How Telefónica UK chief Ronan Dunne got to the top in telecoms

Since starting as a trainee accountant, he has worked in freight, waste and banking

As the chief executive officer of Telefónica UK, which trades as O2, Ronan Dunne makes it a priority to read every single customer email. Quite a few people opt to email the chief executive of the second-largest mobile telecommunications provider in the UK to ask about the best mobile plan for them, rather than going into their local phone shop.

“I’ll get people emailing saying they have £20 (€27) to spend. I’ll see they have cc’d the CEOs of all the other telcos too. They effectively want us all to bid for their business.”

He also reads the emails of complaint from customers to the mobile providers, as well as ones of praise, getting approximately 200 a month.

Dunne had wanted to be a lawyer, but ultimately pursued a career in accountancy and finance after the Leaving Certificate examiners went on strike the year he sat the State examinations.


Start college

“They wouldn’t mark the Leaving Cert exam papers. We were supposed to start college in September, but no one knew their results.” It was 1981 and Terry O’Rourke, the then managing partner of Touche Ross (now Deloitte) contacted the dean of Blackrock College to see if any students caught up in the strikes wanted to start with the company and pursue accountancy rather wait for their results.

Ultimately, the Leaving Certificate papers were marked, but so late that the start of college had to be deferred for several weeks. By that stage though Dunne had already started on the path of accountancy. This gave him something of a head start. “At 22 when most people were coming out of college, I was already a qualified accountant,” he says.

He moved to London to work in the Touche Ross office there, before joining BNP Paribas in 1987. “When I was interviewed by BNP I said I was really interested in working on the banking side. They said I had no banking experience, so would have to join the financial side of the company.”

Dunne became chief accountant of BNP Paribas by the age of 26, before switching internally to work on the corporate banking side. “One of my clients – Waste Management International – then approached me to work for them.”

He joined Waste Management in 1994, and two years later was approached by National Freight Company, to become director of treasury. He stayed there until 2001, becoming head of integration when the company merged with Ocean Group in 2000. “My then boss, the chief financial officer, was approached by BT for the position of group finance director. He asked me to join him as his deputy.”

Dunne was promoted to chief financial officer of BT in 2005 and the following year the company was taken over by Telefónica.

The years 2007 and 2008 meant huge highs and lows for Dunne and O2.

“We had been given the exclusive rights to the iPhone in 2007. That was the crown jewel. We also took over the naming rights to the millennium dome in London, which is now called the O2. That is the most successful live entertainment venue in the world by ticket sales.”

Then the recession happened, just as Dunne had taken over as chief executive.

“We struggled like everyone in the recession but maintained leadership. If it hadn’t been for the iPhone, we probably would have struggled more.”

Toughest time

The most difficult time in his career was when O2 suffered a network outage in July 2012. The network went down for 19 hours and 17.9 million customers lost service. “It was a huge challenge. I had to consider whether I would resign. Every media organisation in the country rang me every 15 minutes for an update and to see if I’d resigned. It was the toughest time of my life.”

However, looking back, it was also a positive time, as customers came out in support of the network. “It got really nasty on social media. Really offensive comments were being made to staff.

“When the abuse peaked on social media, the good humour of the O2 social media team was picked on. Then customers came on in their droves and started defending the team. They came out in their tens of thousands to support us.”

This year has been his proudest year when it comes to work.

“We started the year with the ambition to make O2 impossible to ignore, and we’ve succeeded in that.

“We increased profitability, customer satisfaction and employee engagement, which is inconceivable considering we are being sold.” He believes outperforming the competition is great but it’s not a lasting event. Companies and people need to stand for something.

“We make £16.50 per customer per year after tax. It’s not a lot, but we have 25 million customers . . . We believe we have to do the right thing and be a publicly accountable business in relation to citizenship. We run Think Big [a programme that offers young people a grant of £300 to kickstart ideas and projects which benefit their local communities], which has impacted a million young people’s lives.

“I took the decision a few years ago to allocate 20 per cent of my work time to youth unemployment and youth engagement.”

Brand strategy

Dunne will step down as chief executive following the merger between Three’s parent company CK Hutchison and O2, a deal which is currently awaiting EU approval. “The time is right for me to step down. It would be difficult for the new owners to effect change if I stayed on.

“O2 is the brand of the year in the UK, and not just in the telecoms sector. The big question for the new leadership will be brand strategy and whether they will keep the brand. We’ve the lowest level of customer churn across Europe.”

Dunne is one of the most active UK chief executives on Twitter, with 30,000 followers. “To me social media is the digital equivalent of walking the shop floor. I get to engage with customers.”