When Guy Laurence took over as chief executive officer of Vodafone UK in 2008, he removed all the offices in the company’s headquarters and told the cleaning staff to throw away every scrap of paper, even cherished family photographs.
Such was his conviction to turn the staid telecom giant into a nimble customer-driven operator that Mr. Laurence didn’t stop there. Visitors to the London head office were asked to remove their ties and employees in one of the company’s networking groups were told to wear nothing but black.
“Ask anyone about Vodafone’s ‘men in black,’ ” said one industry insider who was taken aback by the all-black attire. “It’s a little weird.”
Mr. Laurence, 51, has built his career on unconventionality. He’s the type of boss who reads military histories for ideas and considers the business world as “a kind of legal warfare.” Described by those who know him as affable, blunt, engaging and media-savvy, Mr. Laurence once told a reporter: “I think I’ve probably made so many mistakes, I’m now very good at what I do.”
His path to Vodafone and now Rogers Communications Inc. has certainly been off beat. Born in Manchester, Mr. Laurence graduated high school and eschewed university, preferring to start a candle-making business instead.
He eventually found his way into the entertainment world, stopping first at a music publishing company called Chrysalis before joining MGM, where he marketed films like the James Bond movies to audiences outside the United States. There were other marketing stints as well, at a dry cleaning company, a brewery, a cinema chain and Planet Hollywood, where he reportedly once won an arm-wrestling match against actor Bruce Willis.
His start at Vodafone did not go well. In 2000, Mr. Laurence became chief marketing officer and later CEO of a joint venture between Vodafone and France’s Vivendi called Vizzavi. Like many Internet startups at the time, Vizzavi did not last long, and by 2002, Vodafone had bought out its partner and pulled the plug.
Mr. Laurence landed on his feet, taking on other marketing duties within Vodafone and becoming CEO of the company’s Dutch division in 2006. He spent two years in Holland, winning praise for turning around Vodafone’s fortunes in what is considered a brutal market, before being handed the job as boss of Vodafone UK.
It wasn’t an easy job. By 2008, Vodafone had fallen to second spot in the country’s cellphone market behind Telefonica’s O2. It fell to third in 2009 after the merger of the U.K. operations of France’s Orange and Deutsche Telekom’s T-Moblie. That created Everything Everywhere Ltd., or EE, which is now the leader with about 33 per cent of the market, followed by O2 at 30 per cent and Vodafone at 25 per cent.
Mr. Laurence, the sixth CEO in 10 years, also faced a tough economy and a perception that Vodafone was out of touch with consumers. It was also late to the iPhone and had scrapped a distribution network that proved a costly error.
Mr. Laurence took some other drastic action. In his first two years, he cut about 20 per cent of the staff, slashed costs by more than $1-billion and revamped the distribution network. He has integrated Vodafone’s $1.6-billion purchase of Britain’s Cable & Wireless, which provided about 23,500 kilometres of fibre-optic cable, and has pushed Vodafone heavily into 4G, enticing consumers with offers of free access to soccer games on Sky Sports TV. Vodafone is also spending about £900-million ($1.47-billion) this year upgrading its network.
The jury is out on just how successful he has been. Some say he has helped boost Vodafone’s beleaguered brand and worked wonders on driving revenue and profit margins.
“He has done a lot of work to build the brand back up,” says Phil Kendall, director of wireless operator strategies at London-based Strategy Analytics.
But others give him only a passing grade, noting that Vodafone remains stuck in third place, with a company owned by Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. moving up quickly behind them. It also lags EE by 10 months in offering 4G.
“To say that Vodafone has done something wrong is probably unfair,” said Steven Hartley, a principal analyst at Ovum, a London-based research firm. “Vodafone hasn’t gone backwards but neither have they gone forward.”
Whatever the reason for his jump to Rogers, Mr. Hartley said he brings valuable experience to the Canadian telecom industry. “One of the things that has always struck me about the Canadian market is just how insulated it has been from the winds of change that have struck the mobile industry elsewhere,” he said. “At the same time there’s also the beginning of change there. … So having someone who has worked in one of, if not the most, seriously competitive mobile markets, who is used to dealing with strong aggressive competition on the pricing front, and has also had to adapt to changing market conditions, that actually lends itself quite well. It strikes me as a logical fit.”