Chris Humphrey, CEO of Anite

Megabuyte, 2014. Original article

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 13.27.19The Megabuyte Interview: Chris Humphrey, CEO of Anite
There’s no mobile phone reception outside the building where I’m meeting Chris Humphrey, at least on my network. This is frustrating on Great Portland Street, but maybe it shouldn’t be: London is full of reception deadzones, courtesy of all that steel and concrete in an ever-changing cityscape. This is the sort of situation that creates business for Anite, the wireless testing specialist, as people are increasingly intolerant of interference when it comes to their favourite gadget.

“Customer experience is moving higher and higher on the list of management priority,” says Humphrey. The CEO is in a sharp suit with a poppy on the lapel, tortoiseshell glasses and iPhone on the table; we have reception now, as we’re a few floors up. Humphrey is a good sport when it comes to my joking complaints about poor signal and what he’s doing to fix it, but as he’s quick to point out: the big picture is above his paygrade. What Anite is doing, however, is concentrating on creating equipment for leading networks and handset manufacturers to test new products: “We’re expanding in what is a tiny little niche really, one which most people on the street wouldn’t realise exists! But it’s an exciting niche. It has good barriers to entry; in the handset business you have to have been here from the start to be a player.”

The Wild West opportunity
Today, Anite is sitting pretty as one of a small handful of top tier contenders in the wireless testing area, enjoying some impressive growth drivers: everybody has a mobile phone and will soon want a better one, and one that delivers internet at the speed of light, please. As CEO of Anite since 2008, Humphrey has been hard at work transforming the Slough group from a small conglomerate to a wireless pureplay, a task which was finally completed with May’s sale of the travel unit. “That was the worst kept secret for years, but we had to wait until we turned it around,” says Humphrey. But he’ll admit it’s nice to be able move on on to the next chapter of the Anite story: “Oh absolutely!”

Part of the cash from the sale has gone to buy Xceed, whose wireless network data analytics fits nicely into Anite’s network testing business. Networks is the smaller of Anite’s two halves, the bigger being the handset testing unit in Hampshire. “The operators are chasing their tails trying to find new technological ways to speed up and increase the capacity of the network to transmit data. We have constant change. People think its only a change from 3G to 4G, but within that there’s lots of change within the technology that creates a lot of work for our customers, and for us.”

Now, Humphrey does an admirable job at explaining how it works, but frankly, this stuff is madly complicated with lots of acronyms and metaphors. “It’s data that’s caused this huge pressure on the network, plus scarcity of spectrum. We’ve basically reached the natural physical limit, so they’re trying to pack more and more into those bands of spectrum, packaging the data in a more clever way.” This, in a nutshell, is what 4G means: creating more capacity by pushing denser data packets down a “fixed diameter pipe” at higher speeds. As manufacturers scramble solve the problems encountered out in this technology Wild West, Anite’s Xceed acquisition could be part of the solution: “I’m really quite excited about Xceed. We have a leading product here, it’s in the right spot because as LTE starts rolling out, the providers will need analytics to figure out what’s going on in their networks.”

A change industry
An accountant by profession, Humphrey first arrived at Anite in 2003 as CFO, before taking the reins as CEO in December 2008. “I arrived as CFO just after the dotcom boom, and I had three CEOs in a relatively short space of time. There were challenges with what happened at the time of the dotcom boom: we were spread very thinly, and some of the acquisitions had a few challenges,” says Humphrey, choosing his words carefully. The decision was made to focus the group on the wireless section, as this seemed to have solid growth potential, but this meant a great deal of “fixing” over the years:

“We’ve probably sold about 14-15 entities over the past ten years, and made about five acquisitions in wireless. I came from engineering and didn’t have an awful lot of understanding of software when I first arrived, but actually I think that was an advantage as you can ask the obvious questions.” Vital to the process is having experienced people around, who you trust to make decisions: “Over the past two years we have really leveraged on that expertise, identifying where the growth is coming from and being able to then sell that technology to an increasing number of customers. It’s been about organising the salesforce and being open to new products, because the technology is moving very fast,” says Humphrey. “You have to have a philosophy of management that’s open to new ideas, and accommodate change very quickly. You cannot be a stick in the mud in this industry!”

Sometimes this means taking a shot on which way the technology will go, as was the case in the early days of 4G: “At the time it was like Betamax and VHS,” says Humphrey, listing the contenders: UMB, WiMAX, and LTE. “It narrowed down to LTE, but in the meantime we had to invest in two of the three as we didn’t know where it was going. The industry has since become more collaborative, as it’s such expensive R&D. […] But you have to be willing to try things, and then also be willing to cut it when something is not going to win.”

The opportunity stage
Ten years in, Humphrey has weathered plenty of change at Anite. “When I arrived we had all these challenges and I had to learn on the job, but a lot of management is common sense. I enjoyed the phase of fixing things,” says Humphrey, pointing out how you can’t get a good price for a unit that’s heading nowhere. Another strategic challenge was the decision to bring the company’s hardware in-house, in order to better control their own destiny. “I’ve previously developed an engineering business, grew it and sold it,” says Humphrey. “I’m now in a third stage of my career, which is exciting: building this up, taking advantage of the opportunities, and seeing what we can make of it.”

The wireless testing business is not without its stresses and strains: Humphrey points out more than once that it’s lumpy, as short lead times on big orders can mean poor visibility. But the CEO enjoys what he does, describing the intricacies of the industry with enthusiasm: “I’m not an engineer, but to understand how this thing moves forward – the speed and the global nature of it – and the customers, the competitors, the additional technologies that can pop up from all sorts of places. It keeps you on your toes!”

Humphrey (57) lives on the outskirts of Bath with his wife and their black Labrador. Three children around university age ensure their father is up to date on the latest apps: “Yes, I’m on Snapchat!” As his wife is Italian, they spend a fair amount of time in Italy, but any suggestion of potential retirement in Tuscany is met with laughter: “Oh if I lived in Italy full time … It’s too nice, the food’s too good, the people too friendly, it’s too relaxing. And I enjoy business!”

Humphrey may take the occasional digital holiday, but that seems to be less a consequence of a need to unwind, and more about the quality of the network signal. “Having spent a lot of time reforming this business, it’s an exciting time. It’s not a blank canvas, but there are a few opportunities about. You can’t overstate those and you mustn’t make promises, but strategically it’s a very good place to be. It’s an exciting place to be.”