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THE SWEET SOUND OF DISRUPTION: WHAT IS IT THAT DRIVES SYMPHONY TO REVOLUTIONIZE DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS?

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David Gurlé

For someone who has so recently hit the headlines, Symphony’s CEO, David Gurlé, has already attracted powerful myths. Is he really the man who wants to “take on Bloomberg”, or is it truly his ambition to challenge Microsoft? Even further from the mark was an early story that his company would provide a way to evade government surveillance – at the time when Symphony was working with New York’s Department of Financial Services for recognition that its messaging system was fully supporting, rather than bypassing, legal compliance.

David Gurlé

David Gurlé

In fact David Gurlé’s ambition soars far higher than these myths, as he presents his challenge at the very heart of modern communications. He wants to simplify email with communication experiences as close as possible to human face-to-face encounters. What makes him believe this can be done?

Communications and engineering

When David Gurlé describes his earliest taste of the wonders of engineering, it was not so much the child’s fascination of interlocking gears and well oiled machinery as it was an introduction to the engineer’s underlying motivation. His applied maths teacher asked the class to boil water “the way an engineer would do it”. Where anyone would simply take a pan of water and put it on the stove, the engineer should always take the same pan, the same measured quantity of water to an identical stove under the same atmospheric pressure and so on… He was told that the engineer looks for patterns, which could then be consistently applied to physical situations for the greater benefit of humanity.

David was born in Istanbul in 1967 – his father a French diplomat, his mother an English diplomat who could speak eight languages. This was an intriguing situation, considering the complex relationship of co-operation and rivalry that has so long existed between these two nations! The family moved to Syria and Lebanon and, at the tender age of thirteen, he settled in Cannes in Southern France when his father retired. So it is hardly surprising that a profound awareness of the role of communications should be in his DNA – just as he retains a fondness for Mediterranean cooking in all its variants and flavours.

The combination of journalism and diplomacy would also instil clear awareness of the vital importance of style as well as content – “it’s not just what you say but the way that you say it”. Recently he suffered a further revelation: when his mother died, The Times obituary revealed that she had been long working for British intelligence. “It was an incredible shock” he says. “I read the paper three times to be sure they spoke well of my mother.

We think we know people, but in fact…” Indeed, what is not communicated can be every bit as important.

In classical Mediterranean mythology, communications are ruled by Mercury, who also rules trickery, deceit and – as the God with winged sandals – the element Air. It was this last aspect that first entranced David, with the ambition to learn to fly – albeit as a fighter pilot. Ironically for someone who would become known for his long-term vision, it was his need to wear spectacles that caused the French army to turn down his application. Subsequent success in business allowed him to revisit that passion: and he got his wings in 2011 and now owns a six-seat monoplane which he keeps near the Palo Alto home where he lives with his wife Valerie.

Speaking of his love of flying, he says: “I like it because of the freedom, and because the end game is not straightforward.” Then he adds: “I like to be in an environment I know and control and can run in the most efficient way” – a statement that also matches his subsequent choice to become an engineer. Thus David continued his education at the elite Esigetel engineering school in Paris.

IT and the future of communications

France in the 1980s provided a fertile ground for forward-looking ideas about communications. In 1982 an online videotext service called Minitel had been rolled out across the country’s telephone network: using a simple PC-style interface, it allowed people to buy items online, make train reservations, check stock prices, search the telephone directory, have a mail box, and chat in a similar way to today’s Internet. (Although the word Minitel sounds simply cute and snappy in English, in typical French style it is actually short for Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique).

David agrees that the wide availability of this proto-Internet service across France had a positive effect on the country’s ICT culture, for all its inflexibility as a business model. Just as Britain’s software industry in the 90s benefitted from a generation brought up on the BBC computer and Sinclair Spectrum – so did David, along with many of today’s web entrepreneurs, find inspiration from Minitel. As a user he had the benefit of a culture growing aware of the huge potential for telecommunications – at a time when English-speaking cultures were still talking about POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). Then, as a student engineer, he hacked a Minitel terminal to connect into the provider’s X25 service to the Internet. In those days the Internet was little more than an unprotected net of connected universities, but he did provide Esigetel with direct access to a global academic service.

In particular, this experience fuelled his vision of what would come to be called “unified communications” – replacing a set of diverse and often conflicting media such as cell phone, landline, e-mail and SMS with a single integrated interface. Following jobs at DEC and France Telecom, where he became an expert on IT security, he joined ETSI in 1995 and worked on standards. As he explains: “Both of my parents being diplomats played really well: because you can’t establish standards if you don’t know how to work to very high political stakes. It was very high political stakes, even though I was comparatively young”.

From the formality of standards, he then got a real taste for disruptive technology at an Israeli startup, VocalTec, that was revolutionizing telecommunication by bringing voice over IP: “In 1995, nobody believed voice over IP was ever going to be real, especially the telcos, and suddenly, I decided that was the future.”

VocalTec moved him to Princeton – he was getting closer to the throbbing heart of IT development – and he was soon head hunted by Microsoft. For most that would mark a career high point, but David immediately rebelled against his allotted role: “It was an initiative that I knew it was never going to be successful.  So the same day, I went to the VP who hired me, and I tell him that I cannot stay at Microsoft.  It was a mistake”.

Happily for Microsoft, his recruiter decided to give him free reign and he soon crossed paths with Bill Gates himself. David had an opportunity to present his radical unified communications vision to Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates, at a time when the Outlook e-mail team was looking for better ways to collaborate with the real-time SharePoint team. This laid the foundation for Microsoft’s real time communications strategy that would become Skype for Business – where a wider public would enjoy its first taste of David’s vision of integrated voice, video, text and file transfer via a single screen.

From disruption to consolidation and back again

Microsoft helped David with the next vital link in his learning chain: “Microsoft was for me forming ground for all of my skills that I use every day today…

I learned a ton from Bill and Steve and many other people.  And I learned that the attention to detail is one of the most important things for anybody in technology… Microsoft helped me to complete the business side of my training, and from there, the idea that became Symphony emerged.” The company would initially be called “Perzo”.

Even for someone with David’s vision and drive, leaving a rewarding job at Microsoft to form a start-up was a tough decision: “Entrepreneurs are risk takers, and I never thought myself as a risk taker.  I always thought myself as somebody who basically calculates everything possible so the worst-case scenario never, ever happens”. Speaking about the disruption to his family lifestyle he adds: “It was funny, because I was ready to disrupt many other things, but not our equilibrium”. And yet his wife backed him all the way and said “go for it!”

Perzo achieved immediate recognition from a most demanding quarter. The finance industry that had until recently been powered by the most immediate eye-to-eye communication across the trading floor, was now hungry for something better than anything today’s IT could offer. No less a name than Goldman Sachs brought together a team of big name investors to back the project and David chose to fend off no less than five acquisition offers in just three weeks: “They said, we love your technology.  We love the team that you built.  This is going to solve for us a very important problem in our industry, and let’s make it happen”.

What is in a name? Everything!

The rest of the story has been told many times in the months since the public launch of Symphony, but there was to be one more detail that was needed to consolidate his vision: a name that would capture its true essence better than an off-the-peg label like Perzo.

It happened at a concert David attended where Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was being played. Here was a diverse group of individuals brought together to perform a single task: each receiving the actual content in the form of a written sheet and yet acutely aware of a myriad real-time subtexts that would shape and refine the experience. There was the conductor’s gestures, body language, personality and its reflection in the presence of all the musicians around, creating a group experience that transmuted the written content into one harmonious, beautiful, efficient and utterly effective whole. David recognised this immediately as a metaphor for everything he truly sought for human communication.

The amazing thing was that it turned out that the highly desirable brand name “Symphony” was still available: “I said, holy cow!  That’s not possible!  And he said, yes.  I said, how much?  He said, about $400,000.  I said just go for it, buy it.  It was a bet: I had to then sell the name to the potential investors, and they thought it was a great name. So we became Symphony Communications Services, LLC”.

Business

Battling Covid collateral damage, Renault says 2021 will be volatile

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Battling Covid collateral damage, Renault says 2021 will be volatile 1

By Gilles Guillaume

PARIS (Reuters) – Renault said on Friday it is still fighting the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a shortage of semiconductor chips, that could make for another rough year for the French carmaker.

Renault reported an 8 billion euro ($9.7 billion) loss for 2020 which, combined with gloomy take on the market, sent its shares down more than 5% in late morning trading.

“We are in the midst of a battle to try to manage a difficult year in terms of supply chains, of components,” Chief Executive Luca de Meo told reporters. “This is all the collateral damage of the Covid pandemic… we will have a fairly volatile year.”

De Meo, who took over last July, is looking at ways to boost profitability and sales at Renault while pushing ahead with cost cuts. There were early signs of improving momentum as margins inched up in the second half of 2020.

The group gave no financial guidance for this year, although it said it might reach a target of achieving 2 billion euros in costs cuts by 2023 ahead of time, possibly by December.

Executives said they were confident the carmaker could be profitable in the second half of 2021, but that they lacked sufficient market visibility to provide a forecast.

Renault struck a cautious note, saying it was focused on its recovery but warned orders had faltered in early 2021 as pandemic restrictions continued in some countries.

The group is facing new challenges as the European Union tightens emissions regulations and after rivals PSA and Fiat Chrysler joined forces to create Stellantis, the world’s fourth-biggest automaker.

The auto industry endured a tough 2020 but a swift rebound in premium car sales in China helped companies such as Volkswagen and Daimler to weather the storm.

Auto companies globally have since been hit by a shortage of semiconductors that has forced production cuts worldwide.

“The beginning of the year has shown some signs of weakness,” De Meo told analysts, but added the chip shortage should be resolved by the second half of 2021. “We have taken the necessary measures to anticipate and overcome challenges.”

Renault estimated the chip shortage could reduce its production by about 100,000 vehicles this year.

SHARP HIT

The group was already loss-making in 2019, but took a sharp hit in 2020 during lockdowns to fight the pandemic, which also hurt its Japanese partner Nissan.

Analysts polled by Refinitiv had expected a 7.4 billion euro loss for 2020. The group posted negative free cash flow for 2020.

The 2018 arrest of Carlos Ghosn, who formerly lead the alliance between Renault and Nissan, plunged the automakers into turmoil.

In a further sign that the companies have been working to repair the alliance, De Meo told journalists that Renault and Nissan will announce new joint products together in the coming weeks or months.

Renault has begun to raise prices on some car models, and group operating profit, which was negative for 2020 as a whole, improved in the last six months of the year, reaching 866 million euros or 3.5% of revenue.

Analysts at Jefferies said the operating performance was better than expected. Sales were still falling in the second half, but less sharply.

Renault is slashing jobs and trimming its range of cars, allowing it to slice spending in areas like research and development as it focuses on redressing its finances. It is also pivoting more towards electric cars as part of its revamp.

It was already struggling more than some rivals with sliding sales before the pandemic, after years of a vast expansion drive it is now trying to rein in, focusing on profitable markets.

De Meo told journalists on Friday that the French carmaker will make three new higher-margin models at its Palencia plant in Spain, where manufacturing costs are lower, between 2022 and 2024.

($1 = 0.8269 euros)

(Reporting by Gilles Guillaume and Sarah White in Paris, Nick Carey in London; Editing by Christopher Cushing, David Evans and Jan Harvey)

 

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UK delays review of business rates tax until autumn

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UK delays review of business rates tax until autumn 2

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s finance ministry said it would delay publication of its review of business rates – a tax paid by companies based on the value of the property they occupy – until the autumn when the economic outlook should be clearer.

Many companies are demanding reductions in their business rates to help them compete with online retailers.

“Due to the ongoing and wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic and economic uncertainty, the government said the review’s final report would be released later in the year when there is more clarity on the long-term state of the economy and the public finances,” the ministry said.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak has granted a temporary business rates exemption to companies in the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors, costing over 10 billion pounds ($14 billion). Sunak is due to announce his next round of support measures for the economy on March 3.

($1 = 0.7152 pounds)

(Writing by William Schomberg, editing by David Milliken)

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Discounter Pepco has all of Europe in its sights

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Discounter Pepco has all of Europe in its sights 3

By James Davey

LONDON (Reuters) – Pepco Group, which owns British discount retailer Poundland, has targeted 400 store openings across Europe in its 2020-21 financial year as it expands its PEPCO brand beyond central and eastern Europe, its boss said on Friday.

The group opened a net 327 new stores in its 2019-20 year, taking the total to 3,021 in 15 countries. The PEPCO brand entered western Europe for the first time with openings in Italy and it plans its first foray into Spain in April or May.

Chief Executive Andy Bond said its five stores in Italy have traded “super well” so far.

“That’s given us a lot of confidence that we can now start building PEPCO into western Europe and that expands our market opportunity from roughly 100 million people (in central and eastern Europe) to roughly 500 million people,” he told Reuters.

To further illustrate the brand’s potential he noted that the group has more than 1,000 PEPCO shops in Poland, which has a significantly smaller population and gross domestic product than Italy or Spain.

The company, which also owns the Dealz brand in Europe but does not trade online, has already opened more than 100 of the targeted 400 new stores this financial year.

Pepco Group is part of South African conglomerate Steinhoff, which is still battling the fallout of a 2017 accounting scandal.

Since 2019 Steinhoff and its creditors have been evaluating a range of strategic options for Pepco Group, including a potential public listing, private equity sale or trade sale.

That process was delayed by the pandemic, but Steinhoff said last month that it had resumed.

“The business will be up for sale at the right time. It’s a case of when, rather than if,” said Bond, a former boss of British supermarket chain Asda.

Pepco Group on Friday reported a 31% drop in full-year core earnings, citing temporary coronavirus-related store closures.

Underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) were 229 million euros ($277 million) for the year to Sept. 30, against 331 million euros the previous year.

Sales rose 3% to 3.5 billion euros, reflecting new store openings.

($1 = 0.8279 euros)

(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by David Goodman)

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