Wednesday 7 October 2020 4:06 pm

Beyond Imagination: What’s next for the scandal-hit British chipmaker?

Imagination Technologies this week confirmed the appointment of telecoms veteran Simon Beresford-Wylie as its next chief executive, marking a new chapter for the British chipmaker.

The Hertfordshire-based tech firm has been no stranger to scandal in recent months, with MPs lashing out at the company’s ties to a major investor linked to the Chinese state.

But with a new chief executive at the helm, and the threat from China subsiding, Imagination will be hoping to turn over a new leaf.

Imagination’s new boss

Simon Beresford-Wylie’s appointment comes after the resignation of former boss Ron Black in April, with the role since held on an interim basis by executive chairman Ray Bingham.

Beresford-Wylie has a long track record in the tech and telecoms sector, climbing up the ranks at Finnish telecoms group Nokia and serving as a founding chief executive of Nokia Siemens Networks.

In 2013 the Anglo-Australian was appointed as global executive adviser to the networks division of Samsung, then in 2015 he took over as chief executive of telecoms infrastructure group Arqiva.

Towering above the rest

Beresford-Wylie’s appointment may raise some eyebrows in the tech industry due to his lack of experience in the semiconductor sector, but for telecoms watchers it’s his legacy at Arqiva that counts.

During his five-year tenure at Arqiva, Beresford-Wylie led the Hampshire-based infrastructure giant through a period of strong financial performance as it cashed in on the lucrative market for telecoms towers.

His reign was capped off with the £2bn sale of Arqiva’s telecoms division to Spanish rival Cellnex.

Matthew Howett, principal analyst at Assembly Research, described Beresford-Wylie as a “well-liked” figure who was a “safe pair of hands”.

Imagination executive chairman Ray Bingham hailed the new boss as “an impressive and energetic leader” with a “hugely successful track record in creating value”.

But Beresford-Wylie will now be turning his attention from towers to tech, as Imagination looks to build on its position as one of the UK’s leading tech innovators.

The company’s graphic processing units are now used in 11bn devices globally, including in almost a third of all mobile phones.

Telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore said the new chief executive’s lack of experience in the chipset business “might not be a complete disadvantage”.

“A fresh pair of eyes will allow him to look at things differently and reposition the company for future,” he said.

Pescatore added that Beresford-Wylie’s role in the Arqiva mast sale could suggest that a potential sale of Imagination Technologies is in the pipeline.

Beijing blues

But the new appointment will also be viewed in the light of a controversy that has seen Imagination come under fierce scrutiny from MPs.

Earlier this year it emerged that China Reform Holdings — a major shareholder in Imagination’s private equity owner Canyon Bridge — was attempting to seize control of the chipmaker’s board.

The ensuing row prompted the resignation of boss Ron Black, as well as chief technology officer John Rayfield and chief product officer Steve Evans also quitting their posts.

In his resignation letter Evans wrote: “I will not be part of a company that is effectively controlled by the Chinese government.”

Former Imagination chief executive Sir Hossein Yossaie also waded into the row, accusing the state-owned investor of using the coronavirus crisis to seize control of the company.

China Reform eventually backed down, and Canyon Bridge has pledged to keep Imagination headquartered in the UK. It has also appointed former BT chief executive Sir Peter Bonfield as a non-executive director.

So the appointment of Brit Beresford-Wylie as chief executive will serve to further assuage fears in Whitehall about the company’s links to Beijing.

But as scrutiny grows over the transferral of British technology overseas in the wake of Arm’s $40bn takeover by US tech group Nvidia, it seems likely ministers will be keeping a keen eye on Imagination’s new boss.