Anyone who believed John Roberts would struggle to be fulfilled by a role focused purely on “innovation and inspiring Ao.com’s people” looks to have been proven right. Roberts confirmed this week that he would return to lead the business he founded back in 2000 with immediate effect, replacing current chief executive Steve Caunce.
Roberts said, somewhat cryptically, that the decision has been taken to “rebalance his lifestyle” which could be code for admitting that he was missing the daily cut and thrust of heading up a business he famously conceived on the back of a cigarette packet.
I’ve written before about how founders can find it hard to let go of the reins of a business they have nurtured since day one. Roberts’ case is slightly different in that he has never removed himself entirely from the business and his successor was his long-time sidekick and friend Steve Caunce. Still, there’s nothing that can compare with the adrenalin rush of being in the boss’s chair, calling the shots and inspiring the troops.
On the business front, of immediate concern to Roberts will be AO.com’s profitability which has been severely impacted by challenging market conditions and investment in its European operations.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Sales are still healthy, customer satisfaction levels remain high, and the business has signalled its intention to keep diversifying following the acquisition of online phone retailer Mobile Phones Direct at the back end of 2018.
We can also expect AO.com to capture more headlines now Roberts is back in charge. Known for his straight-talking, no-nonsense approach, Roberts has been relatively restrained in the past two years, no doubt mindful of not wanting to undermine the more low-key Caunce; but the media love his soundbites which have historically done no harm in raising the business’s public profile.
As for Caunce – a man who knows the operational side of the business as well as if not better than Roberts himself – he will remain as a part-time adviser to AO.com but will have no formal, retail executive role moving forwards.
It will be interesting to see how and where Caunce will bring his influence to bear. For a start, the insights he gained into the mobile phone market as finance director of Phones 4U in the mid-noughties will surely be invaluable as AO.com integrates the Mobile Phones Direct business.
More than that, I would expect him to remain a trusted confidante as Roberts returns to the driving seat and looks to steer AO.com on the path to future success.