“Busy” is the word Mark Evans chooses to describe his first 12 months at the helm of the UK’s second largest mobile operator.
The CEO (pictured) stepped up from his role as Chief Financial Officer to replace Verizon-bound Ronan Dunne last August, soon after parent Telefónica pulled the plug on the sale of its UK subsidiary.
The decision of the Spain-based operator came days after the UK voted to leave the European Union and a month after the European Commission blocked the acquisition of O2 by Three on competition grounds.
Still keen to reduce its debt pile, Telefónica is now looking at an IPO but will not take O2 public before it knows what its future spectrum holding in the UK is going to look like.
With Three and EE both threatening legal action over the upcoming auction for 4G and 5G bandwidth, an air of uncertainty continues to hang over the company.
Speaking to European Communications, Evans says his relationship with Madrid is “very strong and supportive”, and that Telefónica CEO José María Alvarez-Pallete and new COO Ángel Vilá both have “a huge passion and interest in the UK market”.
He also denies the lack of clarity about its future ownership – it’s easy to forget the deal with Three was first announced back in March 2015 – is affecting O2’s performance.
“You only need to look at our first half financial results to see how we continue to deliver a winning proposition for our shareholder,” he says.
Like-for-like sales rose 2.3 percent year-on-year to €3.21 billion in the six months to 30 June, while operating income increased 2.2 percent to €849 million.
However, the operator’s customer base fell from 25.5 million to 25.1 million as growth in contract subscribers could not offset a decline in the prepay base.
This more or less wiped out the 444,000 customers O2 gained during 2016, when its market share slipped slightly from 27.2 percent to 26.8 percent.
O2 remains the second largest mobile player in terms of subscribers behind EE, but Evans claims he is not focused on catching its larger rival.
“To us it’s not about being big, it’s about putting the customer first,” he explains.
“Other operators have been chasing us in terms of customer loyalty and satisfaction so we’re comfortable with our position in the market.
“We respond first and foremost to what our customers need and invest heavily in the customer experience.
“That is, and always has been, our differentiator.”
The CEO says the biggest success of his first 12 months in charge has been a restructure designed “to really embed our strategy of customer-led mobile first”.
Since this interview took place, Chief Digital Officer David Plumb and Sales Director Ben Dowd have left the business after many years of service, a sign O2 wants to change its direction.
Yet questions remain over whether O2 can prosper in the long term as a mobile-only player in a market that continues to move towards the provision of converged services.
Evans responds with a barrage of stats; he cites O2-commissioned research showing that mobile plays a far more important role in peoples’ lives than fixed line – 48 percent versus 10 percent – and that 46 percent of people “cannot live without mobile”, compared to just 15 percent who say the same for fixed line.
He adds: “To put it another way, our competitors need to be in mobile, but we don’t need to be in fixed.”
Evans says BT buying EE and Sky launching a mobile service back up his argument.
“I believe in time that quad-play will be seen as a curious moment in telecoms history - especially with the introduction of 5G in 2020,” he adds.
It would not be a surprise if O2 launched a fixed-wireless offering down the line, but Evans is coy when asked to speculate about what 5G services may be in the pipeline.
“I’m excited about many things that 5G will bring,” he says.
“5G will build on the foundations already created of 2G, 3G and 4G as higher data speeds and increased capacity will herald more options for IoT, whether for smart homes, smart cities or connected cars.”
O2 has dabbled in these areas with the launch of O2 Home and O2 Drive, but O2 Store & Share and O2 Guard were shuttered earlier this year.
“I believe it’s critical that we innovate our offers to play a broader role in helping our customers,” says Evans.
“This in turn will help increase differentiation and loyalty for our mobile business as well as drive new revenues.
“It’s my ambition to take O2 into a new adjacent category at scale and I’m pleased with the initial progress we’ve made.”
All told, Evans is in an optimistic mood.
“I believe O2 is the best-positioned operator in the UK market to capture the opportunities of a data-hungry economy, fuelled by the best interests of the customer,” he says.
“The future is mobile and our simple business model allows us to apply a relentless focus on the mobile needs of our customers.”
Things could change very quickly of course, particularly if O2 doesn’t get what it needs in the spectrum auction and uncertainty over its ownership structure continues.
The busy start to Evans’ tenure is only likely to get more frantic over the coming months.
This is an extract from an interview that appeared in the Q2 issue of European Communications magazine. Click here to subscribe.