askar-sheibani-ceo-of-comtek
Business Management

Comtek Boss Makes a Virtue of Re-Use

Askar Sheibani tells a story about growing up in in Tabriz, Iran’s fourth largest city and the capital of the East Azerbaijan Province.

“I was eight years old, very entrepreneurial,” he says. “My family was something like upper working class but I wanted to get into business. For the New Year I was given some cash from relatives so I bought myself a chicken. They were my pets too … I would take them to my bedroom and my mum would tell me off. Anyway, I got some eggs from the hen and sold them to my mum and then I had more animals and eggs and I started selling them to neighbours and bought more animals. One day a customer asked for brown eggs and so I bought a [certain breed] but it had a virus and all the birds died. So I became bankrupt at the age of 10…”

He bursts out laughing. “But that’s the sort of kid I was; I always took risks. But I hadn’t done the quality control or due diligence with the birds.”

It’s a characteristic and telling story from a man who might be the hero of an HG Wells or Arnold Bennett novel of one man’s self-improvement. Sheibani is modest and funny but he draws morals from every tale and scrap of fact.

“I was brought up with the kind of mentality that I was always against the wasteful nature of society and a throwaway culture,” he says. “Sweat your assets and reduce costs. You heard it from your mother and grandmother all the time, and it was common sense.”

That putting value on thrift has served him well as his Deeside, Wales-headquartered European repair, service and parts company, Comtek Network Systems, has risen to become a leader in a niche field. The company, largely focused on telecoms and communications equipment, made a £1m ($1.6m) profit on turnover of £15m ($24m) for its last financial year – no chicken feed.

Sheibani had the idea for Comtek back in the late 1980s but it didn’t get the warmest reception.

“There weren’t many repair organisations dealing with network equipment,” he recalls. “The suppliers’ main intention was to sell product and it wasn’t advantageous for them to have end-users sweating their assets. The market was also very sceptical. The bank and the consultants from the Department of Trade told me this model wouldn’t work because the manufacturers don’t want it and the system integrators will not trust a small independent organisation. I was very much discouraged and I knew I couldn’t raise any funding.”

That meant taking a chance at time when Sheibani and is wife had a young child and were living in a small house in Reading. After his wife kicked him out from refurbishing equipment in the home, he did what any resourceful innovator does… go to his shed, in this case a £50 ($80) model.  

“I had some friends who gave me some subcontracting work and within three months I moved out to small premises. The early 1990s recession was a positive thing for me as system integrators were looking to reduce their costs.”

Sheibani built the business steadily but the company took its eagle flight when comms equipment giant Nortel went into bankruptcy in 2009.

“I saw a fantastic opportunity. It was the biggest and they were in every country in the world so we employed ex-Nortel engineers and staff as they were being made redundant and reached an agreement with the administrator in Munich. Twenty of us stayed in a hotel there to decommission all the infrastructure. We had containers full of product and shipped them to Deeside and built one of the best Nortel labs you could imagine in Belfast. We had the core switches, enterprise switches and a high level of expertise. They were all going to be scrapped and got rid of. You’ve got to move fast to turn something new into something positive. We did that and it was a real bargain.”

Go on then: how much did 200 tonnes of state-of-the-art kit cost?

“It was one euro but it cost me 10 euros because in Germany they wouldn’t accept a money order for less…”

Today, Comtek is a powerhouse in refurbishing Nortel and it also deals in Cisco, Juniper, HP, Enterasys and Foundry Networks hardware. It’s a formula that suits these parsimonious times while fast links are in demand and waste and any activity deemed non-green is scrutinised… and it all goes back to that distaste for waste and childhood.

“I didn’t like waste; environmental things were very important for me and my family and I wanted to better myself because I came from a challenging background. At Comtek we can maintain infrastructure and save the environment.”

There’s also a social element. Comtek employs about 150 staff and Sheibani works with various schemes and political bodies to help provide a future for young people in the UK.

“Younger people might have been rejected by society but giving them mobile and internet access and allowing them to use their entrepreneurial talent is a way out. I got some of my guys exporting through eBay and the internet: it’s just amazing, the social impact. It’s a lifeline, basically. Today, they don’t need to have their own server to make a business and they’re learning about technology much quicker.”

That’s also affected globalisation.

“I couldn’t have imagined what has happened in China, Brazil, South Korea because twenty years ago they were in a totally different position. The internet lets them compete with the West and because they’re hungry they want to better themselves. Young people have the fire and determination and now they can compete on a global level. I never saw boundaries, it’s an entrepreneurial thing: you only see opportunities.”

The market is good now but Sheibani isn’t looking for a big exit or a fat VC donation.

“We don’t need it and we don’t owe a penny. We’re a lean, mean organisation but there could be time one day. I’m extraordinarily ambitious and I want to expand on a global level.”

Having lived in London, Leeds, Liverpool, south Wales, Reading and north Wales (he says he has always liked to travel around and see what happens), Sheibani is concerned at the “massive lack of skills” stifling growth in the UK.

“Above all, it’s a cultural problem,” he says. “British universities are some of the best in the world but if you go to see engineering postgraduate degree courses almost all of the students are foreign. School models have to change, they have to promote engineering among girls and boys and educate the parents too that engineering is a very good career for their children. They have all of these wonderful things like cellphones because of engineering so instead of giving the boy a gun and the girl a doll, give the boy a car and the girl a car too so they can know how to build that, rather than playing with a Barbie doll.”

With that, Sheibani has to go, but he’s still musing about the past, the importance of re-use and lessons learned.

“I’ve still got that shed,” he says.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

 

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Editorial Consultant for IDG Connect

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