Professional cricketer-turned-businessman Jamie Ford is taking on the telecom giants in a new advertising campaign. Lizzie Murphy reports.
BROADBAND and phone provider Plusnet has gone back to its Yorkshire roots.
As well as moving 100 jobs from a customer contact centre in South Africa to its Sheffield headquarters, it recently launched an aggressive 7m marketing campaign including a series of television adverts emphasising its Yorkshire heritage.
Packed with comfortable images, the ads feature a Yorkshire terrier, cobbled streets, rolling hills, '80s Sheffield pop band Heaven 17 and a reference to Yorkshire pudding and teacakes.
With slogans including "we won't be beat on price" and "a call centre down t'road", Plusnet is trying to differentiate itself from the likes of telecoms giants Sky and Talk Talk with the local angle.
The company's new chief executive Jamie Ford, 34, moved to Yorkshire when he took over Plusnet in August. He was previously director of customer experience and operations in the retail consumer department at BT, Plusnet's parent company.
Meeting Mr Ford is a bit like listening to the advert over and over again. Although he is an affable man, frustratingly he answers every question by repeating the company's advertising slogans.
When asked whether he has found his new role particularly challenging, given the fact that he has taken over as the economy is struggling to recover, he replies: "It's definitely challenging times for everyone at the moment. It's an interesting time for Plusnet as well because our products and our price points are hopefully good news for customers in difficult times.
"We're the cheapest standalone broadband in the UK. Our broadband starts at 6.49 a month and our phone and broadband packages start at 6.49."
Plusnet's advertising campaign aims to build on its 400,000 customers. One of the biggest issues the company faces is the fact that many people simply don't know about it. In previous years, growth has come from customer referrals.
"We have grown by over 100,000 customers in the last 12 months," Mr Ford says. "The thing that is encouraging for us is that week on week we are selling more and we hope that continues but we want to grow faster."
He adds: "We want to keep the things that have made Plusnet really great in terms of staff, products and the way we appeal to customers, and broaden our exposure.
"We launched our marketing campaign in October. We are really trying to get the message across about Plusnet, the fact that we're proud of our Yorkshire heritage, honest and straight talking and we have got these, we think, excellent price offers for really good products for broadband and phone."
The aim, he says, is to grow as fast as it can in terms of customer numbers by pitching its products and services to what it calls the "value conscious".
Earlier this month, Mr Ford announced that Plusnet had created an extra 250 jobs in its customer service centre in Sheffield, creating 150 new jobs and moving 100 jobs from South Africa.
The decision to bring jobs to Sheffield was taken before Mr Ford took over the company but it's something he says he is "really supportive" of.
"I first came across Plusnet four years ago and it really stood out for me as a really interesting niche internet service provider, as it was. Having now worked there and seen it, it is a really good place to work. It has got its own culture and something I really think we'll benefit from is having all of our staff in one building and under one roof. Our service is already good and we want to make it even better."
The company is currently trialling fibre-optic cable broadband technology with 400 of its customers, with a view to bringing it to market in the near future. "In order to be successful we have to do everything we can to be ahead of the competition," says Mr Ford. "We're doing it on price, on service but we're also going to have to develop products. We aim to offer a broad range to customers. At the moment the range is dependent on how much usage you want, particularly around download. Increasingly, speed will become more important to people and we want to offer that differentiation."
Mr Ford describes his leadership style as "open and honest". "I hope I am very approachable and straightforward and clear about what it is we need to do," he says. "Increasingly as I've taken on more responsibility in my career, the challenge becomes getting the balance between being all over the detail and giving the people who work for me enough space. It's a balance I'm hopefully striking. I don't like to be over-hierarchical.
"I think an informal environment, as long as everyone understands what their accountabilities are, can actually work really well."
He admits he is competitive, a streak which enabled him to enjoy a brief career at Kent County Cricket Club in the late '90s.
"I played professional cricket but never really scaled the heights," he says. "I guess I was reasonable but I wasn't quite good enough so I had to face that fact quite early on and I realised I needed to forge another career. Since then, my approach has been to work hard and do the best job that I can in everything that I do.
"I think I'm very lucky that 10 years on after playing cricket I find myself running a company like Plusnet."
Following his cricket days, Mr Ford spent eight years working for management consultancy Accenture, working in the business consulting division with clients across the telecommunications and resourcing industries. He joined BT in April 2008.
Plusnet was launched in 1997 by Paul Cusack, who later went on to create the hardware retailer Ebuyer, and Lee Strafford, who led the business through most of its development up to the sale to BT in January 2007, for 67m. It went on to acquire internet provider Brightview for 15.8m.
Mr Strafford was due to stay on with BT after the acquisition and head up the company, but a boardroom bust-up resulted in him being dismissed without a pay-off. The BT takeover turned Mr Strafford into a multi-millionaire. He had a five per cent shareholding giving him a 3.35m payout.
Mr Ford moved across to Plusnet after two years at BT. "Even though I work for the same boss it does feel like I've moved companies since joining Plusnet," he says.
"It's excellent to still have the support from BT but also great that we're independent in what we do at Plusnet."
Although he was born in Kent, Mr Ford admits he is "a bit nomadic". His father was a diplomat in the Foreign Office and the family spent a lot of time moving from post to post, particularly in the US and across Europe.
"When I moved to Sheffield I tried to work out what is the longest I have ever actually physically lived anywhere and I think it was about four years," he says. "That record was set in America and ended when I was five. Who knows, maybe I'll beat four years up here?"
Mr Ford lives with his wife Lesley and sons Tom, aged four and Will, aged two, in Sheffield. They are expecting a third baby next spring. "We are keeping ourselves busy," he says. "I'm not sure if that's exactly how you'd plan it. Moving, pregnant and a couple of kids under four is a lot of work but it's good fun.
"I've gone from playing loads of sport to being very family- orientated, as you would expect. My weekends now are very different. At the moment they are spent trying to find things which are packed away in boxes."
Title: Chief executive
Date of birth: March 30, 1976
Education: Tonbridge School in Kent and a degree in combined social sciences at Durham University
First job: Professional cricketer
Favourite song: Where the Streets Have No Name, by U2
Car driven: VW Golf
Favourite Film: The Shawshank Redemption
Favourite holiday destination: Skiing in Canada (pre-children), now Brittany with family
Last Book read: Q&A by Vikas Swarup
What I am most proud of: My family.