Ricky Nicol chose to pursue a career in the telecoms sector after leaving school as he decided it was a “sexier” alternative to becoming a joiner or plumber.
The reality, however, was a world away from the image of gleaming data centres with racks of air-conditioned servers that the modern industry tends to conjure up.
“When I left school, I was offered five jobs and I chose telecoms – it seemed sexy at the time, because we didn’t have a phone in the house,” Nicol explains from his office at Commsworld’s base in Edinburgh’s Peffer Industrial Estate.
He adds, with a wry chuckle: “Back then, it was still Strowger mechanical exchanges, and my working life was spent in docks and cement works, so it wasn’t very sexy in the winter.”
Nicol, who grew up in Craigmillar, co-founded Commsworld in 1994 with Dave McKenzie, a former colleague from Dial Telephone Systems, which was part of Sir David Murray’s Murray International Metals group until the pair performed a management buy-out and rebranded the business, which now employs about 50 people.
The firm, which also has offices in Aberdeen and Glasgow, turned over £300,000 in its first year and now, two decades down the line, is closing in on revenues of £10 million.
Commsworld does not have any private equity or venture capital backing, and Nicol says most of its shares are owned by staff.
He says: “First and foremost, I have a responsibility to them, to make sure the business is run properly and profitably and we build value. But we do have the ability to build a genuine indigenous telecoms company of scale.
“Scottish Telecom did have that, but ended up being controlled by people predominantly outwith Scotland and the whole thing got sucked away.”
Nicol says what happened at Scottish Telecom is “frustrating”, as the business – which began life as an offshoot of ScottishPower before floating under the Thus banner in 1999 – lost its identity and eventually its independence.
After being acquired by Cable & Wireless for £329m in 2008, Thus has since been integrated into Vodafone, which bought Cable & Wireless Worldwide four years later in a £1 billion deal.
Nicol says: “A lot of people I know loved dealing with them, but they got to a situation where the shareholders started controlling it and demanding they make more money.
“If you talk to customers now who used to love Scottish Telecom and Thus, they really had a feeling of belonging to something – but now they’re dealing with global conglomerates who, to be honest, aren’t well liked.
“There’s a very fine balance between growing a successful business of scale in Scotland and selling out to become little more than a branch office.”
Nicol insists he would never want to be in a position where his firm ended up working to appease external investors, and is keen to remain in control of the business, which counts distiller Glenmorangie, motor dealer Eastern Western and law firm HBJ Gateley among its clients.
“I look at Scotland and believe we have a responsibility to build and deliver the services that everybody requires. To do that we must grow the economy, and if you look at the telecoms sector, more than 50 per cent of the spend in the entire country of Scotland is with English or European companies.”
He adds: “I find it frustrating that we often do work as a subcontractor on behalf of big conglomerates and the money goes out of the country, so it doesn’t build the infrastructure we need. I tell my guys that we will create the new Scottish Telecom and that Commsworld will aim to do £100m within Scotland. We have the ability to do that, but what will stop us is if organisations don’t deal with us.”
Looking back on the past two decades since setting up Commsworld, Nicol says one of the biggest changes to sweep through the telecoms arena has been the rise of cloud computing, which has seen increasing amounts of data beamed through the networks as companies and consumers store their files and applications remotely.
“People who are streaming music to their smartphone or films to their television are using the cloud but they’re probably not aware of it,” he says.
However, he says the explosion in demand for services such as Netflix and Spotify means the major telecoms players are concentrating on the residential market, and business customers can get left behind in the race for ever-faster speeds. As an example, he points to the Rose Street exchange in Edinburgh, which BT had ruled out upgrading to super-fast fibre-optic connections because it did not “meet the criteria for commercial inclusion”.
“We unbundled Rose Street because it wasn’t on BT’s roadmap, as they said there wasn’t the demand,” Nicol says. “What they meant was that there wasn’t a domestic demand.”
Commsworld is now working on so-called “metro rings” in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness to create networks that act like a city bypass, so business customers are not caught up in the same traffic as consumers using the internet when they get home from work or school.
Likening the internet link to an “umbilical cord” for companies, Nicol predicts the next 20 years will bring ever-greater connection speeds, which will be needed as more data takes to the cloud.
“The minute that link stops working, you’re in trouble, and a lot of businesses wouldn’t recover from that. It doesn’t matter what sector you operate in – you have to get online quickly.”
Job: Chief executive, Commsworld
Born: Edinburgh, 1961
Education: Castlebrae High School; Telford College
Car: Mercedes E250 Sport
Favourite mode of transport: The car – I love driving
Music: Elvis, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra – all the greats!
Favourite place: New York and Barcelona
What makes you angry? The inability within Scotland to grow indigenous companies
Best thing about your job: Interacting with my colleagues and making decisions together
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