Interview: Tom Sime, MD of Exchange Communications

Tom Sime had a lightbulb moment when he saw the potential of telecoms and realised its ever-changing technology meant there would always be something to sell. Picture: Martin Shields

Tom Sime had a lightbulb moment when he saw the potential of telecoms and realised its ever-changing technology meant there would always be something to sell. Picture: Martin Shields

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MD Tom Sime says there is ‘always something bigger, better, faster’ to sell

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, so international has Exchange Communications become that founder and managing director Tom Sime’s air miles balance recently sat at 5 million, while most of its technicians bring their passports to work in case they need to head overseas “at the drop of a hat” to help out a client.

The telecoms firm now covers more than 100 countries, with destinations including Brazil, the Middle East and Malaysia, with more than half of its work outside the UK. “There’s not a city in Europe [where] we don’t have multiple installations,” Sime says.

Exchange Communications announced in March that it had expanded into Russia, winning deals with three global companies including network-expansions for toy retailer Hasbro and international biotechnology developer Thermo Fisher.

Sime says taking the business international has been both his career highlight but also the biggest challenge, learning the nuances of foreign markets.

He sees a lot of concerns in his sector over doing global business, but “once you’re involved in it, it’s not as intimidating as it appears”, However, he stresses that the domestic market is still hugely important to the company, offering many large infrastructure projects.

Exchange’s domestic clients cover a variety of sectors, both public and private, including Golden Jubilee National Hospital in Clydebank and Glasgow-based Luddon Construction, and in April it revealed six contract wins, including one with Rugby Borough Council to provide support and maintenance of its Avaya IP Office telephone system.

The remaining five wins were north of the Border, including Edinburgh architects Lewis & Hickey and Kilmarnock transport-and-haulage company Richmond Menzies.

Sime’s business drive evidently started early, and he remembers telling his parents when he was nine that he was wanted to start working as he was worried about not having any money. While they laughed and told him he was too young, he got a job in an ice cream van and was delighted to earn his first £100.

He later moved into retailing, saying he naively thought being in fashion would be “quite cool”, and owned a clothes shop in Glasgow city centre in the mid to late 1980s.

Emphasising his respect for the retail sector, he says, “It wasn’t for me, because there wasn’t the proactive element of going into a marketplace and trying to find customers”.

A lightbulb moment came when he saw the potential of telecoms, not limited to geography or sector and its ever-changing technology meaning there would always be something to sell.

He joined a telecoms firm to better understand the sector, working there for about a year, and says: “While the other sales guys were having a coffee at break times, I’d be sitting with the engineers finding out all they knew… I’m not from a technical background but I did take to it very quickly.”

He says this was a great foundation for Exchange, which is still trading positively after a quarter of a century and is currently hiring to meet demand although he declines to say how many staff it has.

There is greater clarity on its office network, with headquarters in Kirkintilloch, plus operations in Aberdeen, Oxford and Gatwick.

Glasgow resident Sime’s prediction about constant change in telecoms evidently came true, seeing innovation coming in six-month cycles. There is always something “bigger, better, faster and more economic to sell to our clients and to improve how they run their businesses,” he says.

Now Exchange has a five-year plan to expand its traditional business but also grow its smart-buildings division.

Additionally, expanding its international business means Sime looks to boost his air miles even further. “Communications has shrunk the world,” he says.

And while the father-of-four and keen cyclist tries to keep weekends free to spend with his family, weekdays start early and finish late.

“Whether you’re working for someone else or yourself, being able to work and be involved in something is extremely rewarding,” he says.

He wanted to run his own business “because I thought I could be successful at it. It’s not always [about making] money, it’s actually building something… there’s a lot of pleasure in having something that’s respected in the industry”.

30 SECOND CV

Born: 1957, Glasgow

Education: Lenzie Academy (left when 16)

First job: Trainee copywriter

Ambition while at school: To become a jockey but by first year I was 5ft 10in tall

What car do you drive: Porsche

Favourite mode of transport: Flying

Music: Garage grunge & classic soul

Kindle or book: Book

Reading material: John Grisham & Scott Turow

Can’t live without: Champagne and mobile phone

What makes you angry: Misleading politicians

What inspires you: The Exchange Communications family

Favourite place: Italy

Best thing about your job: Being happy, makes me smile every day

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