Two entrepreneurs who started out selling electrical goods from a shop in Lee-on-the-Solent in 1987 picked up £30 million in cash and shares when they sold mobile phone retailer KJC to PNC Telecom in 2000. Darren Ridge and Joseph Case each owned half of KJC – and the former is still working in telecoms, driving the rapid expansion at Onecom. Sue Hughes of The Business Magazine spoke with him.
It’s the largest independent mobile phone provider in the UK and a Vodafone Platinum Partner for the third consecutive year. OneCom rounded off 2013 by adding 13,000 connections to its base when it acquired OneStream in a deal which takes the number of connections managed by Onecom (formerly Premier Telecom and Business Phones Direct) to more than 200,000.
There are now nine offices, including the head office at Whiteley and premises in Southampton, Chandler’s Ford, Plymouth, Leeds, Hereford, Telford, Norwich and Camberley, it employs 300 staff and turnover is in excess of £40m.
The background to where you are now is well known, but what was your early inspiration?
Sales and a sales career; that’s where I started, as a trainee manager in a shoe shop in Gosport at 17. At that time there was more room to branch out if you didn’t follow a university career path. I was very customer service orientated and enjoyed the challenge of sales and developing customer relationships. Joe Case was an early inspiration. We founded KJC in 1987 as a TV and electrical retailer, later moving into fax machines, but still selling TVs and VCRs. It was a request for an in-car phone that led us to move down that line and subsequently sell mobile telephones. A hand portable phone was less than £1,000 and we were selling 15,000 sets a month – at first they were a B2B tool, the consumer market developed a little later.
How do you keep ahead of the game and respond to so many changes?
We are in the throes of a communications revolution with massive advances in communications technology creating demand for an intelligent and converged approach for all businesses, SMEs and corporates. Going back to the KJC days, we sold BlackBerrys as a business unit, but it was almost too early for customers. We’ve always been early adopters of new technology, looking at where both the retail market and networks are going, because there are hundreds of high street stores. A regional presence is vital because we can best service our customers from regional bases. We currently look after 200,000 mobile telephone numbers which is 15-16% of Vodafone’s total B2B connectivity. We are responding to 4G network coverage growth as we move forward in 2014. Vodafone offers our customers the best spectrum for 4G connectivity. We’re also looking at smart phones to offer customers a phone that is genuinely ’smart’, because devices actually need to be better at making calls as well as offering apps. When Nokia asked ’what can we do to relaunch?’ I replied ’call it a phone smart’ because networks will become more congested as we move from 3G to 4G and the phones will have to improve.
Your mobile phone preference?
I’ve gone back to Nokia from the iOS/Apple, because I prefer the windows platform and it works better as a phone. Once a customer has the right phone for his or her requirements, the new combined portfolio from OneCom will offer the most advanced solutions to allow businesses of all shapes and sizes to capitalise on converged communications with enhanced capability including cloud technology, cross-platform device management software, electronic forms and tracking and information management software.
How do you account for your success overall?
Customer service is at the heart of a business such as ours – it’s crucial that we keep our customers happy and our churn low. We have doubled our customer service team to 50 people. That’s a rise of 50% from 2013-14. You have a named customer account manager and can speak to us about any query, whether it is billing, the network or the phone itself. The right people are crucial and we use personality profiling to recruit, followed by intensive training. There’s a strong culture of promoting from within and staff retention goes hand in hand with customer retention. Our most precious quality is time and we have different teams for different sizes of customers; they receive regular visits too because we have regional bases. We retain our local focus through regional offices across the UK offering a level of ongoing support and pro-active account management normally only delivered by smaller businesses. This commitment to customer service is complemented by the competitiveness and buying power of a business with a multi-million pound turnover.
What about plans for future growth or new ideas?
We acquired OneStream in Norfolk in November, followed by The Communications Centre at Cheltenham in December. We are looking to expand organically and by acquiring smaller, well-established businesses which have excellent customer relationships, because they comprise a similar fit to ourselves. There is a lot of consolidation in the mobile world. We’re obviously interested in Vodafone partners who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not want to take their business to the next level. I see a future move toward a communications utopia where you could wrap the lot under one service: broadband, landline, mobile, Sky/TV provision. Also, looking ahead, troubleshooting will occur by pro-actively ’mining telecoms data’, for want of a better phrase, pre-empting potential problems.
What’s your business mantra?
It’s all about customer service; I began in business with that in mind and continue to this day. That’s the most important lesson I’ve ever learned. Retention is as important as new business and we enjoy a 93% customer retention rate.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
In the KJC days I would have got a more experienced management team to grow the business quicker.
With Stephen Hunter coming on board as non-executive chairman, it’s an exciting time for building the company’s strengths – what is he doing?
I met Stephen the day KJC opened, when he came in to introduce himself. He’s the perfect mentor for me now and is using his vast experience in business finance and the legal sphere, his business acumen and expertise in corporate governance, to take the business on and future proof it. He can look at it not just as a technology business but as a functioning business. It’s been a revelation and he brings a different perspective.
Going back to your mobile phone, which you’ve said is currently a Nokia, who’s on your speed dial?
We are all in touch with the office via mobile comms, but if you have a day off work, what will you be found doing?
Cycling – I enjoy road and mounting biking, often over at Ringwood, or around Romsey, Bramshaw and parts of the New Forest.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
My children. Oliver is doing a Masters in small-screen acting in London, while Victoria is taking a degree in fashion, also in London.
Do you have family following in your footsteps, either in the technology sphere or via entrepreneurial interests?
Not as far as technology goes, but my children are both highly creative, which probably comes from my wife, Maria, who has her own jewellery design company. They’re entrepreneurial. Victoria plans to set up her own fashion line and I can certainly advise her on business pitfalls and early development.
Are you good at managing a home/work balance, even though your children are older and away from home?
I dip in and out of work. I will always answer important emails but then I will leave it until I’m back in the office. It’s pretty much what we all do these days now that technology has given us non-stop access.
You’ve run the New York marathon, enjoy boating and biking, and sponsored Matt Bell Racing in the past; are there any unfulfilled ambitions to drive a fast car on a specific track?
No, I think I will leave the racing to Matt and concentrate more on my cycling, I have a 100-mile race coming up in New York this May.
Darren Ridge – Onecom