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October 2003

Handy Man

The American who is revolutionizing mobile phones

George Appling is clearly of a sanguine disposition. When he talks enthusiastically about the architecture, nature and beer gardens around Munich, his ability to appreciate and make the most of any environment is what immediately strikes the listener. Perhaps, though, the fact that Appling has found what appears to be the perfect job is the real reason for his aura of cheerful contentment. He is currently president of Xelibri (a Siemens Mobile project) and is working together with an international team to turn the mobile phone into a fashion accessory.

Appling, who comes from El Campo, Texas, describes the size of his hometown in terms that everyone can understand: “it had only one McDonalds, and that didn’t arrive until I was in high school.” He was ambitious even as a child, spurred on by a healthy dose of sibling rivalry—his brother is two and a half years older. And perhaps the strain of keeping up with his brother explains Appling’s childhood habit of falling asleep in strange places. He recalls one Christmas when, aged six, he disappeared and had twenty frantic family members out searching. After looking in all the usual places, he was eventually discovered curled up and sleeping peacefully in a concrete pipe in a drainage ditch.

Many young people are unsure about their goals in life and what they hope to achieve. Not so Appling, who after passing through the fireman/mailman/policeman phase as a child had decided, by the time he entered college that his ambition was to become secretary of state.

Appling studied at Texas A & M University, where he completed two bachelor degrees, in business and political science, and left as valedictorian. He went on to spend some years working as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, an international management consultancy, before taking two master’s degrees at Harvard University, one in business and one in government. It was during his time at Harvard that Appling met his partner, with whom he has been together for seven years. Appling continued to work for McKinsey, who sent him on a posting to Munich in November 2000, although he didn’t actually set up home in the city straight away. Instead, he did some record-breaking commuting, collecting almost enough frequent-flier miles to buy the airplane himself. For the first six months, this seasoned traveler flew from Texas to Bavaria every other weekend, then moved to London and for the next nine months commuted from there weekly. He finally made the move to Munich “properly” in February 2002, with McKinsey, but was working for Siemens by April as they offered him what Appling describes with a grin as “the greatest job imaginable.”

Coming from a purely business background, it is an unusual transition Appling has made into the world of fashion and admits that before this job he had “not thought much about fashion at all,” but felt confident that he had the skills and ability to learn quickly. Xelibri is the result of an obvious gap in the market for a new brand of mobile phone. As design is a top purchase criterion in today’s world Xelibri works to create mobiles that look good and are wearable in some way, increasing the demand for multiple phone ownership. After all, mobile phones are an accessory and Appling envisages people wearing “the phone that matches their mood, the occasion or their attire.” It may sound like a bold move, but when thinking back to the success of Swatch watches in the 1980s and considering the enormous buying power of style-conscious consumers, the idea doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Appling always wears one of his phones and it was an exciting time for him when, shortly before the European launch of the phones, people were crowding around him in a club to get a look at the mobile around his neck.

In the style of a classic fashion collection, Xelibri conceives its spring/summer and autumn/winter “collections”—each featuring four new phones—according to themes. The collection earlier this year, “Space on Earth,” was inspired by Appling’s love for Star Trek, and the second collection, “Fashion Extravaganza,” coming soon, is even more outlandish. Appling is never more animated than when talking about his work and it is hard not to share his optimism and enthusiasm for the Xelibri project. His ability to think positively, be fair and keep his sense of humor are the qualities that, according to his team, make him a good boss. Not much it seems, can upset Appling. So when a Chinese reporter turned to him at a press conference and said “you look older than 34. Is it the stress of the job that is giving you wrinkles?” he managed not to appear disconcerted.

Anyone reading about Appling’s life will probably assume that attending glamorous premières around the globe and meeting celebrities is one of the benefits of having a high-profile job. This gentle Texan, however, has both feet firmly on the ground and considers it a highlight when his mother has the chance to see him on CNN. In fact, between business trips to the world’s fashion capitals he likes to read, watch movies, go to the gym and spend time with his partner and friends.

Appling has many ideas about what lies ahead for Xelibri and hopes to follow the example of Nicholas Hayek, CEO of Swatch, who in 1983 launched the company that is still going strong today. He also wishes to emulate the management skills of Richard Branson, who is legendary in business circles for the way he encourages, motivates and inspires his staff. For now, at least, Appling appears to be heading in exactly that direction with his dedicated team of colleagues at Xelibri.

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