Megabuyte, November 2014. Original article.
The Megabuyte Interview: Andrew Lindsay
The sign to the Utility Warehouse, the trading name of Telecom Plus, points to a functional building between Matalan and McDonalds. This is Colindale, a non-descript area at the far reaches of the Northern Line, with a view of Alexandra Palace as the only sign we’re still in the capital. Telecom Plus is a proud North London kid from Hendon, and Andrew Lindsay, a son of Scotland, will soon move the staff of 800-and-growing to a bigger and better building up the road. After all, running a large call centre operation in London means access to a great talent pool, as customer service is the beginning and end of the Telecom Plus story.
“We have as a mantra: treat every customer as if they were your own mum,” says Lindsay. “Our business is to be the nation’s most trusted utility supplier.” Right now, that means over 547k customers taking an average of 3.6 services out of the core offerings – gas, electricity, mobile, broadband and landline – with solid organic growth across the board. “It’s intensely personal business. Every single one of our customers come through a personal recommendation,” says Lindsay. So it follows that you wouldn’t recommend something dodgy to your mum or dad, nor would you let them down on a service call: “When we deliver good customer service we get recommendations, and we grow.”
A personal approach
The strictly-business roundtable in the conference room where we’re sitting is offset by Lindsay’s rolled-up sleeves, plus a generous sprinkling of the company logo: a purple piggy bank with a phone cord tail. But the folksy feel goes beyond design to be part of the company’s reason for success, as is clear from Lindsay more than once bringing up the distributor network, his “Purple Army”.
“The route to market is low-cost and proactive. Our distributors actually go out and find customers who want to switch, or who haven’t thought about switching,” says Lindsay. “The multi-utility proposition wouldn’t work on a billboard, as you need somebody who can explain it to you in detail. Through this informal recommendation channel you can get the complex message across.” Not to mention how the multi-utility approach is efficient from a company overhead perspective, as one call centre supports five revenue stream. This enables the company to offer competitive deals – not that the savings aspect is really what’s driving Telecom Plus’s growth: “Good customer services is by far the easiest way to differentiate yourself from the competition. People won’t remark on £4 savings but they will remark on good customer service.”
Lindsay is committed to growing the company, and to do so organically: “We see a very clear path to the FTSE100, and we’re going to do it through solid double digit compound growth.” While that probably rules out major M&A, Lindsay is open to adding to the company’s offerings: “We have very strong brand advocacy from our customers. They view us as a safe house for their utilities, because they don’t have to keep changing them because they know they’re always going to get a good deal from us. Why wouldn’t you also logically extend that to other boring but essential household expenses like insurance? […] We think we can bring our brand of ethical pricing policies into the insurance market. We may not make the same returns that some of the insurance players make, but we don’t need to – this is the point.”
Lindsay uses the word “ethical” more than once, and when asked he will certainly describe Telecom Plus as a “highly ethical” company. This does however seem to be more a side-effect of the general principle of how you wouldn’t sell a lemon to your family: “You don’t go and sign your mother up to a one-year loss leading tariff which is then auto-renewed onto a super premium tariff.” With energy prices in focus following Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, aimed at providing “simpler, clearer and fairer” prices, this attitude arguably makes Telecom Plus look like a fresh breath of air to a jaded public: “Our view is that we’re at the vanguard of [the trend towards fairer customer treatment]. The customer who comes to us and gets treated well has lifetime value. This is much, much greater than a short-term disgruntled customer, even if you’re making a healthy margin out of them.”
A lightbulb moment
Lindsay’s had an unusual route to the top seat of Telecom Plus, especially considering he’s 37 years old and has been the CEO for seven years. After Eton and Oxford he spent two and a half years in M&A at Goldman Sachs, before an urge to “taste the real world” prompted a move to Ryness, a small London chain of light bulb retailers. “There was a Ryness just outside the Goldman Sachs offices on Fleet Street. I was laughed out off the offices as I said I was going to join that cruddy little shop down there!” But Lindsay found the prospect appealing, as the founders had just exited to private equity. He oversaw Ryness’s growth from 10 to 15 shops, before he was approached by Telecom Plus in 2007.
“Ryness was a £10m business with 100 staff. Very, very hands-on operations. I learned an unbelievable amount about real people and real business – from the strategy of running a company, to stopping people from pinching cash from the till. You see the whole canvas, and that was a fantastic foundation period layered on top of the academic finances of Goldman Sachs.” Lindsay describes himself as an “intensely practical person”, but still, the move to Ryness was a move to a different life:
“Suddenly I was up on ladders hanging displays, counting stuff on shelves, and learning about the difference between incandescents and compact fluorescents. You get into a whole micro world of detail and you become a bit boring, talking to people at dinner parties about lightbulbs!” He laughs, but Ryness was a priceless learning experience: “I learned about bookkeeping, marketing, IT systems, HR, how to hire and fire people, how to negotiate a contract for supply. […] But the real thing I learned about was people, and that is ultimately about leadership.”
While Lindsay knew he wanted to run a business ever since leaving school, walking out of Goldman Sachs in the 2003 boon times must have been a shaky decision. “I started at Ryness on less than my assistant was being paid when I left Goldman, and it didn’t get much better. You have to somehow justify to yourself that you’ve made the right decision, and I was determined to make it work. It wasn’t a huge success story, but I feel very proud of what we did there.”
Real world approach
The Ryness experience also provided some vital insights into creating a sense of team among staff who were often motivated by different things. “I used to row,” says Lindsay, so modestly: he has an Olympic gold for rowing coxed eights in Sydney. “When I was rowing there was no question about team work. You just got in the boat because you wanted to be there, and you wanted to get to the end as fast as you could, with your teammates.”
But being surrounded by “exceptional bright, talented and driven people who you could rely on to be on your team” is not always how the real world works. While a fellow rower who was letting the team down by not eating his greens could be talked around, because there was a common goal, Ryness staff who were half an hour late every day required a different approach. “That was undoubtedly the biggest eye opener of coming out of this quite institutionalised bubble of a team work at school, university, professional sports, Goldman Sachs. I hadn’t really hit the real world until I left Goldman Sachs.”
Creating an atmosphere of a common goal continues to a key focus for Lindsay at Telecom Plus, as he talks about the 800+ staff who rely on the company, and what it means for the brand distributors to be part of something: “Recognition’s a massive part of being a distributor, to be a part of a community that values you.” A similar motivation drives the CEO as well: “Technology doesn’t rock my boat, to be honest. I’m not interested in billing systems. I’m interested in creating something. We’re creating something through thousands of partners, which enables them to be an entrepreneur. […] That’s highly motivating and hugely rewarding.”
Lindsay lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and their four boys, the eldest being six years old. “Yes, it’s children and work, basically!” He laughs. He likes to ski and still has his bagpipes: “Scotland is my passion.” He’s very grateful the referendum went the way it did. “I miss Scotland. I’d like to spend lot more time there, in the wilderness.” While his Olympics team still meet up regularly, they do this in the pub now: “I haven’t rowed since Sydney.” Instead, Lindsay prefers to focus on new goals: “Because life’s too short. I did nine years of rowing and I got to the pinnacle, and … onto the next thing.”
Lindsay’s approach hasn’t changed all that much, though: “My philosophy is to find things you’re good at, or you think you can be good at, and then spend time on that.” He laughs. “I suppose I’m a competitive bugger!” At Telecom Plus, this means keeping an eye on the prize: growing from 2% to 10% market share, from 500k customers to 1m, then 2m, and from the FTSE250 to the FTSE100. Lindsay has no plans to leave the company anytime soon, in fact he’s more excited about the prospect of Telecom Plus now than ever: “I think I would struggle to find a corporate environment I felt had the fundamentals and opportunity of this business. […] If you’re going to work for a large corporate, this is best large corporate you could work for, in my opinion.”