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Richard Alden: “never be a pioneer, pioneers get arrows in their back”

Graham Paul

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When Richard Alden joined Spanish telecoms firm ONO in 1998 as CFO, the company had no revenues, no EBITDA, and less than 30 employees. In 2000, at the start of his tenure as CEO, ONO still had no customers—but by the time Alden left the company in 2009, ONO had become a large, structured company with 1.9 million customers, 3500 employees and revenues of €1.5 billion.

How did Alden manage to build this from scratch, particularly given the telecom industry’s high capital requirements, the rocky capital market at the time and the presence of a strong incumbent telecom operator in Spain? And what lessons has the British executive gleaned from his other ventures?

“Someone I admire once told me ‘never be a pioneer, pioneers get arrows in their back’”, says Alden. Such a statement seems surprising coming from someone who has held numerous leadership positions in a variety of sectors throughout a 35-year-career. Indeed, the British executive has worked on four continents and worn a wide variety of hats, from his early years as a Senior Manager at Deloitte to his current investment in an array of early-stage disruptive businesses like San Francisco-based software company Dealsumm and South African fintech recruitment firm Talent in the Cloud.

Alden is keeping busy these days—in addition to investing in and advising these early-stage businesses, he is the executive chairman of and an active investor in Spain’s Citibox, which is seeking to streamline the last mile of parcel delivery by installing smart mailboxes in apartment buildings, and a non-executive director at Spanish internet provider Eurona.

FACTBOX: The Twists and Turns of Richard Alden’s Career

Citibox Executive chairman, investor 2019-present
Eurona (Spain) Non-executive director, chairman of audit committee 2018-present
Various early-stage businesses: Dealsumm (US), Schaman (Spain), Santamania (Spain), DMA Partners (Spain), Talent in the Cloud (South Africa) Angel investor and advisory board member 2018-present
Altan Redes (Mexico) Lead operating partner, bid manager 2016-2016
Wananchi Group (East Africa) CEO 2013-2015
Euskaltel (Spain) Vice Chairman of the board, non-executive director 2012-2016
Blue Interactive       (Brazil) Non-executive Chairman 2012-2015
TOA Technologies (US/Europe) European President (executive) 2010-2012
Fon Wireless (UK) Non-executive director 2009-2013
Mirada (UK) Non-executive director 2009-2013
ONO (Spain) CEO, Board Director 2000-2009
ONO (Spain) CFO, founding member of management 1998-2000
Videotron  (US/UK) CFO 1996-1998
Deloitte (UK) Senior Manager in audit and corporate finance, specializing in media and telecommunications companies 1985-1996

 

Alden is best known, however, for the lasting impression he made on the telecoms sector in Spain, where he led telecoms operator ONO as CEO for nearly ten years. “Telecoms needs a lot of investment and I found the world of capital intriguing,” Alden explained. “I liked the recurring revenues from a business with a loyal customer base and found the ability to differentiate through a strong brand and good customer service an exciting part of building a successful B2C business.”

Bringing in capital from major North American investors, Alden built ONO into a challenger to the large international telecoms brands that were already operating in Spain at the time. This was achieved through forward-looking business strategy: “To build a telecoms operator you need to build a network (as in ONO) or buy and consolidate existing telecoms operators (as in Blue, the telecoms business we built in Brazil).  That’s a very capital intensive and somewhat time intensive process.  If you do it right your absolute returns can be good on a large amount of capital invested.”

Vodafone eventually acquired ONO in 2014 for €7.2 billion, five years after Alden’s departure from Spain. Since then, his work has taken him to new shores – and new markets, all with different regulatory requirements and ways of doing business.

Navigating so many different regulatory and business environments inevitably has challenges. As Alden noted, “Working in different markets makes it important not to ‘cut and paste’. What works well somewhere doesn’t automatically translate [to a different market]. Many investors have made the mistake of applying results from one market to another”. If entrepreneurs are savvy, however, there are some important lessons to be learned through experiencing different markets and regulatory regimes.

For one thing, “having real-life experience of successes and failures in other markets can also help with educating regulators and other key decision makers”. Having these concrete examples of what worked and what fell flat has also helped Alden shift between the roles he has held as an executive, a non-executive leader and an investor. Experiences early in Alden’s career—his stint at ONO’s helm, as well as at Canadian cable company Videotron, where he was the CFO from 1996 to 1998—have allowed him to, when in a non-executive position or as an investor, put himself in the CEO’s shoes. At the same time, feedback from the executives he advises has helped him become a better businessman himself.

For another thing, best practices from one market can often be imported to another. Though the gulf between a tech startup and an established multinational conglomerate may seem insurmountable, Alden argues that the underlying rules of good business are the same. “There has always been a tendency to think that the ‘old’ rules don’t apply to some of the ‘new’ businesses but, in reality, they do. You can’t make losses forever and chalk it up to the need for market dominance, you can’t revolutionize a market just by rebadging an old idea. Because investors have short memories, one can get away with these things short-term but they don’t alter the fundamental logic of a good or a bad business”.

While the notion of a set of rules underpinning what constitutes good business is undoubtedly appealing, some business decisions are not so black and white. The decision to go public or remain as a private company, for Alden, is one of them: “An IPO is often marketed as the end of a process but it’s really the start. So many companies are not prepared for the intrusion and the scrutiny that being a public company entails”, he explains.

For many businesses, the benefits of going public—increased access to capital, a boost to retaining quality employees—aren’t worth the added scrutiny and the pressure to report to shareholders. “Going public is actually really easy”, Alden explains. “It’s what comes later that makes it so much more demanding than people expect. It takes only one mistake to destroy the share price that you have built and once destroyed it’s really hard to raise it back up again”.

It was with this in mind that Alden decided to pull ONO’s potential IPO at the pricing stage—at the time, the conditions in the capital markets were going sharply downhill. Choosing not to go public ended up being a prescient move given that capital markets continued to crumble. Reflecting back on that decision, Alden elucidated that, “As we had publicly traded debt at the time, a rapidly falling share price could have bankrupted the company—as it did many other cable businesses at the time. Instead we stayed private, raised more capital from our shareholders and continued to weather the storm”.

Although the decision to stop the IPO at that time was an act of caution, Alden’s career path speaks to his determination to make all of his ventures rise above what seems possible. As such, his final lesson is not surprising: “The tech businesses we all admire are where they are today because their founders were bold and dared to dream really big….  It’s not just ambition but rather about daring to act much, much bigger than you are at any point in time.”

Digital economy

Europe's Digital Decade: Commission launches consultation and discussion on EU digital principles

EU Reporter Correspondent

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As a follow-up to its Digital Decade Communication of 9 March, the Commission is launching a public consultation on the formulation of a set of principles to promote and uphold EU values in the digital space. A Europe fit for the Digital Age Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said: “A fair and secure digital environment that offers opportunities for all. That is our commitment. The digital principles will guide this European human-centred approach to digital and should be the reference for future action in all areas. That's why we want to hear from EU citizens.” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said: “This is Europe's Digital Decade and everyone should be empowered to benefit from digital solutions to connect, explore, work and fulfil one's ambitions, online as offline. We want to set together the digital principles on which a resilient digital economy and society will be built.”

The consultation, open until 2 September, seeks to open a wide societal debate and gather views from citizens, non-governmental and civil society organizations, businesses, administrations and all interested parties. These principles will guide the EU and membersStates in designing digital rules and regulations that deliver the benefits of digitalisation for all citizens. The contributions to the public consultation will feed into a proposal from the Commission for a joint inter-institutional declaration on Digital Principles of the European Parliament, the Council, and the Commission. The proposal is expected by the end of 2021. A press release is available online.

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Consumer protection

How the EU aims to boost consumer protection

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Find out how the EU aims to boost consumer protection and adapt it to new challenges such as the green transition and the digital transformation. Society 

As the economy becomes more global and digital, the EU is looking at new ways to protect consumers. During the May plenary, MEPs will debate the digital future of Europe. The report focuses on removing barriers to the functioning of the digital single market and improving the use of articial intelligence for consumers.

Infographic illustration on consumer protection in the European Union
Reinforcing consumer protection  

New consumer agenda

Parliament is also working on the new consumer agenda strategy for 2020-2025, focusing on five areas: green transition, digital transformation, effective enforcement of consumer rights, specific needs of certain consumer groups and international cooperation.

Making it easier to consume sustainably

The 2050 climate neutrality goal is a priority for the EU and consumer issues have a role to play - through sustainable consumption and the circular economy.

Infographic illustration on Europeans support tackling climate change
Sustainable consumption  

In November 2020, MEPs adopted a report on a sustainable single market calling on the European Commission to establish a so-called right to repair to make repairs systematic, cost efficient and attractive. Members also called for labelling the lifespan of products as well as measures to promote a culture of reuse, including guarantees on pre-owned goods.

They also want measures against purposefully designing products in a way that makes them obsolete after a certain time and reiterated demands for a common charger.

The Commission is working on right to repair rules for electronics and legislation on the environmental footprint of products to enable consumers to compare.

The review of the Sale of Goods Directive, planned for 2022, will look into whether the current two-year legal guarantee could be extended for new and pre-owned goods.

In September 2020, the Commission launched the sustainable products initiative, under the new Circular Economy Action Plan. It aims to make products fit for a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and circular economy while reducing waste. It will also address the presence of harmful chemicals in products such as electronics and ICT equipment, textiles and furniture.

Making the digital transformation safe for consumers

The digital transformation is dramatically changing our lives, including how we shop. To help EU consumer rules catch up, in December 2020 the Commission proposed a new Digital Services Act, a set of rules to improve consumer safety across online platforms in the EU, including online marketplaces.

MEPs want consumers to be equally safe when shopping online or offline and want platforms such as eBay and Amazon to step up efforts to tackle traders selling fake or unsafe products and to stop fraudulent companies using their services.

MEPs also proposed rules to protect users from harmful and illegal content online while safeguarding freedom of speech and called for new rules on online advertising giving users more control.

Given the impact of artificial Intelligence, the EU is preparing rules to manage its opportunities and threats. Parliament has set up a special committee and emphasises the need for human centric legislation. The Parliament has proposed a civil liability regime for artificial intelligence that establishes who is responsible when AI systems cause harm or damage.

Strengthening the enforcement of consumer rights

EU countries are responsible for enforcing consumer rights, but the EU has a coordinating and supporting role. Among the rules it has put in place are the directive on a better enforcement and modernisation of consumer law and rules on collective redress.

Addressing specific consumer needs

Vulnerable consumers such as children, elderly people or people living with disabilities, as well as people in financial difficulties or consumers with limited access to the internet need specific safeguards. In the new consumer agenda, the Commission plans to focus on problems with internet accessibility, financially vulnerable consumers and products for children.

The Commission’s plans include more offline advice for consumers with no internet access as well as funding to improve the availability and quality of debt advice services for people in financial difficulties.

Because children are particularly vulnerable to harmful advertising, Parliament has approved stricter rules for audiovisual media services for audiovisual media services.

Guaranteeing the safety of products sold in the EU

Consumers often purchase goods manufactured outside the EU. According to the Commission, purchases from sellers outside the EU increased from 17% in 2014 to 27% in 2019 and the new consumer agenda highlights the need for international cooperation to ensure consumer protection. China was the largest supplier of goods to the EU in 2020, so the Commission will work on an action plan with them in 2021 to increase the safety of products sold online.

In November 2020, Parliament passed a resolution calling for greater efforts to ensure that all products sold in the EU are safe, whether manufactured within or outside the EU or are sold online or offline.

Next steps

Parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee is working on the Commission proposal for the new consumer agenda. MEPs are expected to vote on it in September.

Find out more 

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Business

Silk Road Coin (SRC) transforms commodity trade

Colin Stevens

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We're all used to the idea of digital currency - spending and receiving money that isn’t physically in front of us. But digital currencies still remain something of a mystery, writes Colin Stevens.

How might we use money in the future and whether we can even trust digital currencies such as cryptos are just two of the many questions being asked. Yet, its easy to see how digital currencies transforming the global trade and money movement.

Two major new reports, just published, seek to help us better understand this cryptic kind of currency and also dispel some of the myths surrounding the new technology.

One of the new entrants to this market is Silk Road Coin (SRC), a digital “utility token” designed to digitalise trade in Europe and New Silk Road Area.

LGR has developed a SRC business ecosystem, blockchain based digital environment which combines cross border money movement, trade finance and global supply chain and where SRC is used to fuel trade between buyers, traders and sellers. The SRC business ecosystem provides multi-dimensional perspective for physical goods and money movement in trade finance. It allows financial visibility and more efficient cash management supported by financial planning. The SRC business ecosystem also enables efficient supply chain finance through PO financing, factoring, payment option swaps etc. Furthermore the financial services solution reduces trade finance, money movement and currency exchange risks and costs.

From the global supply chain perspective, SRC business ecosystem uses SRC to issue smart contract, collects and validate trading documents in real time bases and so detect and fraud or discrepancies. It also deploys smart containers that provide data insights and requirements are to enforce and ensure the successful transport of products. To eliminate product loss, safety issues, blind spots and discovery for continuous monitoring and improvements. All this assures higher visibility of end-to-end supply chain and reduced product warehousing and wastage.

The use of SRC in the SRC business ecosystem therefore provides many financial benefits to its owners and drives down total transaction cost.

We estimate that SRC can be adopted by 80% of companies trading in Europe and China, which make up to one third of the total world population.

A separate White Paper, also by LGR Global, says that for those looking for a “comprehensive trading ecosystem”, SRC in SRC business ecosystem, provides stability and predictability and ultimately save costs. In the SRC business ecosystem, SRC is the only mechanism for trading partners to access to SRC business ecosystem services. Therefore, SRC will transform the trade in the Europe and New Silk Road which makes SRC “a great investment opportunity.”

LGR Global chose to establish itself in the European Union, specifically in Estonia which is renowned for a blockchain-friendly yet rigorous regulatory environment. LGR Global, is so convinced of the potential benefits that it plans to launch a Digital Trade Finance Platform in the New Silk Road Area (Europe-Central Asia-China). It is worth recalling perhaps that the New Silk Road Area is huge, consisting of 68 countries, many with their own currencies. Cross-border trade here means that the companies and stakeholders that participate in economic transactions are consequently faced with increased operational and other risks in comparison to other geographical areas.

The Silk Road Area itself has been the recipient of international attention of late due to enhanced trade and growth, as well as increased business partnerships between Europe and China. Foreign ownerships and subsidiary development are also on the rise, leading to a drastic increase in international trade and cross-border money movement transactions.

This is an area which represents 60% of the global population, 33% of the world’s GDP, and posts incredibly high and consistent rates of economic growth.

LGR Global CEO Ali Amirliravi said: “While for many companies the Covid-19 might have slowed their operations down for LGR and SRC business ecosystem it has been a great growth opportunity”. Due to Covid-19, the multi-commodity trading transactions, which are traditionally been dominated by big banks, are now facing new era. The LGR policy paper says the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted problems that currently exist in international trade, cross-border finance and global supply chains.

It says that within the multi commodity trading industry, overall trading volumes have moderately decreased. At the same time, first, high supply chain financing and money movement costs and bank delays have begun to critically impact the profitability of multi-commodity trading companies.

Second, due to inefficiencies in global supply chain, companies today have very low predictability and visibility whether they goods will arrive and when. Therefore, companies use excessive safety stock to protect themselves from any supply chain disruption, which again lead to high working capital levels.

The report says that due to Covid-19, some key changes have occurred in the commodity trading industry – leading to a sudden increase for “digital trade finance solutions.”

The global Covid-19 crisis has also demonstrated the need for immediate action within international supply chains and markets, says the report, adding, “It is a critical time for infrastructure upgrades, digitalisation and increased transparency. While the pandemic has caused a lot of negative effects on the global scale, a potential positive impact is that it has made clear to the industry and the public at large that changes do need to be made to optimize processes and improve the overall functioning of international trade and trade finance.”

In summary, LGR Global says the Silk Road Coin offers a secure and controlled business environment that can revolutionize international commodity trade in a fast growing market.

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