Charismatic leader reinforces Orange image every time he stands up

 

Mr Hans Roger Snook is something of an enigma. Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, to an English father and German mother, the 51-year-old managing director of Orange, Britain's most idiosyncratic mobile phone network, provokes intense admiration among friends and colleagues.

"He is the best business leader I have ever come across," one said. Another added: "He is evangelical. He has a clear vision of where he wants the business to be and galvanises people to achieve his ambitions."

A charismatic leader then: but try to pin down a concrete example of Mr Snook's business prowess and his admirers go quiet. "He just does it," one colleague said, puzzled by the question.

Friends and rivals agree, however, that with the launch and subsequent flotation of Orange, Mr Snook had the luck to be in the right place at the right time, and that his somewhat quirky persona was well-suited to the first brand of mobile phone to be identified with a subscriber's lifestyle.

The Snook family left Germany for Canada when he was still a child and he graduated from the University of British Columbia. After a brief flirtation with real estate, he and his Chinese wife, Etta Lai Yee Lau, decided in the early 1980s to backpack across Asia, finishing up in Hong Kong where he worked in the paging business to raise funds for further wanderings.

Hong Kong and all things Chinese retain a powerful attraction for him - Orange's British offices are laid out according to the principles of feng shui, the Chinese principle of arranging interiors to free the spirit.

A feng shui master was called in to oversee the process: the Orange boss at first ignored the master's advice and placed his desk where he wanted it. But later he started to feel uncomfortable about his decision and moved the desk back.

A capacity for admitting error is one of Mr Snook's strengths. Mr Chris Moss, who worked on the concept of Orange in the early days says: "He is prepared to look at things twice and to change his views when he is convinced of an argument. Unlike many chief executives he is prepared to admit his mistakes."

Mr Snook stayed in Hong Kong, ending up working for Hutchison Whampoa, where he supervised the consolidation and upgrading of the conglomerate's acquisitions there in the cellular and paging businesses.

In the early 1990s, he was despatched to Britain to rescue the group's local operations. Hutchison was in trouble after investing in an early form of mobile telephony called Telepoint, which only worked as long as users were within a few metres of the base stations.

Hutchison's version, "Rabbit", was killed off in 1993. Orange, launched in partnership with British Aerospace, rose from its ashes the following year. At first Mr Snook was unconvinced about both name and the corporate ethos, preferring something with "Phone" or "Tel" in the title. Rabbit, after all, had not proved an auspicious choice.

Colleagues still remember the board meeting that marked his conversion: "I have been dubious about this," he told them, "but now I can see how it can work." From then on, Mr Snook has been the greatest advocate of the Orange vision, a view of the future in which mobile phones are an essential complement to a lively, active lifestyle.

"It was a brave decision for him to take it on board after Rabbit," one of the design team said. "It would have been easier to play it safe."

Orange launched with a burst of publicity including some of the most opaque advertising seen on British televisions and billboards, especially the generic large orange square on a black background.

Mr Snook faced ridicule - the taunts that Orange was a silly name and that its per-second billing had no value in an industry used to charging by the unit. He also had to fight claims that four operators were too many for the British market.

But people liked the optimism of the Orange image and growth proved rapid. Investors were rewarded by a sharp increase in shareholder value. One setback, however, was its failure to win the third Irish mobile phone licence. The company is contesting the issue in the High Court.

"Orange is a great brand. Hans Snook has to be congratulated for that," one analyst said. "He has an intuitive feel for what will work," another remarked.

And he has captured the market in "futurology" - Orange roadshows are a feast of technology. Mr Snook is fond of explaining his view of the "wire-free" future, a future created with the help of the Orange "imaginarium", a think-tank for the group's senior staff.

He was in typically expansive mood as he announced Orange's interim results this month, departing from the script to throw brickbats both at his competitors and at the government in the course of his presentation.

It was all delivered in tones reflecting sadness at a world whose standards of service and morality fell well short of his own. Rival operators, he said, were "fleecing" the public through poorly explained pre-paid mobile phone packages.

The government was making free with other people's property, he sniffed, by trying to insist that new competitors in the next generation of mobile phone systems could use existing operators' networks until their own were ready.

Headlines inevitably followed - all grist to the well-developed Orange publicity mill. Colleagues insist his remarks were born of a genuine concern for the health of the mobile industry. They point out that he is obsessed with service quality, something he learned while working as everything from a night clerk to a hotel manager in Vancouver and Calgary.

But others are more cynical: "I am sure it is all part of the plan," one analyst said. "He reinforces the Orange image every time he stands up."