get him to talk about anything else. 'I suppose I am a bit of a workaholic,' he says, describing a rather dismal round of six-day weeks. A bit of bridge and golf is about as exciting as his extra-curricular activities appear to get.

It hasn't all been plain sailing. He left Carlton after the company became too big for a young buck aged 25.

'Most of the deals I was involved with didn't come off - thinking about it.'

But former colleagues are not surprised at the rise of this former Westminster schoolboy. Derek Terrington, the top media analyst at Kleinwort Benson, who hired the boy wonder in the early 1980s, recalls him well. 'Charles was always going to go somewhere - I didn't think he would be happy doing a City job.' Another colleague was less charitable, saying Wigoder was 'a bit of a know- all' who rubbed some people up the wrong way'. Not a touch of envy there, surely?

(Photograph omitted)