Nokia’s vice president for Western Europe Conor Pierce says that it took Nokia less than a year to deliver on its Windows Phone strategy. In the course of that transformation the mobile giant has become imbued with a sense of urgency in executing its strategy to get back to the top of the smartphone market.
The last time I saw Conor Pierce it was some time in 2007 after Nokia had launched the N95 smartphone. Pierce at the time was motivated to tear Apple a new one and had hoped the N95 was Nokia’s answer to the fledgling first gen iPhone. At the time Nokia was the top player in the smartphone business and seemed unassailable.
All the rest is history. Needless to say the iPhone tore the entire smartphone market a new one and today the iOS and its rival Android OS from Google are currently the top dogs.
Nokia since then has been struggling to regain relevancy. It has ditched Symbian and has instead embraced Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system as part of a major alliance with the software giant. The first fruits of that alliance, the Lumia series of smartphones, achieved rave reviews at the Consumer Electronics Show, and ahead of the launch of the Windows 8 computer OS you can’t help but wonder will Microsoft and Nokia achieve this time?
At the time I last spoke to him, Pierce was country manager for Nokia in Ireland and was about to ship off to a posting in Istanbul where he would run Nokia’s massive Turkish market. This was followed by a similar posting in Dubai.
Today Conor Pierce is vice president of Nokia’s Western Europe division and oversees Ireland, the UK and France – the latter two being two of Nokia’s most prominent markets for smartphones in Europe.
In 18 months he has succeeded in revitalising the UK division to make it one of the top markets for Nokia globally.
Nokia in a changed world
I tell him I always had a soft spot for Nokia and its engineering excellence and I remember fondly my good old Nokia 9000 Communicator that knocked the shape out of many a good suit. But the world has changed, Nokia has had to change – a lot – so how does he feel about bringing the Windows Phone challenger to a battlefield dominated by iOS and Android?
“I think your point is valid, ever since – the market has radically changed and that I my view causes huge opportunity. In particular in Europe, we are a firm challenger when it comes to smartphones. But it was important that we recognise that internally so that we can act as a challenger because we are coming from a position from where we once had leadership in smartphones to where we are today in rapid phase, it’s a testament for how things could turn for any company, not just Nokia.
“In that way it also gives opportunity and that’s what I see ahead of us. You’re right, looking at smartphones there is a trend where markets are moving from feature phones to smartphones. In particular in the UK and also in the Irish market, but certainly to a massive extent in UK market which is phenomenally fast and competitive.
“The UK is an important market for mobile operators and vendors. Having said that, we have just celebrated a milestone in Nokia, we have sold our 1.5 billionth mobile device using Series 40 and that is phenomenal achievement. That shows the power of Nokia."
But the European market, Pierce points out, is predominantly a smartphone rather than feature phone market and will be the scene of the biggest battles of the smartphone ecosystems.
“Three-quarters of the market in the UK in value is in smartphones and Ireland is moving quickly in that direction. Our UK team was in a challenged position when I went there and within 18 months we have turned it around to become one of the top markets for Nokia globally.
“If you have the right self-awareness and the right focus and the right people and engage and energises them to engage with consumers and partners and that’s where the opportunity lies for Nokia."
Nokia’s ‘Operation Transformation’
But these are still unfamiliar waters for Nokia – it’s starting out with a new operating system, one that is not proprietary. Either way Pierce sounds proud of how Nokia has approached this transformation.
“The Windows Phone, of course we’re starting something new – the Lumia 800 is the first real Windows phone, looking at the feedback that we have from people using it is really inspiring. Definitely, we have something that is magic that we can build upon and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning."
Yesterday when Nokia announced its financial results – which included an operating loss of €954m – CEO Stephen Elop said that so far some 1m Lumia devices had been sold.
But more tellingly, Elop said that the delivery of the devices to market within six months of its alliance with Microsoft is effectively a change of the ‘clock speed’ of Nokia.
“In terms of what Stephen said, we went from scratch and moved from a Symbian base to a Windows Phone base and succeeded in launching a beautiful device. Doing it within those six months time frame is a remarkable achievement."
The unwritten story of that journey I sense is that Elop succeeded in changing the culture at Nokia. Moving the mindset from that of an established blue chip to something more akin to a hungry start-up.
“Yes. That sense of urgency and sense of execution is really where we are now. The first spark of hope and what shows our intent is the Lumia 800 launch. It is really only the beginning of a journey for a new mobile ecosystem – it is a journey because it doesn’t happen overnight.
“We are off the blocks, and we have been given a great reception in the market.
“But also I’ve seen the portfolio for 2012 and into 2013 and it really is inspiring to see what’s coming – and that’s what creates an ecosystem – producing and offering gorgeous phones for people who want them and love them. And that’s the response I’m getting."
Back to business
Psychology plays a large part of what Pierce does. You get the sense he is mentally conditioning his team to get out and take on and devour the iOS and Android rivals. Pierce’s approach is you have to walk the talk and be in the market you are trying to serve.
One amusing story I heard in recent days is how he always ensured he carried a bright pink Lumia device whenever he was out and about or travelling on the London Tube. When asked why pink he countered: ‘everyone else’s phone is black, people will notice this one.’
He urges me not to underestimate the power of the new Windows Phone and how it will evolve, particularly in the enterprise space.
“You’ll be amazed at how simple it is, setting up Outlook and Office environments, Office 365 and all the tools you use, it’s so simple – that simplicity is important.
“We need to make sure that the Windows Phone OS is easily understood and it becomes a very simple transition from what people are using now if it’s not a Nokia."
I ask him then does he believe Windows OS will drive a wedge into the iOS and Android dominated marketplace.
“Absolutely. I’m confident we will be able to ramp up our presence and relevance in this space. It’s a war of the ecosystems.
“Look at the speed of growth of Microsoft’s [apps] Marketplace – since February last year it has been the fastest growing marketplace and the majority of all the top downloaded apps are available in the marketplace. Of course from a consumer perspective people will look at the number of applications but it’s really about quality and of course we’ll continue to grow it.
“What’s important – when you use Nokia Windows Phone – it’s not a static grid of apps and icons, it is a live feed of tiles you can personalise and that’s what sets it apart; your whole interaction, speed and way you can personalise. You don’t need to dive into an app, it all comes to the surface."
So what’s his battle plan? "I have this philosophy of being present – don’t like to be stuck in an office, I like to be in a market. So I’m based in London, live in Windsor and when I say present I’m not just talking about within the office and building the team but also in retail.
“I’m in Ireland today and I’ll spend time in stores. Last week I was in Oxford Street in London with Stephen Elop and went on a store visit and it just shows the level of intent and interest on the retail execution, that’s where it is at.
“When people walk into a shop we want to make sure they have the opportunity to experience this. If they experience it they will love it and no one who has ever seen the Lumia 800 can say anything bad about it – it genuinely is a beautiful device."