"Salt is no less Swiss than Swisscom"


Pascal Grieder emphasizes "innovation, excellent value for money … but above all simplicity".
Credits: Francois Wavre / Monday13

Created in 1999 under the name Orange, Salt Mobile SA (abbreviated Salt) has changed owners several times: Orange PLC, France Telecom and Apax Partners succeeded one another before the acquisition in January 2014 by Xavier Niel (via his holding company NJJ Capital) for the sum of 2.8 billion. Five months later, the third mobile operator in Switzerland was renamed Salt. Currently, this company reports an annual turnover slightly above one billion francs and a workforce of 790 employees (full-time equivalent).

Salt has not only changed shareholders, company name and brand, but also general management. In September 2018, the choice of the board of directors – chaired by Xavier Niel – fell on Pascal Grieder, then aged 41. With a doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Salt's new CEO began his career in 2005 at McKinsey, a management consulting firm. Subsequently, he was elected partner in 2012 and then managing digital partner of McKinsey Switzerland in 2015. As a consultant, Pascal Grieder advised for more than ten years various international telecommunication providers. It is in Renens, in his sober seat, that Pascal Grieder received Bilan for a big interview in "hochdeutsch".

With your sole owner, you have a shareholder structure very different from that of Swisscom and Sunrise. What are some the results?

NJJ Capital owns 100% of Salt and the representatives of this company sit on our board of directors. Having a sole proprietor allows us not only to be guided by a long-term vision but also to speed up the decision-making process. This has, for example, enabled the implementation of the Salt Fiber offer.

The majority of Swisscom's shares are held by the Confederation; in addition, Swisscom has the word "Swiss" in its name. Does this distort competition a little?

I can not really evaluate the impact of these two elements, but they are certainly not negative for the incumbent. As far as we are concerned, even if we do not have the term "Swiss" in our company name, we are certainly no less Swiss than Swisscom.

It's harder to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing customer. An advantage for the former federal board?

Certainly! And it is clear that many companies and private individuals are, by inertia, always customers of the incumbent operator. This privileged situation enjoyed by Swisscom is unique in Europe. However, during a change of operator, the gains are enormous. Our internet product, which includes TV and fixed telephony, offers more than 10 times more performance at a third of the price of Swisscom products.

As Salt CEO, what are the priority items you are focusing on?

Innovation, excellent value for money … but above all simplicity because it is synonymous with speed of execution and flexibility. I refer as much to the simplicity of our customers as to the internal ones.

Salt headquarters in Renens: "We save on everything that is invisible to our customers." (Credits: Jean-Christophe Bott / Keystone)

What are your products (or activities) deficient but generators great indirect benefits?

We have few, but I would mention our policy of erecting antennas throughout Switzerland; this activity is not profitable in itself, but it allows us to deliver on our promise to provide Swiss consumers with a world-class network.

In another register, we are the only ones to propose still mobile phones at zero franc, provided that the customer subscribes to a subscription of a certain duration.

Creating a brand is very expensive. Why did you change your brand (and company name) in 2015? Were you so dissatisfied of the image conveyed by Orange?

The Orange acquisition contract in Switzerland allowed the new owner to use the Orange brand for a certain time and provided for rebranding. The latter was realized in 2015.

With the same brand, you target big companies as much that SMEs and private. Have you considered the use different brands?

To be precise, our brand is Salt, but we also use the Salt Business sub-brand for businesses and the L'ABO brand as part of our partnership with La Poste.

Salt will offer 5G to its customers "before the end of 2019", promises its CEO. (Credits: Salt)

You target the "high quality at a low price" segment. Since quality leads to costs, do you manage to generate sufficient margins?

What we are aiming for is of course a little squaring of the circle, but I think we have solved it. This is demonstrated by the very good results obtained during various independent tests in recent months.

In concrete terms, we invest heavily in everything that is important to our customers, including network quality and customer service; on the other hand, we save as much as possible on anything that is invisible to our customers, for example our headquarters in Renens.

It is not easy to compare mobile phone offers, especially because of the opacity of the total costs. Do you think the image of a operator is the determining factor?

Indeed, I think that marketing and image are absolutely key. This is why we rely heavily on technological innovations (Apple TV, Salt Fiber) that strengthen the value of our brand and give us the status of pioneers in Switzerland.

According to ComCom (end of 2018), your mobile phone market share is "only" 17%. Do you suffer a lack of economy of scale compared to your competitors?

Being smaller also brings us benefits. We are closer to our customers, more flexible and can make decisions and react more quickly. And in terms of efficiency, we are in a very good position.

Regarding 5G, Sunrise and Swisscom are already quite advanced despite the oppositions. What about Salt?

At home, the 5G will be available before the end of 2019. We introduce this technology without haste because we believe that our current offering is very strong, especially in terms of bandwidth and availability. In addition, we do not feel any pressure from our customers for a quick implementation of 5G.

Nevertheless, in the longer term, I think that 5G is absolutely essential in Switzerland; without this technology, the foreseeable increase in the volume of data would lead to a deterioration in the current level of service.

Are you sure that 5G is safe for your health?

Absolutely! The frequencies concerned have already been used in the past. We have more than twenty years of experience with mobile phones and there is no evidence of their dangerousness.

And even if there were problems with radiation, the vast majority of them are generated by the mobile phones themselves and not by the antennas. Finally, the larger the number of antennas, the smaller the radiation.

You not only market Apple mobile phones and Samsung, but also from Huawei. Are you worried about the confidentiality of the data?

Not at all! If the slightest security weakness with Huawei's mobile phones had been detected, it would have been immediately made public, especially by all those who seek to harm this Chinese society. In conclusion, there is currently no evidence of security problems.

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Pascal Grieder: "I had to learn the management of a very heterogeneous team"

Xavier Niel is co-owner of the Le Monde press group. What synergies between the press and a telecommunication operator?

I do not see any.

Does Xavier Niel have planned investments in the Swiss press?

I think it would be better to ask this question directly to him.

You went directly from a (very intellectual) role of McKinsey consultant to CEO (much more emotional) position. With one year of decline, what were the main challenges?

These are indeed completely different jobs. My activities at McKinsey have given me a deep and broad understanding of the telecommunications industry. On the other hand, as Salt's CEO, I discovered new areas, including press relations and capital market interactions. And especially,
I had to learn the management of a very heterogeneous team. I particularly like this last point because I have always been comfortable with interpersonal relationships.

Would Sunrise's acquisition of the UPC cable operator be justified?

Naturally, we have followed very closely this acquisition attempt, but I prefer
Do not comment on the merits of this approach or the price of the transaction.

Are you interested in acquiring UPC?

We are very focused on our strategy of Alleingang (the rider alone) and we are convinced that this approach is the most appropriate for us.

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