Light Reading

Branson's Main Man

Light Reading
LR Mobile Q+A
Light Reading

Tom Alexander wanted to be a Formula One race driver when he was a lad. Although that ambition was never fulfilled, he is currently at the wheel of a fast-moving organization. As CEO of Virgin Mobile Telecoms Ltd. in the U.K., he is responsible for further expanding a mobile services business that has just reached 2 million customers in less than three years.

Four years ago, the names of Richard Branson and Virgin Group were associated with many things, but not with telephony. Virgin was already a major global brand, principally through its music and airline businesses. Not to mention the antics of the smiling, omnipresent, bearded Branson, frequently to be found in a hot air balloon and on the world's television screens.

Then Branson caught the mobile bug: Virgin Mobile launched in the U.K. in November 1999 as a 50-50 joint venture with mobile operator One2One, now T-Mobile (UK).

Since then, the Virgin Group has launched mobile services operations in three other territories. Virgin Mobile Australia, a joint venture with Cable & Wireless Optus (now SingTel Optus Pty. Ltd.) launched in October 2000, while the joint venture with SingTel in Singapore launched in October 2001 and then closed in July this year (see Virgin Reviews Singapore Plans and Dictionary Corner: Review).

Then the boy Branson proved he was still game for just about any publicity stunt when he dangled himself from a crane in New York City at the launch, also in July, of Virgin Mobile USA LLC, the joint venture with Sprint PCS (NYSE: PCS) (see Branson Targets US Teens and Virgin Gets Naked on MTV).

The Virgin Mobile businesses describe themselves as MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), as they behave like a mobile operator but without having a mobile network. Virgin uses its partners' infrastructure while keeping the services management and customer relationships under its own roof. While many people would say this does not qualify Virgin as an MVNO because the company does not have any of its own switches, the term has come into common use to describe the type of company Virgin has created through its relationships with network operator partners.

Tom Alexander joined Virgin Mobile UK in February 1999 as CEO, and has also been "instrumental" in the overseas launches. Before joining Virgin, he spent several years at BT Cellnet (now O2 Ltd. [NYSE: OOM]), where he became deputy commercial director. Before Cellnet he worked at Telia AB and LM Ericsson (Nasdaq: ERICD) in Europe and the U.S.

I met him in Virgin Mobile's London offices, located in the heart of Leicester Square, and within easy smelling distance of Chinatown. Oh, the temptation. And the offices are above a pub. And Alexander has a goose that lays golden eggs. Actually, he's not quite that lucky, but the Chinatown and pub bits are true.

In this interview he talks about:

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung
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