Hans R. Snook, the founder and former CEO of the mobile network Orange welcomes us into his home at La Zagaleta and opens up about the future of the telecommunications industry, his health regimen (or lack thereof), and how Spain managed to catch his attention.
There have been founded rumours that this month, Orange -- the UK’s third largest mobile network -- will merge with T-Mobile in the UK, creating a mobile giant with 28.4 million clients. This marriage could mean problems when the databases collide, although the firms promise better coverage and customer service, a crucial factor that has been lax for both companies. At this point, whatever the headlines may read, it’s impossible to speak of the creation of a “mobile giant” without mentioning the name Hans Snook.
You may have heard of him. He’s that non-conventional (eccentric, some call him) leather-jacket-wearing businessman who founded Orange and once proclaimed the crazy notion that we would once be able to make phone calls over an earring-style device. That seemingly radical insight helped Orange become the leading mobile network during the years Snook oversaw the company.
“I was always a few years ahead. I said that within 3 years of starting Orange, 50 percent of the population would be using a mobile phone. They thought I was crazy,” says Snook in his home office.
Of course, we all know how that turned out, and Orange was not only leader in customer service in the UK but also in innovation. They were the first to offer a short messaging system, or SMS. When an Orange client would call customer service from their device, the representative would instantly recognize their name and address them as so.
But how does a young man from Canada working in the hotel industry suddenly end up at the head of Orange?
THE FUTURE LOOKS ORANGE
Born to a German mother and British father, Snook moved to England at the age of two and subsequently moved to Vancouver, Canada, where he started his professional career in the hotel industry.
“I started as a busboy. I’ve been a male maid, a waiter, a desk clerk, you name it,” Snook recalls. “And then, at 34, I thought there’s got to be something better to do.”
And so Snook sold everything he owned and went backpacking around the world, a two-year plan that would be cut short in Hong Kong, where he would eventually accept a one-year executive position at Hutchison Telecommunications. Under Hutchison, Snook unified the brand, opening mobile retail stores and making the company at one point the most profitable cellular and paging company in the world. Snook quickly expanded the business into Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The turning point came when Snook was trusted to go to the United Kingdom to do some “damage control,” venturing into a market he hardly knew. The UK division was under shaky leadership that had prompted declining numbers.
“It was a big black hole. All of the money we were making in Asia was getting lost in England.”
Snook’s recommendations: Write off £280 million and invest another £700 million in a new network, not to mention fire thousands of employees along the way.
“It just had to be done. Otherwise, Orange would have never made it,” Snook explains.
Needless to say, Snook was not the most beloved man in England, but his plan of action became what we know today as Orange. That was in 1994. Since then, Orange has been twice sold, first to the German firm Mannesmann in 1999. At this point the UK customer base had grown to 3.5 million and Orange had cornered 20 percent of the UK market. Quickly after, in August 2000, France Telecom acquired Orange for a hefty €40 billion, serving then a 9.3 million client base and growing.
Under France Telecom, Snook lasted almost a year as an advisor to the chairman, but soon parted ways to get away from what he called “creeping beaurocracy” and to follow a more alternative path. Snook was leaving behind more than 10,000 employees, years of 18-hour days and jet setting around the world promoting the image of the brand. More importantly, he would be leaving behind a vision of what Orange could one day become, including groundbreaking ideas that have not yet been taken advantage of by the firm.
“I don’t have a self-perception,” Snook says. “I say I’m not quirky, but I probably am.”
Dressed entirely in white, Snook is sitting in his living room in his La Zagaleta residence, surrounded by Hawaiian tribal busts and framed photos of his horses. He has 25 back in England, where he resides most of the year.
For most of his career, Snook was known not just for his leaps in the telecom industry, but also for his non-traditional choice of attire. It’s been said that he would close business deals in jeans and a leather jacket. An odd choice for a man running a number one mobile empire in Europe.
“It was really an accident. I was flying from London to New York for a press conference. The flight was delayed and I didn’t have time to go back to the hotel and change, so I presented one of our products in jeans, a white shirt with no collar and a black leather jacket. The media thought that I had matched the casual nature of what we were presenting. So it sort of stuck.”
The “uniform” became part of his daily attire, even for special occasions at restaurants where a dress code was not to be deliberated. He was even confused with a priest once, and had the entire staff at the prestigious London nightclub Annabel’s calling him “your eminence.”
“The last time I wore a suit was at a dinner with Prince Charles,” Snook recalls.
Behind the collarless dress shirts is a visionary businessman who now plays by his own rules. The post-Orange way of life has taken him to explore an alternative side to what was once a desire to explore the medical field.
“I originally wanted to become a doctor. When I was younger I managed to get into the university library and get access to medical books. You know, 70 percent of med students think they develop a terrible disease from reading these books. I went to my family doctor thinking I had Leukaemia. Of course I didn’t, but I even got a second opinion!”
He gave up on being a doctor and attended the university of British Columbia, constantly switching majors before deciding on English literature and Psychology. Snook came 3 credits shy of graduating, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered too much.
Aside from serving as Chairman of TrueMove (Thailand’s third largest mobile phone firm) and the non-executive director at DDD Group which formulates software that converts 2-D images to 3-D, Snook serves as the Founder and Chairman for The Diagnostic Clinic, a London-based clinic that combines Western treatments with non-traditional medicine and methods to provide patients a more accurate and personalised health assessment.
According to Snook, no one treatment is right for one condition, or for every person who suffers from it.
“I know for a fact that we’ve improved many people’s lives,” says Snook. “We’re not afraid to be a bit pioneering as well.”
Quite ironically, Snook is a chain smoker. “Somebody’s gotta do it,” he says. But in his defence, Snook is partaking in golf lessons, something he’s always wanted to do. He also takes close to 18 different vitamins a day, something that he says helps to counteract the effects of smoking and drinking. Also, he’s installed a gymnasium in his La Zagaleta estate.
FINDING FREEDOM IN SPAIN
In the last year, Snook and his partner Helen have moved to La Zagaleta to get away – for at least 6 weeks of the year – from what he calls a nannified England.
“The UK has become so politically correct. The Egg and Spoon race, the Three-Legged race…they have been prohibited!”
Snook discovered Spain when he began to visit Helen’s parents in Marbella. “The people, the weather, the food. I felt a better sense of freedom than in the UK. I was getting fed up with the rules. It’s what I love about Spain, they do what they want.”
After Snook and his wife toured 10 properties at La Zagaleta, they decided on the first home they looked at. And it became perfect, according to Snook.
So now that he has more free time, does Snook feel retired? “No, I don’t,” Snook answers. “I do enough to keep myself interested, in mobile phones and health. I am a workaholic, but on my free days, I completely switch off.”
As eccentric as the media may have once baptised Snook, his energy is relaxed yet correct. Open yet reserved. Perhaps it’s the newfound Spanish way of life taking effect.