Interview: Nick Thompson, new CEO of the Phone Co-op

He discusses the co-op’s growth strategy and his priorities for the business

Nick Thompson has been in the telecoms industry for over 15 years. Prior to joining The Phone Co-op, he was in Hong Kong, working for a division of Telecom. And before this he was chief executive of Gradwell, a telecoms business in Bath.

His experience also includes being managing director of Hull City FC between  2012  and 2014. He also helped to bring Bath City into community ownership. Previously he had been with KCOM for nine years which, under his leadership, delivered growth and improved customer and staff satisfaction. He joined the Phone Co-op in February.

What does he think the biggest challenges are for the telecoms sector in general?

“The demand for bandwidth keeps getting bigger,” he says. “Alongside that there is a sociological change in the way in which we communicate with each other. Over the last 10 -15 years we’ve seen a mobile explosion. We have more mobile devices than people in UK, and we have moved from talking to texting, and Whatsapp and Instagram. But people are still communicating with one another and that gives great opportunities.”

For the Phone Co-op, he believes the challenge will be to demonstrate to its members that it is a co-op as much as a telecoms business.

“To some business customers, we have to demonstrate our telephone expertise as the first calling point – we probably had that the wrong way round when we were talking to certain customers in the past.

“Another challenge is the speed of change and technological advancements within the industry. As a modestly sized player, we need to manage partners correctly to be able to deliver those advantages to customers, be they residential or businesses.”

The Phone Co-op uses three UK major network carriers – EE, Vodafone and O2 – to carry its service. Mr Thompson is interested in exploring whether the co-op can develop an exclusive strategic partnership with these companies.

As the UK’s only telecoms provider selling the Fairphone, the Phone Co-op is also looking at delivering similar price points and then allowing ethical standards to become the decision point rather than price. The co-operative aims to make the device available on a monthly contract that allows people to spread the price before having the option to drop to true price or take on the next level of handset. At over £500, the Fairphone is built using conflict-free minerals.

Going forward, Mr Thompson says his priority will be to listen to customers and demonstrate to them the unique co-op values of the business while focusing on providing excellent service.

“We need to engage even more efficiently with our members and help them see the results of the vision and enterprise they set up 20 years ago and make them feel part of journey,” he said.

“We also need to expect more from our suppliers, Phone Co-op people are nice people and sometimes suppliers can take advantage of us. We need to communicate to suppliers our expectations for our customer service. We have high expectations and we need to translate that to suppliers and expect the same.”

He confirmed the Phone Co-op will be rethinking its SIM card offer, arguing that it hasn’t worked in the way it was envisioned. Regardless of the decision taken, customers with a Phone Co-op SIM card will continue to benefit from service support.

Mr Thompson, who was attending the Co-op Retail Conference in Kenilworth, said he believed some of the challenges faced by co-op retailers echoed those of the Phone Co-op.

“We need to articulate to customers what our purpose is, why would they choose to spend their money and use our services,” he explained. Another challenge is having services and offers that respond to the needs of people of different age ranges. Those aged 18-35 are more likely to want the Fairphone while those 45 and above would require broadband and phone services.

At its latest AGM earlier this year, the Phone Co-op presented a future strategy to grow the business. But some members expressed concern over the risks involved in the investment. A special general meeting will take place in April to give them the chance to explore the strategy in-depth.

“I think we could have done more in articulating what the strategy actually means and demonstrate that the investment is tied to success in  the market place – and as you reach those steps, where you take next level of investment it is actually underpinned by contractually guaranteed revenues,” he added.

“While there are profit and account losses, there are contracted guaranteed revenues booked for the next years that will more than cover those losses. We failed to adequately communicate the judicious and measured approach of the strategy. That’s what we want to do at the special general meeting on 28 April.”

Mr Thompson explained how the focus for the business would be to attract new customers from both residential markets and ethical businesses businesses with up to 400 employees.

“There are about 60,000 such businesses in the UK. We are targeting over five years to recruit 500 of them as customers, so less than 1% of the addressable market. If we achieve that, we can get the business structure to serve the largest businesses in the social enterprise sector with 1,000 employees and more. Then we can work with people represented at the Co-operative Retail Conference today, in a way that means we can give as good if not better service than any other telecoms company in the country,” he said.


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