The Monday Interview: The past is Orange, the future is Carphone

Hans Snook says we've missed the point about mobile networks, but the economic reality is as strong as ever
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The Independent Online

Hans Snook, the architect of the Orange mobile phone business and latter-day evangelist for alternative medicine, is back on the fags after six years. In the intervening period, Orange has been floated, taken over, divested, taken over again and spun off, leaving Mr Snook with enough money never to have to work again. Yet he is doing a good impression of a chain smoker.

"It's Tony's fault," he says, pointing to the veteran City spin doctor in whose offices we have gathered to discuss Mr Snook's recent surprise appointment as chairman of Carphone Warehouse. "He offered me a puff six months ago," Mr Snook pleads. "I think I must have been stressed."

No one expected to see Hans "18 vitamins a day" Snook having a puff. But then, no one predicted that he would re-enter the mobile industry by joining Carphone Warehouse. He appeared to want out last year, after Orange was refloated by France Telecom, which had bought the company from Vodafone in 2000. Mr Snook said he would be pursuing his long-standing interest in alternative medicine. He was particularly enthusiastic about colonic irrigation, and was talking about a high street presence.

Mr Snook says the call in February from Carphone's chief executive, Charles Dunstone, came out of the blue. But it appealed to his continuing passion for all things "wire-free". Indeed, while the rest of the telecoms industry has been writing off billions of pounds for failed investments during the New Economy investment boom, Mr Snook argues that the economic reality underlying plummeting telecoms share prices is as strong as ever. He should know, having seen countless naysayers proved wrong by the success of the first analogue cellphones, and later Orange itself.

"What people don't seem to understand is the uses that these networks and the spectrum will be put to," Mr Snook points out. "Analysts are asking whether people will want to watch TV on their mobile. But that's totally missing the point. Most of the networks around the world are hungering for spectrum, just for pure voice calls. A lot of people still can't get through on the first call."

Fine. But where are the alternative medicine parlours offering colonic irrigation? Mr Snook says he is still looking for the "right vehicle" for his ambitions, although the product is clear: combining Western and Eastern therapeutic traditions into an "integrated diagnostic process".

He explains: "What I've been doing over the last few months is trying to understand where the industry sits today in the UK and a few other countries, and where it's going. Ultimately there has to be a high-street context to this. It could be something that happens in the next three to six months, or in the next two years."

Mr Snook has been represented as something of a cosmic character, but in fact he is rather more rational and calculating than his interests might suggest. He read English and Philosophy at the University of British Columbia after his parents moved to Canada from Wimbledon, having left his native Germany when he was aged two. His career began in the hotel industry, but at the age of 35 he packed it all in to travel the world with his wife. By the time they reached Asia, the cash was running out. So Mr Snook took a consultancy job in Hong Kong. One thing led to another, and before long he was despatched to England by Hutchison Whampoa to turn around Orange's forerunner, Rabbit. The rest is history.

The philosophy training survives. Mr Snook says he has to "find the logic" behind things, and embraces the benefits of feng shui without subscribing to the more fanciful beliefs surrounding the ancient Chinese art of furniture placement. After all, strict feng shui eschews electromagnetic radiation, including that from mobile phones, but Mr Snook is dismissive of the recent wave of mobile health scares.

"All the feng shui masters I know use mobile phones," he insists. "Yes, there is energy coming out of phones, as there is out of the hairdryer you use in the morning. You can go for a walk in the mountains and you will get more electromagnetic energy from the sun than you will ever get off a mobile phone. I'm certainly not worried about it and I don't know why other people are."

Mr Snook also believes in telepathy. Of course, if it exists then Carphone Warehouse has a problem. Could the industry be in danger of being eclipsed by a cheaper form of wire-free communication? Mr Snook reaches for his adviser's packet of Dunhill.

"Telepathy is a great form of communication for those that can do it," he says carefully. "All that technology does for us is enhance our own natural powers. If the end point of that is telepathy – and I shouldn't think it will ever happen in my lifetime – what would we do as Carphone Warehouse? We'd probably set up institutes training people how to learn telepathy, how to control it. So there'd still be a business aspect to it."

As the room fills up with smoke, I wheeze out a query about the woman in Mr Snook's life. Not his now ex-wife, nor the new flame he met in Orange's marketing department. But Mary.

Not long ago, Mr Snook was always talking about Mary, a scientific blueprint for a digital assistant who would respond to the customer's every voice command. Where is she now? Well, she's late, and it's all France Telecom's fault.

"FT did a review of the business and reinvestigation tends to slow things down. I'd say they're about 12 months behind where I thought they'd be," Mr Snook confesses.

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