It's good to talk ... in the same language

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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH it is still the big corporations such as BT and AT&T that dominate the telecommunications industry, Warren Hardy provides a good example of the riches that can be made by finding a niche in a fast- expanding sector.

In the five years to March 1996 European Telecom, the business he founded at the turn of the decade, saw turnover grow by nearly 116 per cent a year making it this year's fastest-growing independent company, according to research by the Independent on Sunday in association with Price Waterhouse, the accountancy firm.

And that growth shows every sign of continuing. The company, which distributes mobile telephone equipment around the world, has followed many other Independent 100 success stories by floating on the stock market. Such was the value placed on it that the company's shares were three times oversubscribed at the start of trading last June. They are now worth nearly twice the issue price of pounds 1.15, giving the company a market capitalisation of nearly pounds 70m. The current year's figures are not due to be published until next month but at the time of the company's interim results last autumn brokers were forecasting turnover of more than pounds 120m. But despite this it still has only about 115 employees.

Mr Hardy, the company's 40-year-old chairman and chief executive, was able to use the float to raise cash for himself by selling a significant part of the company. But the main reason for seeking a listing was to obtain the finance to enable European Telecom to offer its big customers the credit terms it was not in a position to do when "living hand to mouth". Working closely with customers in this way has been a guiding principle since the Slough-based company was established. With sales in 60 countries the organisation has gone out of its way to develop a multi-lingual salesforce. Nor is it just a case of hiring English people who can speak a foreign language. "We're recruiting French people to understand the culture," says Mr Hardy by way of example. "Most companies don't look at linguists at all or recruit English people who speak a bit of French."

It also sets great store by the immediacy of its service. It holds about pounds 4.5m-worth of cellular phones and accessories and claims to be able to supply any number to any of its approximately 2,000 customers within a day in the UK and within two days elsewhere.

While the big names in mobile phones, such as Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, account for about 80 per cent of sales, there are in fact about 40 manufacturers. European Telecom claims relationships with just about all of them enable it to give the network operators, leading retailers and dealers that are its customers exactly what they need.

The customer relationship does not end with the sale. "We want customers to appreciate that we're helping them grow rather than looking at a one- off deal," says Mr Hardy, adding that the company is seeking to build its reputation by advising customers on what products are most suitable for them as well as telling them whether they should buy at a given time or wait because the price is coming down or a new version is about to be launched.

But to be able to do this entails understanding your markets. The company, which has consciously strengthened its management by hiring experienced plc directors in recent years, sets such great store by this that it commissions daily reports from 20 territories around the world and spends a lot of time talking to network operators. "We know what the top-selling phones are," says Mr Hardy. "We're really ahead of our competitors in knowing what we should be buying."