Sir Charles Dunstone has a gripping tale to tell and an instinct to make a difference. He also has personal traits that some might class as disadvantages. Yet he emphatically confirms the opposite. Dunstone is not especially academic and has a mind that flits here and there - but these are godsends to many entrepreneurs and among his pack of trump cards. "I'm dyslexic, have a short attention span and a restless butterfly brain, so I can't stick at one thing for very long," he told Comms Vision conferees in an exclusive interview. "Therefore I am always inspired by what I see around me - that's the core of it."
Dunstone's psychological make-up is of a rare and unique kind that catalyses the entrepreneurial spirit to go viral and inform almost every decision and action. So much so that his comfort zone is where most fear to tread - the relative unknown. Why? Because unchallenged familiarity needs hitting over the head from time to time, he believes, to help detoxify the mind of potential sluggishness. "Every day you need to have some kind of friction to make things happen," he added. "We need a load that's always running through our mind to make us alert and keep us going."
Dunstone has shown himself to be a born entrepreneur driven by an instinct to never stagnate from within. And his honest and authentic arguments indicate that the biggest threat to a business could be its leadership. "A lot of business leaders have got their eyes closed and hands over their ears and pretend that there is no change, but change is happening in a profound way," he stated. "It is hard to predict the trends, but you can't run away from change. You must run into it and assess how you can optimise your position and get ahead before anyone else."
In leadership, the task is not to hand down power but to view it in proportion, to find a compromise between an oligarchy and fairness, says Dunstone. "You need to be something of a control freak and be comfortable with the pressure of making decisions," he added. "You also need a tight team around you. I've always believed that companies are benevolent dictatorships - they are not democracies. They are run by people who hopefully decide in the best interests of their staff. We have a tight group of people at the top. We are in contact all of the time and have a good understanding collectively of what we're trying to achieve. The organisation marches to those decisions. Too much democracy in a company causes chaos."
Dunstone founded Carphone Warehouse from his Marylebone flat in 1989 on £6,000 of personal savings. "I haven't got a good education, I didn't go to university, so I worked for NEC selling mobile phones and decided to have a go at selling them himself," he recalled. "You need to be lucky in life, and the skill is in knowing when you are lucky. We were young, gung-ho, kept going and rode the wave 100 per cent. We tried to make sure that we were a good partner and never made any enemies. I can't see the point in falling out with people. The mobile phone industry had its share of rogues, so people wanted to do business with us more than others. I sometimes got vertigo when I looked at the growth."
Three years ago Carphone Warehouse and Dixons agreed a £3.8 billion merger deal. In February this year Dunstone stepped down from Dixons Carphone to become TalkTalk Executive Chairman. Considering his track record of being at the helm of sizeable organisations, Dunstone is most at home in smaller businesses. "It's more fun," he stated. "I have a great affection for TalkTalk. We are gathering momentum, building simplicity into what we do and investing in our core network. We, and our channel partners, are at the heart of the communications revolution. Customers need more connectivity, it's more complex to use and security issues are all problems that we help to resolve. We know customers need what we sell."
Life lessons are Dunstone's education and he brings a healthy dose of fresh and learned perspectives to a disruptive world that some find challenging to chart a course through. Citing Bill Gates, Dunstone said 'people always over estimate what will happen in the next two years, but under estimate what will happen in the coming decade'. "Focus on what you can influence and don't worry about what you can't change," he told delegates. "Don't be scared of a downturn - there's always an opportunity. I prefer doing business at such times. When things are going well there's lots of money around and everyone's expanding. It's when things get tougher that good people have a chance to show themselves. Being an entrepreneur is about having clear goals and determination. It doesn't pay to be too clever because you will be liable to change the pre-set journey whenever something happens - so relentlessly go after what you set out to do."