Megabuyte, August 2014.
Interview with Mike Tobin, CEO of Telecity
If the idea was to try and work out how Mike Tobin does the thing he does, then our lunch at The Wolseley was a failure. Not that there isn’t a pattern to Tobin’s approach, which has been the driving force for building Telecity Group into a data centre and hosting success story. It’s just that the way the CEO tells it, his management approach is more a series of happy accidents, driven by a desire to build something meaningful. And possibly, also by an urge to push some boundaries, as it involves several arguably crazy stunts, including leading staff to believe they were being abducted in Eastern Europe, and taking them to dive with sharks in Scotland.
“The point of that was to replicate the fear that they had of merging two companies and potentially losing their jobs,” says Tobin, who’s written a book on the subject: ‘Forget Strategy. Get Results.’ It’s a half-memoir, half-management advice tome on how to get better results from people by leading and inspiring them in a different way. “So after the shark diving, every time you go into a situation where you’re afraid, you can remember how you felt when you came out of it.” In the glossy surroundings of the Piccadilly restaurant, we haven’t even ordered yet as Tobin explains why worry is a waste of time: “You’re using up all this emotional energy stressing out! It’s very logical. It’s still hard to do sometimes, though. I find it hard to do sometimes.”
Data for the moment
Tobin is full of entertaining stories about so-called radical management, to the point where I jokingly ask if the company has assigned someone to keep an eye on him. But the CEO is equally happy to discuss the merits of the Telecity carrier-neutral data centre model: “We’re the non-virtual bit of the virtual economy. Initially, something like 92% of Britain’s internet traffic goes through my buildings. The Facebooks, the Amazons, the iPlayers.”
Asked about price pressure and rising competition, Tobin launches into a rousing explanation about “the misconception in many people’s minds about the data center industry per se”. All these data centres in the countryside are mostly for storage, no good for video on demand and other data that’s needed immediately, he explains. Nor do you get full connectivity out there: “If we turned this place into a data center, this would be highly connected,” says Tobin, indicating to the restaurant. “There’s a ton of fiber running down Piccadilly, it’s only a short dig from the road into here. You could have really highly connected site.” Of course, you’d never get regulatory approval to turn The Wolseley into a data centre, which is one reason the countryside is a lot easier to deal with. But Tobin thinks the regulatory hurdles are a good thing: “After 15 years, we’re quite good at this. I don’t mind those regulations because that’s my barriers to entry.”
Listening to Tobin talk about how much space you need to store all the generators for running a data centre, which requires over 30,000 homes worth of power, it’s clear there’s a significant physical cost to all those those YouTube videos and iPlayer catch-up services. But when I ask how much of the data swirling around is actually business, Tobin calls me on it right away: “Are you saying Facebook isn’t a business?” He continues, not unkindly: “Okay, so why do you read Facebook on the bus? Because you can!” And if your mobile provider won’t give you a good price on a data package that lets you to do this, you’ll go elsewhere. “Facebook is a multi-multi-billion business. So what we think of as unimportant, is incredibly valuable to them.” Big-Picture thinker that he is, Tobin sees this as just the beginning, as the Internet-of-Things will soon be enhancing our lives in untold ways: “The most important thing for me is that there will be so much data that you won’t be able to store it. Imagine you’ll have a window with data passing, and all you’re reading is what’s important right now. That data, when it’s gone, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Opportunity and luck
There’s a difference between data and knowledge, is Tobin’s point. This becomes a segue to how on-the-job training is often just as good a preparation to life as getting a degree; Tobin got his start as an apprentice. “Everyone is a product of their history. I was born in the East End of London, in a very rough area and I had a very, very difficult childhood. But for the many opportunities and lucky situations that befell me, I wouldn’t be here. Part of my charitable drive is to give people opportunity.”
Still, Tobin’s early years make for an incredible story, as he travelled with his mother to then-Rhodesia to escape his abusive father, before going to apartheid South Africa: “When we came back from South Africa, where we’d been petrol-bombed and shot at, we went to live in a squat in Brixton. We escaped with nothing.” His stepfather, a concert pianist, would break into condemned buildings which often had old pianos, which he would fix up. He and young Tobin would wheel them down the Old Kent Road to sell at the market for £10 each. He laughs at the memory. “You have to grow up and you have to have luck. Every job I’ve gone for everyone said I would never get it. To be fair, I probably secretly thought I couldn’t do it! When I recruit someone, I don’t look at their CV. I assume whatever process they’ve gone through to sit in front of me means they have the minimum requirement. All I’m looking for is the chemistry. Can I trust this person?”
This is also where Tobin offers up a rare nugget of straight-up management advice, which is to surround yourself with the most brilliant people you can find: “I’ve got an amazing team, all of them infinitely more intelligent and capable that what I am. I don’t manage them at all. Unless they have a problem, I don’t need to hear from them. I’m assuming they’re delivering. I think that’s empowering people.” Another piece of advice is to have a vision rather than a strategy, as this gives you the flexibility to react quicker.
Of course, this approach doesn’t always work. Asked for an example, Tobin brings up his first marriage. Although in a sense, that worked out too, as Tobin is very happy in his second marriage. He has three children, aged around the early teens, who also live in London. The young Tobins are having a very different experience growing up compared to their father, and Tobin is deliberate about involving them in charity: “I try to make them appreciate what they have by seeing what people don’t have. There’s no question about that. Their start is one thing, but what they do with it is obviously more important for me. I want them to be able to communicate with everybody at every level. I want them to have respect for everybody at every level. The ability to communicate is more valuable, in my opinion, than a degree.” Clearly proud, he tells me how his eldest daughter is learning Mandarin, his son loves soccer and cricket, and all the kids speak French and Portuguese.
Lunch is over and coffee orders are placed, which is the point when seemingly apropos of nothing, Tobin tells the story of when he joined Telecity-precursor RedBus. It’s a story which more than any other illustrates the vision-not-strategy approach. Or maybe it was just dumb luck? Tobin doesn’t quite know: “I only joined Redbus because I didn’t do due diligence on the company. I never would have joined if I’d known!” The company was less than three months from running out of cash, his son was a week old and the family had just moved back from Germany. “We were opening a brand new data centre in Prague, and all I could think was, ‘Oh another quarter of a million a month going down the tube’. But then, ten days after we opened, Prague flooded.” The new centre was under water, and the insurance money was what Tobin needed to keep the business running long enough to find new investors. “Without that money there would be no Telecity today. Just those things – how lucky can you be? Or unlucky! That’s not in any strategy.”
What it’s all about, Tobin (50) says, is “doing stuff, engaging, being different, involving, going for it, being approachable”. And I’m pretty sure this approach works for Tobin because he seems to be completely into it, so genuinely committed to his actions, smiling through the telling of every story. He’s planning a new book, this time on work-life integration: “We talk about work-life balance, but if you’re going to be great, that’s impossible.”
Of course, the ability to give back is at the forefront of what drives him: “I do more and more on the charity side. I’m involved with the Prince’s Trust, Action For Children, the British Asian Trust. I did the CEO Sleepout, which was fun. There are many angles to this and there can be so much more. That will keep me going until I drop dead!” It helps that Tobin is one of those people who sleeps for about four hours a night. “But look, the business is a great environment. I’m surrounded by all of my management team, I consider them my friends and I call them my family. Again with the work-life integration. So where would I go, other than to work to meet my friends!”