As Uplands turns 40, managing director Paul Hooper reflects on the dealer’s past and future
Uplands Mobiles managing director Paul Hooper (pictured) is a man who exudes quiet confidence crafted from decades of experience.
Next month, the company will celebrate its 40th birthday as one of the country’s largest independent mobile phone dealers.
Founders Tony Parker and Elwyn Jones began Uplands in 1979 selling in-car entertainment systems such as radios, cassette players and speakers – with the company’s name coming from its first location in Uplands, Swansea.
Hooper joined the company 26 years ago from Halfords. In his interview with Jones for a position as branch manager, the two sat on a couple of dusty boxes in a dark stock room – and it set “alarm bells ringing” for Hooper when the founder admitted the store might close within six months.
But this honesty and the potential that Hooper nevertheless saw in Uplands intrigued him, and he became the standout candidate for the job. He saw an opportunity to fulfil his ambitions rather than continue to be a cog in a larger corporate machine.
“Elwyn told me, ‘if you want success here, then it’ll be down to you and we will back you and help you. But the work ethic is down to you’. That inspired me, says Hooper.”
And things certainly turned out well. Not only did the company very much carry on going, but Hooper was promoted to area manager after two years of running the Exeter store. Running six stores nationwide in the new role, he eventually became managing director.
Hooper’s clever call was to sell prepaid phones into department stores. This was a big deal at a time when having a mobile instead of a fixed phone was the exception rather than the rule.
Uplands started selling prepaid mobiles in Co-Op department stores in 1998, followed by bigger outlets such as Debenhams and House of Fraser. But the retail side of the business would eventually slump as consumers started buying direct.
Hooper responded by focusing on corporate clients such as Benetton and Liverpool FC, as well as Wembley Stadium and the French Open tennis tournament.
With Hooper working wonders at the helm, Uplands founders Jones and Parker agreed to sell him the company in 2013. To help afford this, he remortgaged the family home – a decision that Hooper admits was a massive gamble at the time, but he now regards as one of the defining moments of his life.
Hooper credits much of Uplands’ success to the company being an O2 Direct Partner, having originally teamed up with the operator in 1985 when it was known as Cellnet.
Uplands now has 1,800 business customers connected to O2 and was one of the few dealers able to sell the iPhone at a time when distribution was tightly controlled by Apple a decade ago.
Hooper is particularly proud of Uplands’s customer retention levels, with the company seeing a churn rate of just eight per cent last year – meaning the number has now been in single figures for 15 years in a row.
“A single-digit churn adds incredible value to our business,” he says. “We focus on retention and the numbers show how hard we work on that. On average, we keep a customer for nine-and-a-half years.”
On this strategy, he adds: “We spotted that dealers were not taking customer service seriously. After they made a connection, they wouldn’t think about the customer again. For us, the journey begins when we get the connection.”
This focus on customer service has helped Uplands manage its way through a tough time for the mobile industry, in which smaller dealers have been struggling, retailers posting losses and operators cutting bonuses. In this climate, Hooper maintains that Uplands is a business with positive aspirations this year.
In 2017, the company notched up a gross profit of £500,000 from £3 million of turnover. Hooper now wants to expand the business further through acquisitions of companies in the IT sector, a segment in which Uplands saw massive growth of 70 per cent last year. Discussions with one firm are at an advanced stage.
Uplands will be also be chasing new customers that employ more than 250 people. The company’s own staff numbers are up to 29, set to rise to 34 by the end of the year.
“I am forming a team designed to win the enterprise-sized businesses,” says Hooper. “We are really invested in our communications portfolio, and have the right products and solutions; we’re going to see some good growth in that.
He adds that the company can confidently supply businesses of any size: “Butcher, baker, candlestick maker? We have something for you. But enterprise is the main target.”
Meanwhile, it will this year open a new office in Bristol, adding to those in Swansea and Somerset.
“There is much more to come; lasting 40 years doesn’t happen by accident. We’re a debt-free, cash-positive business. We’re in business for another 40 years.”