mike-tobin-telecity
Data Center

Telecity's Tobin Takes Odd Roads To Success

The year is shaping up quite well for Telecity CEO Mike Tobin. He reached his half-century, celebrating with a London party in which Martin Fry of ABC sang (ask your parents if you’re under 40). He was honoured by Her Majesty the Queen with an OBE, an award given to outperforming subjects of the British Empire. And in March his first book Forget Strategy. Get Results. was published.

I have known Tobin for about a dozen years. When I first met him, he was an executive at Redbus Interhouse, an early datacentre hosting company beset by bizarre management turmoil and, in the wake of the dotcom crash, a stock price of a few pennies. At the time, there was talk of datacentre operators selling off space to retailers or residential property but I remember clearly his prediction that once there was competition for capacity, valuations of datacentre operators would soar. He was right, Redbus rallied and today, Telecity, created by the acquisition of Redbus by Telecity in 2006, has a market capitalisation of about £1.4bn (US$2.3bn) even though its stock price is way off its 52-week high.

Tobin has been there for the whole wild ride and hasn’t much changed, judging by a recent meeting, phone calls and email exchanges. He’s a talker, confident without being arrogant, he laughs easily and often. He has a wide range of interests including food, wine and music and, an unusual trait in the go-go world of technology, he talks about personal matters — snafus and successes in equal measure — as easily as he talks about business. He’s a one-off and doesn’t fit the photo-fit for a tech CEO.

After spells in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and South Africa (then with the apartheid system intact), he was raised by his mother in Bermondsey in south-east London, a resolutely working-class area that is only now being gentrified. When I met him recently for lunch at the restaurant on top of the tower colloquially known as The Gherkin, we looked across the new face of London with its oddly shaped new buildings. We discuss how the city and its business life has rapidly changed and he tells me that, in a Dickensian turn, he is now having a London house built, close to where he grew up.

Tobin rose through the ranks of computer companies including ICL and Fujitsu following an apprenticeship and is highly active in schemes to offer better chances for the disadvantaged.

“I am a great believer in creating the opportunity for social mobility – I guess it comes from my background,” he says. “But nothing is given to you, it has to be earned. I feel apprenticeships are a great grounding for business life and don’t result in graduates arriving at the door of work/life with a big debt and no hands-on experience. The Duke of Edinburgh award is an early version of an apprenticeship… a kind of adolescent apprenticeship of life. With all other things being equal, I would prefer to employ a DofE Award winner over someone without that experience. Initially I didn’t have the roadmap or university degree [to ensure success]. Apprenticeships are an alternative higher education.”

His book is a refreshing antidote to the blandness of so many ‘how I made it big’ business books. In it, he commends a very different style of leadership to the usual, preferring instinct, quirkiness and chance-taking over the usual management-speak. This, after all, is a man who has taken teams for swims in shark-infested waters, to visit Auschwitz, to ice hotels that forced arguing parties to live in close proximity, and even mock abductions in Tallinn. Most of them (and there are many others, some of them scarcely believable) are intended to inspire some sort of change in attitude or perspective and foster teamwork. You wouldn’t get that at PwC.

He says it’s a book for business leaders seeking inspiration to dip in and out of.

“So many people have heard my stories over time and putting them all down in a book was interesting because it refreshed my mind and I thought ‘god, we did some amazing things.’ I want people to think ‘that’s zany, let’s try to apply that’. Goethe said something like ‘once you take a decision then all manner of fortune comes along the way.’ You have to stand out today as there are so many people that don’t even get their CVs read.”

He believes that that need to stand out was probably a product of being educated in “not the best of schools … you had to fight to be different or make jokes”.

In a globalising business, hiring the best people and getting the most out of them will be the difference between success and failure, he contends.

“The first thing you want to do as a leader is surround yourself with good people. If you impart vision they should know more than you do. It’s not false modesty: it’s just true.”

With his polyglot background and having lived in Denmark and France and travelled widely, he believes that globalisation could also give the West a rude awakening. One of his interests is in the Loomba Trust, a charity to educate children of poor widows in India. “These kids are so keen to work and you come home and it’s ‘Oh, I have homework again.’ The implied right to welfare frustrates me.”

His own icon is Nelson Mandela who had “outrageous vision but showed compassion” and, characteristically discursive, he notes that Mandela’s divorce can be the flipside of worldly successes. By contrast, Rhodesian/Zimbabwean leaders Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe are examples of ruling by fear, he says.

As for the day job, he remains bullish on Telecity’s future despite the company getting marked down by analysts recently for reining in forecasts.

“2014 represents the year of strong acceleration of Telecity’s organic growth trajectory, ahead of the 7% organic growth of last year, with very strong cash flows, showing a true coming of age of the internet industry.”

These days, as one of the UK’s captains of industry, he is feted by politicians and the powerful. He shows me photographs on his phone where he is photographed alongside celebs from Bono to Bill Clinton and many, many more. He seems in perpetual motion, talking about a dizzying number of foreign trips, datacentre expansions and “the next book” he has in the works. The one thing that surprises me is that he has not founded his own company and gone it alone. But then with Mike Tobin you get the sense that there are many more chapters to come.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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