David Pollock, CEO and founder of Chess Telecom

Megabuyte, February 2016. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.54.43The Megabuyte Interview: David Pollock

It’s two days before Christmas as David Pollock and I speak, and the CEO is looking forward to starting the new year with a brand new £50m acquisitions pot. Though first it’s the holidays, which will be spent with family in Cheshire and then skiing in Switzerland; “But I always nip into the office on Christmas Eve, to talk to the people who’re working.”

Keeping the company spirit high, and making sure Chess Telecom is a great place to work, is alpha and omega for the CEO and founder. Just over 450 people work for Chess, which provides the full range of telecoms and data services to British SMEs from its headquarters in Alderley Edge. “I put a lot of effort into making sure it’s a great place for our employees,” says Pollock. “The deal I do with them is: ‘I’ll love and care for you, and your job is to love and care for the customer.’”

On that note, Chess keeps being voted one of the top places to work in the UK: “We’re very proud of that!” Chess has been in the Sunday Times’ Best 100 Companies list for seven years now; they don’t yet know where they’ll be in the rankings this year, but last year they were third. This is important because it translates to great customer service, says Pollock. Business performance then benefits in turn: in January Chess reported a 33% rise in turnover, to £74m, as acquisitions and continued move towards cloud services in 2015 ensured a 13% EBITDA uptick, to £14m.

The love-and-care approach
Central to Pollock’s love-and-care approach is the Monday Culture of People meeting: “We have a thing called Extra Love for people who’re having challenges in their life – divorce, ill partner, moving house. Then we have people who’re not performing very well who’re in the hot seat, who’re either encouraged to sort out their performance, or seek a career elsewhere. Every employee is measured for energy, attitude and performance every month, based on a score out of five. … The key ingredient in the success of a business is the energy and attitude of its people.” Chess has also won awards for its Happiness Training: “We believe that in every good person we employ, there’s a great person dying to get out. Our job is to try and show them the way.”

I ask Pollock if he can give me the one-minute version of Happiness Training, and he’s happy to oblige. A lot of it has to do with attitude, he says: “If you visualise losing, you’re definitely going to lose. If you visualise you’re going to win, you have a much better chance of winning. … We talk to ourselves every day. Be nice to yourself! And let yourself off – none of us are perfect.” Pollock initially developed the Happiness Training as part of his work with the Prince’s Trust charity, he says; it’s a combination of all the thing he’s learned over the years about leadership, and read in books – he mentions the Dalai Lama more than once.

Chess’ brisk acquisition pace is another reason why Pollock has such a strong focus on culture. The company has bought almost 100 companies now, five of which were announced in January before the newyear confetti had yet to settle. Asked how he manages to keep cohesion with this brisk pace of change, Pollock says this is indeed the biggest challenge: “But many businesses don’t really care for their people. Then we come rushing through the door with our Happiness Training, our benefits, Christmas parties, summer conferences, charity dress-down days, and encouraging people to jump out of planes or run marathons for charity! … People’s performance go off the charts.” This was what happened when Chess bought Avenir 18 months ago: “They’d been a subsidiary of a French company, a small part of a big machine. They’d not had a pay rise in five years, never been loved or cared for. They’ve done phenomenally well, and are up almost 25% in terms of EBITDA performance since we’ve owned them.”

Key to mutual success
Voice is still a key element for Chess, but the company continues to move towards what Pollock calls “new world” services. That’s what they look for in acquisitions too: connectivity, cloud solutions, fibre, backup, hosted PBX. The original idea though, when Pollock started the company in 1993, was to create recurring revenues: “I’ve historically been involved in property development, which is a feast-and-famine business. I wanted to build a recurring revenue business.” Things progressed quickly from there: “It was utilities at first – we were in deregulated gas and electricity. We began to focus on telecoms in about 2000, and then we started buying businesses in 2004. … Once you get the flywheel spinning you can keep doing acquisitions. I’ve always been doing deals, ever since I left school.”

Pollock was born in Nottingham and moved to Cheshire at seven. He’s dyslexic: “It took me six tries to pass my GCSEs.” At 19, he left university after a year to travel around the world instead: “I did funny little jobs: rickshaw driving in Hawaii, window cleaning in Australia, teaching English in Japan. I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, making music videos and TV commercials. I worked on a video for Fleetwood Mac, if you’ve heard of them?” I laugh – I love Fleetwood Mac. “Oh great. It’s the one set in the desert, what’s it called again …” I find it on YouTube later and email it to him, and he confirms: the track is ‘Hold Me’.

Pollock is full of little stories like these, which creates sometimes random detours from the topic at hand – the business of Chess. But maybe this is just the kind of friendly, conducive atmosphere that Pollock creates for his employees? In any case, make no mistake: Pollock is all about Chess. After coming back from the US he started his first company at 22 – mostly property-related businesses at first, and forays into organic food and online marketing. Pollock skims over this though, keen to get back to Chess: “I’ve done a few things, but now I’m focused on this business. The only other thing I do is charity. I’m a trustee for Active Cheshire, which encourages people to be healthy. I chair the North-West development committee of the Prince’s Trust, which helps marginalised people get their lives on track. I’m also a vice president for a local hospice. … But I don’t really want to be a serial non-exec. I’d rather be focusing on what I’m doing.”

Pollock’s key business lesson comes back to the philosophy of treating people well for mutual success, and that also applies to the acquisition process. “Both parties have to win in a deal. If one is trying to take advantage of the other, it doesn’t work. You have to get people to be open and honest with each other.” Pollock likes to keep things simple and avoid acronyms and buzzwords: “Business isn’t difficult if you behave with integrity and keep it simple.” Asked for an example, Pollock points out that Chess has done almost 100 deals: “You can’t do 100 deals if you’re trying to leg people over every time. Behave fairly with people! You’re not going to massively win on every deal, but [it means you can] keep doing the deals.” I ask if he’s found this to be an unusual attitude: “Yes, most people try and leg everybody over! And most people put too much pressure on their staff. If you love and care for people, they’ll walk through fire for you. So deal with people in a nice way, and you’ll have more success.”

Mountaineering spirit
Pollock (55) is married to Tina, and between them they have six children aged 13 to 27. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his son a few years ago, and Mont Blanc just before that: “I’d like to climb the Matterhorn, but my wife and kids aren’t so keen. It’s the fourth most dangerous mountain in the world.” In Zermatt, where Pollock is going skiing over Christmas, the forbidden mountain is a permanent backdrop. He laughs: “I keep looking at the Matterhorn, thinking: ‘God I want to climb that thing!’”

The appeal of the mountaineering lies in the challenge, says Pollock: “It’s a good excuse to get fit, and it’s good to have a target. … It’s also about how you mentally approach things. It’s bloody hard, climbing Mont Blanc! But equally, you’re very focused. You’re not worrying about work, that’s for sure.” He laughs. “I try not to let things phase me too much. I like opportunity and I like new things. I’m quite excited about where the business is going. I’m excited we have funds to buy more businesses, and I like working with the people I’m working with.” Pollock describes himself as open-minded, and that sometimes includes more controversial ideas – the Chess office gets the Feng Shui treatment. It’s all part of being open to new ways of doing things: “When you become very narrow, you become boring and you miss out on opportunities. I still don’t think, as a business, we’ve had our moment yet. There’s plenty more for us to achieve.”

Neville Davis, Chairman

Megabuyte, 2015. 

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.05.10Neville Davis, Chairman of SecureData, Clifford Thames, Key Travel, and Fourth, plus non-exec director of Kalibrate

Neville Davis knows what his happy place looks like: four chairmanships of private equity-run businesses, plus one non-executive directorship of a listed company, to keep his hand in. “That’s what I like the best, as it gives me the right balance,” says Davis. This was the shape of the chairman’s portfolio when we met on the last day of June, but since then, a vacancy has appeared: Davis has stepped down as chairman of Fourth, as part of its ownership change.

But on the scorching hot day of our meeting, his chairmanships are as follows: Fourth (hospitality tech), SecureData (cybersecurity managed services), Clifford Thames (automotive tech), Key Travel (a non-tech business), plus a non-exec directorship of Kalibrate (petroleum tech). We’re enjoying the view of East London from Broadgate Tower, where Davis has secured a meeting room following his previous appointment with financial services group William Blair. That’s about as much as I can say about what he’s been up to today, as Davis takes the confidentiality of his charges very seriously.

Having said that, Davis is very open when it comes to sharing his opinions about the role of chairmanship, if a little reluctant to provide examples from his companies. It’s a bit like naming a favourite child: “I enjoy all the businesses I’m involved in, so I wouldn’t like to single any of them out!” We agree to discuss Fourth, as it’s timely: ECI has just exited to Insight Ventures. “It’s a fantastic business. It’s a pure play Software-as-a-Service, has been from the outset. […] I’m really positive about where the business is, what’s been achieved, and what it will achieve,” says Davis. “The new investor is very supportive and dynamic, which is a great outcome for the business. That’s one of my core beliefs: everything flows from the business being successful.”

The PE advantage
This success also means Davis will be in the market for a new mandate, probably another PE-backed company. So why this preference? “From my perspective, the balance of work between governance and added value, if I can use that phrase, is much more attractive in a PE-run business. The amount of focus on governance is much less, and I like that.” This goes to how Davis views his role as a chairman: “For me, I enjoy the added-value component of being chairman more than the governance. Of course, governance is important! But in a quoted company, you will spend a greater proportion of your time and efforts on governance, and it’s not what I really enjoy.”

Another reason for the PE preference is that Davis likes working with companies with an EBITDA of £4-10 million, a scale he thinks is well suited for private ownership. “What’s attractive about PE is a unanimity of focus on making the business successful. You have a very straightforward relationship with your shareholder, and they’ll typically sit around the boardroom table with you. Everybody is largely invested in making the business successful in a straightforward, simple way.”

As Davis’ most recent appointment, Key Travel, isn’t a tech company, there’s clearly no sector bias. But there are some rules: “My background is B2B and I have little experience in B2C. I wouldn’t get involved in retail or banking, or something that’s a long way from what I’ve done. But to understand a different sector, like travel, doesn’t really take that much time, because you already have the core basics of what business is about,” says Davis. “Management is management, and people are people. The dynamics of human beings don’t differ much.” So Davis focuses on finding good people to work with, not to mention how it’s always fun to be in a dynamic market. “I look for roles I’ll find interesting. Take Key Travel: it’s an interesting business with an ambitious and strong management team, lots of potential. [Then there’s] the fact that it was slightly leftfield of my main area of activity – that made it particularly interesting for me.”

We talk for a bit about how Key Travel may not be a tech company but it has many technology elements, similarly to how sector lines blur for Fourth, whose technology is fully mobile-enabled. Speaking of technology integration, is that an Apple Watch on Davis’ wrist? Yes it is! Davis leans forward to show me. “It’s fun, I have to admit. My wife got it for me, for my birthday.” He demonstrates some of the features. “When I first got it I wasn’t sure about it. But since I’ve had it, I haven’t had it off!” Davis laughs, but the Apple Watch is a testament to a device refined, and turned into something that grabs you.

The Compel variations
Davis (60) and his wife Karen live in Hertfordshire, outside Royston. They have two daughters, a chartered accountant and a doctor, and a son who’s doing his A-levels. “Throughout my life, my family has been the most important thing to me. So when I haven’t been at work, it’s been mostly about family.” He likes playing sports though: a bit of tennis and skiing – although he’s quick to add that’s he’s not very good. The family goes on trips together, most recently to Europe to ski. He loves going to see plays too, especially at the National Theatre in London – it will always be brilliantly acted and presented.

Originally from Sunderland, Davis went to grammar school in the north-east before moving to Canterbury to study at the University of Kent. He’s a chartered accountant by profession: “I learned with one of the big London firms. But I never wanted to be an accountant, I wanted to be a businessman.” Davis joined the company which later became Compel in 1980, taking over as CEO three years later. “Yes, I’ve had a most incredibly boring executive career!” He’s joking, because his 27 years at Compel brought no shortage of action. The long tenure was a happy accident though, says Davis, initially brought about by the fact that the company served real coffee at the interview: “It was a big factor!” He laughs, but in 1980, having proper coffee marked the company as a modern, dynamic business.

Another reason why Davis chose the company was that he wanted to join a smaller business in a more senior role, rather than the other way around. First entering as the company accountant, he soon moved up to CFO. “Then an opportunity arose to become CEO. And I said, ‘Please, can I have a go at running the business?’” Really? That must surely be a very modest recollection of what happened? Davis relents, sort of: “Well, I said, ‘I think I can do this.’ And they gave me a go. It was tremendous! The business turned around and became very successful.” Davis took the company from £5m revenue to a peak of £300m, and led the 1987 management buyout and the 1994 IPO. He eventually left Compel in 2007, when it was acquired by 2e2. “The business changed a lot. Every point where I could have done something different, I thought, ‘What would be more fun than this? What would be more stimulating and satisfying?’ And so, I stayed.”

The chairman as chameleon
When it comes to learning how to be a chairman there’s no set route, says Davis, but in order to be successful, you need to have been a CEO. “But the job of a chairman is fundamentally different from that of a CEO! The transition from CEO to chairman is one of the biggest you can make in a career,” says Davis, adding how it’s probably bigger than the move from being a CFO. Davis’ first chairmanship was industrial equipment auctioneers GoIndustry DoveBird – an enjoyable learning experience, he says, although he admits he might not have chosen the role today. “But when you begin being a chairman, as is so often the case in business, you need to get some experience! So actually, I probably still would have taken the GoIndustry job, because it got me that chairman experience,” says Davis. “I now have an extremely clear view of what the role of the chairman is, which, frankly, I didn’t really have when I started out.”

Now he knows the chairman’s job is to help and support the CEO and the board make the company successful: “The relationship between the CEO and chairman is critically important. The CEO’s role typically lonely, and very demanding. A decent chairman could help you in a million ways: a shoulder to lean on or cry on, a mentor, somebody who stimulates you, somebody to talk to.” And make no mistake: that means being the kind of chairman each individual CEO needs: “So if the CEO wants to talk to you about something which is pretty trivial in the broad scheme of things, your job to be there. Of course, in the majority of cases, the CEO is talking about important things. But sometimes there’s something aggravating within the business, and who else is he or she going to talk to about that?” Davis shrugs. ‘The chairman needs to be a chameleon, and adjust to the needs of each business.”

I ask Davis if he misses being CEO and he thinks for a while – not because he’s unsure, but because he loved being a CEO, and the answer is still no. “The nature of the chairmanship means you mustn’t want to do what the CEO does. Otherwise you’ll be a really lousy chairman! […] You need to have got to a point in your life where you have done enough of that, when you are fulfilled and satisfied and you want to do something different.” He thinks about it some more. “I spent my entire executive career in one business and now, I have this wonderful plural existence. That’s partly why I enjoy it so much: because I am involved in lots of different businesses.”

Lee Wade, CEO and co-founder of Exponential-e

Megabuyte, April 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.28.54The Megabuyte Interview: Lee Wade
“Let me start by saying one thing: I’m not interested in me. I’m interested in this company.” Exponential-e CEO Lee Wade sets the tone for our chat literally the moment I walk into his office, located near London’s Aldgate. I take my seat and sip my water with some apprehension: this sort of start rarely makes for a good interview. But I needn’t have worried: Wade is the lynchpin for his company’s unique culture of pioneering innovation. Not to mention when a CEO is as dedicated to his company as Wade is to Exponential-e, there’s a thin line between the company’s spirit and the person at the top.

Take Wade’s whiteboard wall in his office: it’s filled with notes, cuttings, charts and pictures. “There’s all manner of stuff up there. Look here,” says Wade, getting up from his seat for the first of several times during our chat. “Here are our competitors,” he points to a list. “Here’s their gross margins, their turnovers. That’s just a benchmark, but we beat every one of them except one, and this year we’ve matched their gross margins at 53%. It’s all random stuff up here. This is Harvard’s trapezium of innovation,” he says, pointing to a figure, and then to some fish swimming in bowls: “These fish tanks are our equivalent. These are the drivers of the Exponential-e business: applied innovation and dynamic disruption.”

Innovation on tap
The fish tanks are the business plan, explains Wade: cloud and connectivity specialist Exponential-e delivers two innovations every year, one major and one minor. This lets them swim alone for a bit, as it takes the competition two to four years to catch up and jump into their tank, by which time Exponential-e has moved on. “If you’re swimming in the tank alone you have leadership and exponential growth. That’s our proposition.” Wade has lectured extensively on this over the years, since before Harvard published its model on innovation. “It’s a growth model! Growth by innovation. Regardless of your market, boom or bust times, the model works. It’s held us in good stead.”

He points to another chart: “Here’s all the innovations we’ve had over the past 13 years. Many of them are world leading, and some of them are still a world first. ”Last August’s launch of the Desktop-as-a-Service GPU is one example. “DaaS has been around for years, but GPU, meaning high-powered processor accessed from the cloud, that’s the innovative part.” It enables industries such as the graphics sector to access powerful servers on a pay-as-you-go basis: “It cracks the capex issues all these companies face. We used the VMware’s Horizon Desktop-as-a-Service, Nvidia’s GPU card, and our own cloud infrastructure. It took us about 18 months. No one has done this ever before.”

This little breakthrough caught the attention of Nvidia, who has invited Exponential-e to work with them on their next graphics card and put that in the cloud too. While the investor community knows Exponential-e for its sector-leading organic growth, what the big-name competitors know the £60m revenue company for is its ability to deliver complex, bespoke jobs. Another chart: “This is the complex network we built for NBC for delivering high definition pictures of the royal wedding.” The big players needed nine months to do it, says Wade, whose team did it in eight weeks.

So what’s the secret, I ask; how do you nurture and maintain this feisty attitude to innovation beyond the startup phase? Wade sits down. “The esprit de corps of Exponential-e – do you know the phrase? It’s the strapline of the French Foreign Legion. It means a strong sense of enthusiasm and dedication to a common goal that unites a group of people. […] We got our brand values from a survey of our customers and employees: they thought we were smart and capable, approachable, strong, innovative, full of integrity.” Hiring smart people is vital: “I know meritocracy is a philosophical idealism, but we are as close as you can get. If someone’s earned it, you have to give it to them. I made a sales trainee the sales director after three years. Our managing director, he now runs the company, I took him on as a trainee from university.”

Three years to version 3.0
Right now, Exponential-e is working on transitioning the company into what Wade calls a world class citizen – or Exponential-e 3.0. And this has been the plan all along, Wade assures me: “It’s our culture that drives the company. All these things we’ve talked about add up to this: Exponential-e 3.0. That’s been on our wall for ten years.” Well, there’s one thing that’s changed: the scope has expanded, from Europe to the world. “What I’m seeking here is about one thing, and one thing only. Recognition! Because we believe we are the best at what we do in the world.”

Wade pauses for a moment. “When I was raising the money to start this company, I got thrown out of venture capitalist company offices. They said: ‘Hold on a minute, you and this company whose name I can’t even pronounce, you’re going to take on the world’s biggest telecoms companies and beat them at their own game?’ There was one guy, and I’ll tell you what he said: ‘You’re absolutely mad.’” This was during the dot-com bust years, when ‘internet’ was a swear word in the City. “But nothing’s changed. We’ve always had this goal.”

Version 3.0 will be presented this year, and Wade hopes the goal of world class citizenry will be reached after three years: “That’s when I’m done. I’ll hand it off!” He snaps his fingers. “Then I can rest easy, saying: ‘We did it! We got there! I knew we would. I never doubted it for a minute.’” There’s a lot of work left to do still, in terms of the company’s internal systems, but when it comes to the world of cloud and infrastructure, Wade is confident the company is already a leader. Right now, for example, Exponential-e is on a bidding shortlist alongside three household names: “We’re not being shortlisted just to sharpen their pencils. It’s because they know the superiority of our cloud offering. And you know what? We’re going to win! We’re going to beat those three because they cannot do what we can do. […] That’s what I told the VC guys 14 years ago: ‘We’re going to beat them at their own game.’”

Of course, for a plucky little London company of 300+ people to have this sterling reputation means a lot of phone calls where Wade has to tell suitors he’s not selling. “I was just talking to one this morning. I was a bit blunt, I said: ‘We’re not interested in private equity or a trade sale, please don’t contact us again.’” He laughs. One of these suitors with deeper pockets would probably be able to roll out Exponential-e’s world domination plans faster, Wade admits, but the plan is firm: This year, the company will look to roll out globally, probably focusing on Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo first, then New York and Amsterdam. “Our results this year are our best ever, and when our annual results get made public I get inundated with more of these suitors trying to buy us. But three years on, when we hit that 3.0 mark, then I might be interested.”

Timing and education
Exponential-e’s biggest strength – constant innovation – also represents the company’s biggest challenge. “We get things wrong all the time. Sometimes we misjudge when the market is right for an innovation,” says Wade. He lists a few examples, but the whole company was actually on the brink of collapsing before it even began in 2002, as the market wasn’t quite ready for its main product at the time: ethernet. “We were knocking on doors, and people said: ‘What’s ethernet?’ […] And I thought: ‘We’re going to go bust!’ We only had a small amount of cash burn money, to last us six months.” So Wade tasked a PR company with getting Exponential-e and ethernet on the front page of a newspaper. “There’s the front page, on the wall,” he says, pointing to a page from ‘Communications News’ with the headline: “Service provider launch at ethernet WAN market”. The story was then picked up by the bigger papers. “So then when we called up companies they said: ‘Oh we’ve been reading about that!’ That newspaper headline saved our life.”

Innovation only works when it’s complemented by an educational aspect, Wade has learned: “Our success is based on the continuum of education we’re doing – roadshows, launches, workshops, PR – to let the world know what we’re doing, as well as training of our Academy people.” The Exponential-e Academy is a true passion project for Wade, who brings it up several times. The Academy is run in-house and anyone can apply, but they have to have three attributions: ambition, aspiration, and industriousness. “At the end of three years, you should have attained an earnings potential of £100k a year, and we succeed at this all the time,” says Wade. “I tell people: give it ten years and you can be on top of any industry you want. Think ten years ahead and you will get there! But you have to live it, breathe it, dream it, sleep it – you have to sacrifice many things along the way.”

Ambition, aspiration and industriousness
Wade describes himself as a workaholic, and as someone who’s not really interested in money. “I fear the end of the line – the company being world class. I fear it, because what do you do then? One thing that does get me out of bed in the morning … “ Wade pauses. “Going back many years, I’m an academic, I did my masters in econometrics at University College London. Our Academy is so successful at what it does. If I built another one over there, in its own redbrick building,” he says, pointing across the street. “It would have a waiting list. […] The thing the Academy is really selling is the confidence to face off to the captains of industry. To sit down and tell them where they’re going wrong, and how they can solve it. The Academy is probably what I’m most proud of in this company,” says Wade. “That’s really what gets me out of bed: imparting knowledge, and creating opportunities for young people. If I’m not doing that, what the hell is all this about?”

Wade (56) lives in Essex, and has five children. “One thing my kids were brought up with – like with the Academy – is how ambition, aspiration and industriousness will get you everywhere. My kids were never given pocket money, they had to earn it. It teaches you the value of money,” says Wade. “None of my children chose university. They weren’t interested in the slightest. In spite of my encouragement! But I never tried to push them into it, because I know university doesn’t mean everything. No one forced me to consider university either. I went to one of the worst schools in Britain, growing up in Hoxton.” Wade laughs, remembering how run-down the now-trendy area was back then. He gets up and walks over to a picture on the whiteboard. “This is Hoxton Square. That’s St Monica’s school and church, that’s the youth club I went to. This is the football team. That’s me there!” He points to one of the boys in the line-up. “Funny how time changes you.”

Bob Falconer, CEO of Gamma Communications

Megabuyte, 2015.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.05.32The Megabuyte Interview: Bob Falconer
Now that the IPO is over and done with, Bob Falconer is keen to get back to the business of running Gamma Communications. “It’s been quite a good experience so far,” the CEO says about the transition to life as a public company. “But to be frank, after an IPO you come back into the business and realise you must have been out of it for the best part of six months. You think you’ll have a rest, but it’s actually the opposite: I haven’t done this! I haven’t done that! There’s a huge period of catch-up.”

We’re in Gamma’s London offices in the City on a cold winter morning, in sparkling white surroundings in an eye-catching Grade II-listed building. The CEO is cheerful and casual in a striped shirt and no tie, surrounded by papers strewn across the table. This meeting room is called ‘Heron Tower’, which indeed caused some confusion when Gamma first moved in, Falconer laughs: the real Heron Tower is close by so you have to be specific about which one you mean. The CEO spends most of his time at the company headquarters though, in Newbury: “There’s another little telecoms company in Newbury you may have heard of? It’s the second telecoms company there, alongside Gamma.” He laughs: Vodafone is a big presence in the Berkshire market town. On that note, Gamma’s well-received IPO has done a lot for the company’s name-recognition factor: “I don’t have to explain who is Gamma, which I had to do often in the early days!” October’s IPO, which raised no new money, ensures more freedom of choice: “It helped enhance our brand in the marketplace, and ultimately that was the primary reason for doing it.”

Leading a new industry
Gamma’s industry-leading levels of organic growth has proven a popular addition to the AIM market. As the telecoms services specialist competes against much larger players, there’s a couple of reasons for its success, says Falconer, who’s been in charge of Gamma for ten years: “Where we can compete is by being quicker to market with interesting and innovative services that operate well.” Right now the hottest acronyms are SIP trunks (voice over data circuits) and cloud PBX (hosted voice), brought to the business masses via 650 channel partners providing the boots on the ground.

The strategy is straightforward: continue to grow the company as quickly as possible, especially with the new generation products where there’s lots of opportunity to grab market share. Then, create more integrated products: “Most companies want to increasingly buy their comms from one supplier, so to provide a complete set of communication services to a business is an objective.” Of the 550 people at Gamma, over 100 work in development, making it an R&D-intensive operation.

But Gamma wasn’t always a bet on next generation communications: “The business started in 2001 by buying distressed assets from the dotcom crash, and we were a late entrant in a declining marketplace.” Gamma did okay selling traditional cogs wholesale for a few years: “But growing inside a declining envelope is not the best business strategy. Eventually it’s going to catch up with you.” A decision was made to invest £10m, a lot of money for the company at the time, on what was then called next generation networks. “We calculated, or gambled, that we could do this quicker, faster and better than BT could. Not because we had more resources, but because we had a pretty clean set of assets and weren’t burdened with legacy. That gamble moved us from being a late entrant to a sunset industry to being in a leading position in the new industry.”

The disruptor
Today, Gamma prides itself on being the disruptor, “looking to displace the old with something a bit more exciting, and hopefully more helpful to businesses”. Not to mention that selling software has a higher margin than commoditised services: “Telecoms can be described as a utility, but in reality it’s a high tech, rapidly changing industry. People tend to think of telecoms as potentially being dull, but I think it’s one of the most…” He starts again: “I’ve spent my career in a tremendously exciting industry, and it’s only dull when you can’t think beyond the obvious.”

Falconer grew up in Edinburgh, Leith to be exact – “Leithers are always distinctive” – in a working class family. “I left school at 16. I thought I’d failed my O-grades. I hadn’t, as it turned out, but I thought I had so I got a job.” Falconer became an apprentice at the Post Office (now BT), where he earned a grant to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. “I gained a tremendous amount of practical experience in those four years. Got myself into trouble once or twice” – Falconer was the burglar alarm expert for the Post Office in south-east Scotland for a while, and every Saturday night an alarm would go off all the way out in Broxburn. Fed up with having to go and reset it, young Bob figured out a way to stop the problem from recurring. “I won the Postal Service Innovation Prize for that, as the problem was happening all over the country. But I was shunned by my colleagues because the fix was well-known, and everybody loved it because it got them overtime! I’d ruined the whole damn thing by being a smart little arse of a 19-year-old.”

Headroom culture
This problem-solving attitude set the tone for Falconer’s work history, though. He spent 12 years at BT Research Labs in Martlesham, “where I met my wife”. At that time, research labs where dominated by “pointy heads”: “The company had a problem in that it did research but didn’t do manufacturing. It was a complete disconnect: how then do you turn this research into something practical?” This feeling eventually triggered a career change in 1987, when he became global telecoms manager at ICI: “That had great appeal because you could run your own show.” Falconer learned a lot about management from John Harvey-Jones, the famous industrialist: “I learned about the importance of product quality and staff communication, about taking very complex issues and turning them into relatively simple messages.” He remembers Harvey-Jones having a knack for translating business messages into language that could penetrate an organisation of 100,000 people: “Everybody was talking technical jargon, and he just cut it right down: ‘The centre provides a record player, and the businesses choose the music.’ What he was really saying was, you run the infrastructure, they choose the software, and they run it on your infrastructure. People got that.”

After ICI came Racal Electronics, where Falconer biggest challenge was overseeing the integration of British Rail’s telecoms division. Then the founders of Gamma asked him to run the company. “What gives me the greatest satisfaction is being able to do it properly, do it well, and run a good service. Getting good feedback from customers is great. I have a folder of commendations and complaints in my inbox, and the ratio is about 20-1 of positives to negatives.”

Then there’s the fact that staff at Gamma are happy to work there, and Falconer has the charts to prove it: satisfaction is high across the company. “We hire good people; we trust them, we delegate to them, and they seldom let us down. We like to create an environment where it’s hard work, absolutely, but it’s challenging, it’s interesting and there’s a lot of scope for development and growth.” Falconer thinks office politics are damaging and Gamma stamps down hard if it emerges; the same goes for disruptive members of staff: “Experience [shows] that bad apples in a business really do pollute very widely.” There’s also no “them and us” structure at Gamma: “People attend on the basis of their contribution, not their hierarchical position, so it’s quite egalitarian in that sense. We give people a lot of headroom.”

Family and cycling
It’s clear that the happiness of Gamma’s employees are central to Falconer’s motivations, as he talks at length about the company’s culture for nurturing talent. “I’m not particularly driven by simply making money. It’s about pleasure, really: running a business well, having that recognised by 550 people who for the most part think this is not a bad place to work. That’s quite a nice thing to do,” says Falconer. “And to be frank, if you can poke a stick in the eye of some of the big boys that dominate the market, that’s quite fun as well!”

Falconer (63) lives in Winchester with his wife Sue. There are four kids – all girls: “My eldest has a learning disability, she is semi-independent. My second is a lawyer in the City, she’s doing well. Number three has got the grandchild, a one-year old, she’s working part-time. The youngest is in 6th form college. It’s a well spread out family. Fantastic fun.” Falconer likes to keep active and is a keen cyclist: “I did a charity run to Monaco just before the IPO. It was about 900 miles over about the same number of days, from Winchester to Monte Carlo. That’s a bit of cycling. And over the Alps! But we raised £50,000.” There were about 50 cyclists, with Falconer and the rest of “Dad’s Army” tagging on the back: “Sometimes we overtook the young guys when they got lost. We were a bit more careful about navigating – we couldn’t afford to go wrong!”

While he admits the tinkering is part of the appeal of cycling, Falconer still only has “a couple of mountain bikes and a road bike”, that is all: “Oh and I have an old bike from 1960-odd.” That is from Falconer’s first career: climbing the fence of the local rubbish tip to look for old bicycle parts, turning them into new bikes and selling them for pocket money. “That’s recycling, isn’t it! It was illegal then, the police used to come after you. I still use that old bike to go to the train station, because it would never get nicked.”

Michael Whitfield, CEO and co-founder of Thomsons Online Benefits

Megabuyte, February 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 15.13.06The Megabuyte Interview: Michael Whitfield
Michael Whitfield talks about all sorts during our meeting, but everything he says is really about one thing: how culture is everything at Thomsons Online Benefits. Even the cheery pink decor in the headquarters in London’s Victoria is a symbol of the company’s values: “We are quite pink here. We talk about passion and fun, people are brave here, they can do stuff – that’s the essence of what we’re trying to achieve.” Recently Whitfield felt the company was becoming too process-y, with too many people changing the proverbial lightbulb, and issued a call for more pink: “Don’t tell me you can’t get it done for six months. Find a way! I feel the culture of this business, so if something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. I think that’s a great way to run a company.”

We’re sitting in Whitfield’s office, shared with co-founder Chris Bruce, surrounded by photographs of Whitfield with his colleagues. The CEO’s lanyard, worn over a grey jumper on this cold winter day, carries the same sort of badges as seen around the office: “Vitality”, reads one; another: “I’m tidy”. Whitfield could also be labelled as engaged and enthusiastic, with a knack for delivering even critical opinions in a respectful manner. “I don’t believe in cutthroat and ruthless, I think business is about relationships. That’s what keeps the world going around, and it keeps us honest as a business.”

The changing world of work
Thomsons Online Benefits turns 15 this year, having built a name for itself as a specialist software provider for employee benefits. “Most employers around the world provide some sort of benefits for their staff, but up until the last ten years they’ve not put much thought into how they provide those benefits, or whether employees actually want, need, or like them!”

Increasingly, employers are coming around to the fact that flexibility and choice are key to providing the benefits that attract the best staff. That can mean working remotely, job sharing, bring-your-own-device, health plans, or canteen vouchers: “I’ve always said to companies: you have to give people choice, you have to give people what they want. The millennial generation want something completely different to the baby boomers. People don’t have set retirement ages anymore, so that’s a choice they’re going to have to make.”

The Thomsons technology enables this flexibility, says Whitfield, but the changing world of work ultimately means the boundaries of employer and employee trust has to change. “And this is probably necessary if we want people to have better work-life balance, time to bring their kids up, more time to work, less barriers to working.” Most companies place major barriers to mothers coming back to work by demanding they work full time, says Whitfield: “You have to allow some flexibility. If not, your talent will go work somewhere else, or become a disgruntled employee.”

At Thomsons they practice what they preach, Whitfield assures me, explaining how most of the software engineers won’t show up until 10am, maybe even noon, but will happily work into the evenings: “I just want them to be in their optimal state to write code. […] This is about allowing people to do what they want in their lives, while also delivering the work we want at the appropriate time. I’m after getting the best quality, and having happy brilliant people working.”

International appetite
After undergoing a series of changes in recent years, from the Retail Distribution Review to a partnership with private equity group ABRY Partners in Boston, Thomsons now has its ducks in a neat row: “Our core product is delivering benefits to clients online, and we feel very comfortable doing that,” says Whitfield, who is wary of losing focus through too much diversification. ”We decided to go with ABRY because we wanted a partner who understood the world. It was time to find a global player.” The company is contracted to clients in 120 countries over the next five years, with a determined focus on increasing its global presence. When facing off with the likes of Workday, Thomsons competes on the fact that benefits software is its core focus: “Lots of companies try to offer benefits software, but they are less successful because it’s part of a suite, or it’s an afterthought. For us, it’s all that we do.”

Asked if he feels Thomsons’ global plans are ambitious, the CEO rather thinks this has been a long time coming: “We have eight of the world’s top ten companies as clients, and you don’t get those easily.” He remembers when Google was scouting out the company before becoming a client, and someone commented how the Thomsons culture felt a bit like Google. Not that Whitfield wants to be Google – he wants to be Thomsons – but it’s a nice compliment. “No, I don’t think we’re at all ambitious. I think we are being realistic and our growth plans are very achievable. We achieve our numbers.”

Pushing for change
Whitfield describes founding Thomsons at 40 his “good midlife crisis”, although he’d been working with benefits and financial services a while time before this. “My original plan was to go to university and become a barrister. But my parents divorced and I had little guidance, so I ended up going to work at 18.” This was at Bentalls department store in Kingston, “the best retail training I ever had”, teaching Whitfield how to treat customers. Deciding there wasn’t any money in retail, Whitfield made the switch to financial services, moving through Bishop Cavanagh, Swire Fraser, Alexander Forbes: “I got thrust into a world where I dealt with individual clients, and those clients went on to become managing directors who then asked me to look after their companies. Those companies had benefit requirements, so that was my evolution.”

The spark that later became Thomsons Online Benefits came one Saturday when Whitfield was ordering groceries online: “I was on a big dial-up PC, it took hours and all the wrong stuff turned up, but it was fun because it was online!” This was around 1997. “And I thought, I must apply this to what I’m doing, there must be a way. That was the trigger.” Whitfield knew nothing about technology at the time, but there was so much paper-based admin around benefits, and this could be a chance to change it.

Whitfield’s ambitions for the company has certainly changed since the early days: “I had no idea how big it would get. I remember thinking at the time: wouldn’t it be good to get a million in recurring revenues?” He laughs; now over 80% of Thomsons’ £36.7m revenues are recurring. “I never thought we’d grow this big, but now I don’t think there’s any limit to how big we could grow. We have some fantastic clients and we love what we do. The world is a very small place, and it’s up to companies like to us to go and say…” Whitfield pauses. “When Chris and I first started, people told us we could never put all this online, getting rid of the paper.” Never? “No. You needed a wet signature.”

Well, you don’t need a wet signature anymore. Whitfield never finishes his point about what “companies like us” should go out in the world and do, but his next anecdote provides a hint: Thomsons also pioneered online pension enrollment in the UK by confronting the tax authorities about the red tape, illustrating how plucky little companies, which do just one thing really well, may just have the attitude and motivation to create change.

Cultural lessons
A bold move with more risk attached came four years into the life of the company, when a decision was made to scrap the home-made software and go with Microsoft’s .NET framework. “It was the best thing we ever did, because it allowed us the flexibility we have today. It was a brave thing to do and it went well – it didn’t have to go well! But it did.”

But the period that taught Whitfield the most came around 2010, when Thomsons “went off on a tangent”. The co-founders were advised to step back from the day-to-day runnings, and the company went from 125 to 250 people in the space of a year. “We had all these new people come in without Chris and I living and breathing the culture on a daily basis. The old people lived the values and the behaviours, and the new people didn’t care. After about six months I said: ‘Enough, this isn’t going to work. We are losing the culture which makes us special.’”

It took the co-founders six months to get the company back on track, but it became a lesson in sticking to your guns when you have a passionate conviction about where you want to go. “Of course you listen to advice, but if you know what you’re doing is right, it probably is. […] I learned a huge amount about the business, and about myself. We became a much better business and I became a much better leader.”

Running with your head up
Whitfield (56) is a Londoner, “born and bred all my life”, now living in Barnes where he’s chairman of the local rugby club. He has two children in London and three in Canada following “a couple of iterations” of marriage: “They are very diverse: my youngest in London are students. In Canada, one is running a university treasury department, he’s about to finish uni. One runs a business, one sells advertising.” Whitfield likes to get up at 5.30 every morning and “keep this old body in shape”, and he’s passionate about sports: “I still play the occasional game of rugby. I’m also into travel, reading, holidays, so yes, passionate in and out of work! But as I get older I feel I have sacrificed a lot in terms of time with the kids. I try and make up for that now. We spend time together, all the kids, they get on well.”

Proper work-life balance isn’t just something the CEO facilitates for his staff and customers, readily recognising he’s at his most creative after he’s been on holiday for a few weeks, “when my mind is rested and free from the clutter of the day-to-day work”. Getting some distance from the daily grind also ensures Whitfield can keep an eye on what’s on the horizon for the business: “You have to run a business with your head up, not down. That’s how you play sports as well.”

At Thomsons, this means talking to everyone in the company, and Whitfield makes sure to check in with every new face. “Your people keep you honest,” he says, not for the first time during our chat. “Nothing excites me more than a challenging period of growth, as I know I have to be really alert. You have to get up and work a bit faster and harder, and walk around the business more.”

Keeping in touch with the people of Thomsons, making sure the culture and the “pink mist” is strong, is without a doubt what motivates Whitfield: “When you are young you want to do it yourself, proving you are the best at what you do. Now I want to see my talent be the best. I look at my talent growing with the business, and it’s great to see them feeling empowered to do brilliant things. It’s that, not me, which will make this business great in the future.”

Andrew Lindsay, CEO of Telecom Plus

Megabuyte, November 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.21.47The Megabuyte Interview: Andrew Lindsay
The sign to the Utility Warehouse, the trading name of Telecom Plus, points to a functional building between Matalan and McDonalds. This is Colindale, a non-descript area at the far reaches of the Northern Line, with a view of Alexandra Palace as the only sign we’re still in the capital. Telecom Plus is a proud North London kid from Hendon, and Andrew Lindsay, a son of Scotland, will soon move the staff of 800-and-growing to a bigger and better building up the road. After all, running a large call centre operation in London means access to a great talent pool, as customer service is the beginning and end of the Telecom Plus story.

“We have as a mantra: treat every customer as if they were your own mum,” says Lindsay. “Our business is to be the nation’s most trusted utility supplier.” Right now, that means over 547k customers taking an average of 3.6 services out of the core offerings – gas, electricity, mobile, broadband and landline – with solid organic growth across the board. “It’s intensely personal business. Every single one of our customers come through a personal recommendation,” says Lindsay. So it follows that you wouldn’t recommend something dodgy to your mum or dad, nor would you let them down on a service call: “When we deliver good customer service we get recommendations, and we grow.”

A personal approach
The strictly-business roundtable in the conference room where we’re sitting is offset by Lindsay’s rolled-up sleeves, plus a generous sprinkling of the company logo: a purple piggy bank with a phone cord tail. But the folksy feel goes beyond design to be part of the company’s reason for success, as is clear from Lindsay more than once bringing up the distributor network, his “Purple Army”.

“The route to market is low-cost and proactive. Our distributors actually go out and find customers who want to switch, or who haven’t thought about switching,” says Lindsay. “The multi-utility proposition wouldn’t work on a billboard, as you need somebody who can explain it to you in detail. Through this informal recommendation channel you can get the complex message across.” Not to mention how the multi-utility approach is efficient from a company overhead perspective, as one call centre supports five revenue stream. This enables the company to offer competitive deals – not that the savings aspect is really what’s driving Telecom Plus’s growth: “Good customer services is by far the easiest way to differentiate yourself from the competition. People won’t remark on £4 savings but they will remark on good customer service.”

Lindsay is committed to growing the company, and to do so organically: “We see a very clear path to the FTSE100, and we’re going to do it through solid double digit compound growth.” While that probably rules out major M&A, Lindsay is open to adding to the company’s offerings: “We have very strong brand advocacy from our customers. They view us as a safe house for their utilities, because they don’t have to keep changing them because they know they’re always going to get a good deal from us. Why wouldn’t you also logically extend that to other boring but essential household expenses like insurance? […] We think we can bring our brand of ethical pricing policies into the insurance market. We may not make the same returns that some of the insurance players make, but we don’t need to – this is the point.”

Lindsay uses the word “ethical” more than once, and when asked he will certainly describe Telecom Plus as a “highly ethical” company. This does however seem to be more a side-effect of the general principle of how you wouldn’t sell a lemon to your family: “You don’t go and sign your mother up to a one-year loss leading tariff which is then auto-renewed onto a super premium tariff.” With energy prices in focus following Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, aimed at providing “simpler, clearer and fairer” prices, this attitude arguably makes Telecom Plus look like a fresh breath of air to a jaded public: “Our view is that we’re at the vanguard of [the trend towards fairer customer treatment]. The customer who comes to us and gets treated well has lifetime value. This is much, much greater than a short-term disgruntled customer, even if you’re making a healthy margin out of them.”

A lightbulb moment
Lindsay’s had an unusual route to the top seat of Telecom Plus, especially considering he’s 37 years old and has been the CEO for seven years. After Eton and Oxford he spent two and a half years in M&A at Goldman Sachs, before an urge to “taste the real world” prompted a move to Ryness, a small London chain of light bulb retailers. “There was a Ryness just outside the Goldman Sachs offices on Fleet Street. I was laughed out off the offices as I said I was going to join that cruddy little shop down there!” But Lindsay found the prospect appealing, as the founders had just exited to private equity. He oversaw Ryness’s growth from 10 to 15 shops, before he was approached by Telecom Plus in 2007.

“Ryness was a £10m business with 100 staff. Very, very hands-on operations. I learned an unbelievable amount about real people and real business – from the strategy of running a company, to stopping people from pinching cash from the till. You see the whole canvas, and that was a fantastic foundation period layered on top of the academic finances of Goldman Sachs.” Lindsay describes himself as an “intensely practical person”, but still, the move to Ryness was a move to a different life:

“Suddenly I was up on ladders hanging displays, counting stuff on shelves, and learning about the difference between incandescents and compact fluorescents. You get into a whole micro world of detail and you become a bit boring, talking to people at dinner parties about lightbulbs!” He laughs, but Ryness was a priceless learning experience: “I learned about bookkeeping, marketing, IT systems, HR, how to hire and fire people, how to negotiate a contract for supply. […] But the real thing I learned about was people, and that is ultimately about leadership.”

While Lindsay knew he wanted to run a business ever since leaving school, walking out of Goldman Sachs in the 2003 boon times must have been a shaky decision. “I started at Ryness on less than my assistant was being paid when I left Goldman, and it didn’t get much better. You have to somehow justify to yourself that you’ve made the right decision, and I was determined to make it work. It wasn’t a huge success story, but I feel very proud of what we did there.”

Real world approach
The Ryness experience also provided some vital insights into creating a sense of team among staff who were often motivated by different things. “I used to row,” says Lindsay, so modestly: he has an Olympic gold for rowing coxed eights in Sydney. “When I was rowing there was no question about team work. You just got in the boat because you wanted to be there, and you wanted to get to the end as fast as you could, with your teammates.”

But being surrounded by “exceptional bright, talented and driven people who you could rely on to be on your team” is not always how the real world works. While a fellow rower who was letting the team down by not eating his greens could be talked around, because there was a common goal, Ryness staff who were half an hour late every day required a different approach. “That was undoubtedly the biggest eye opener of coming out of this quite institutionalised bubble of a team work at school, university, professional sports, Goldman Sachs. I hadn’t really hit the real world until I left Goldman Sachs.”

Creating an atmosphere of a common goal continues to a key focus for Lindsay at Telecom Plus, as he talks about the 800+ staff who rely on the company, and what it means for the brand distributors to be part of something: “Recognition’s a massive part of being a distributor, to be a part of a community that values you.” A similar motivation drives the CEO as well: “Technology doesn’t rock my boat, to be honest. I’m not interested in billing systems. I’m interested in creating something. We’re creating something through thousands of partners, which enables them to be an entrepreneur. […] That’s highly motivating and hugely rewarding.”

New pinnacles
Lindsay lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and their four boys, the eldest being six years old. “Yes, it’s children and work, basically!” He laughs. He likes to ski and still has his bagpipes: “Scotland is my passion.” He’s very grateful the referendum went the way it did. “I miss Scotland. I’d like to spend lot more time there, in the wilderness.” While his Olympics team still meet up regularly, they do this in the pub now: “I haven’t rowed since Sydney.” Instead, Lindsay prefers to focus on new goals: “Because life’s too short. I did nine years of rowing and I got to the pinnacle, and … onto the next thing.”

Lindsay’s approach hasn’t changed all that much, though: “My philosophy is to find things you’re good at, or you think you can be good at, and then spend time on that.” He laughs. “I suppose I’m a competitive bugger!” At Telecom Plus, this means keeping an eye on the prize: growing from 2% to 10% market share, from 500k customers to 1m, then 2m, and from the FTSE250 to the FTSE100. Lindsay has no plans to leave the company anytime soon, in fact he’s more excited about the prospect of Telecom Plus now than ever: “I think I would struggle to find a corporate environment I felt had the fundamentals and opportunity of this business. […] If you’re going to work for a large corporate, this is best large corporate you could work for, in my opinion.”

Mike Tobin, CEO of Telecity

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.

Work-life integration
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!”