The Big Interview: Commsworld chief executive Ricky Nicol

A driving force behind the rollout of high-speed fibre broadband services, telecoms and network provider Commsworld was tasked with tackling Edinburgh’s ageing, mainly copper network that was “creaking” under the strain of increased usage as the city gained traction as a major tech hub.

Commsworld chief executive Ricky Nicol oversees a technology company which is going toe to toe with big players such as BT, Virgin and Vodafone. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Indeed, nearly a third of organisations in the Scottish capital were found to view cloud computing and mobile internet as central to their success.

The Edinburgh-based telecoms and network provider set out to make Auld Reekie one of the best-connected cities globally, teaming up with digital infrastructure provider CityFibre to bring about a 150 kilometre fibre optic network that put Edinburgh on the map as a Gigabit City (enjoying unlimited bandwidth and gigabit speed).

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Benefits of the project included some 17,000 businesses having the opportunity to use the network.

And such an initiative typifies Commsworld’s ability to deliver technologies “far superior” to old infrastructure in place, according to chief executive Ricky Nicol, with the firm having also helped Glasgow and Aberdeen gain Gigabit City status.

Indeed, when Nicol is asked what the firm does, his response is that it is an innovator and a disruptor “in a sector that’s been crying out for disruption for years”.

In his view, while Scotland is creating “Ferraris” of tech giants such as Skyscanner, with the travel site boasting 80 million users a month, such businesses can’t “drive on the roads” if the connectivity isn’t up to par. “It’s like taking a Ferrari through mud.”

Governments both north and south of the border have shouted from the parapet their efforts to see state-of-the-art connectivity rolled out – with the aim for every home and business in Scotland to have access to superfast broadband by 2021, for example.

But a report last year branded the latter target “difficult”, while 2018 also saw the publication of a study by broadband, TV and phone website Cable that saw the UK fall to 35th place in a study of broadband speeds across 200 countries.

Dropping four places from the previous year, it ranked in the bottom third of EU countries and was seen as likely to lag further behind in coming years.

Commsworld has certainly not been slacking in its efforts, reaping the rewards of landmarks such as netting major public sector contracts, the acquisition of a cloud services business, and the expansion of its Fluency network to create what Commsworld highlights is the UK’s largest independently owned, ultra-fast optical core network.

The latter milestone is “remarkable”, says Nicol, and was underpinned by exclusive access to long-distance fibre networks from CityFibre and fellow infrastructure builder Zayo. It also enabled it to offer more than 250,000 businesses top connection speeds.

Commsworld started out in 1994, with Nicol having co-founded the firm 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.

Now, in the year of its silver anniversary, Commsworld has about 100 staff, an office network that includes Glasgow and Aberdeen, and is set to bring in turnover of £25 million, up from about £15m in 2017.

Last year saw a record year for growth, with turnover breaking the £20m barrier, a year-on-year jump of more than 40 per cent, and profit increasing three-fold.

It has 1,200 “very diverse” customers, and its services are used by the likes of Europe’s largest independently owned, family-run car company Arnold Clark; whisky specialist Glenmorangie; Edinburgh Airport; and “almost every legal firm you can think of”.

Also on the books is Aberdeen-based tech firm Veripos, which provides precise positioning services for the offshore marine oil and gas industry.

And finalising a £30m contract to become a key provider within the seven-year Information and Communication Technology (ICT) contract with Glasgow City Council proved to be what Commsworld deemed a “game-changer” when the step was announced about a year ago.

The overarching ICT contract was the largest of its kind in the public sector agreed in UK over the previous year, and Nicol said the Scottish firm’s involvement marked a real milestone.

“People told us we were too small even to bid,” he said last month. “Then they told us we were too small to succeed. After that, they told us we were too small to deliver. Finally, they told us we were too small to repeat that success. Now they don’t say anything at all.”

The firm is now going toe to toe with big players such as BT, Virgin and Vodafone, has listed on two major public sector frameworks and is working on a 13-year contract with Scottish Borders Council.

Winning such long-term public sector deals means Commsworld can plan ten years rather than ten months ahead. “For us to scale our business, it was really important that we went to the public sector – it was critical.”

Other milestones on the journey include signing an English-based FTSE 100 business, a multi-year, multi-million-pound contract that is “big news for a Scottish company”, plus appointing former City of Edinburgh Council chief information officer Bruce Strang to its board as MD.

He had experienced Commsworld’s work as part of the council’s ICT contract.

Also on board is SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP, who retired from investment banking in 2002, coming on board as non-executive chairman.

And it was announced in April that Steve Langmead, who has managed large technology/digital businesses such as Atos and Capita plus, and John Bennett, director of European equities at Janus Henderson Investors, were joining as non-executive directors.

Its other recent achievements include striking a deal with Sky that will allow business users to access its ethernet network, and snapping up cloud computing firm ECS in a deal that saw the assimilation of the 19-strong team of what was formerly Edinburgh Computer Services, rebranding it Essential Cloud Solutions.

Commsworld has also been talking to various high-profile lenders, and councils in England, and is well-poised to harness the increasing digitalisation of the world around us.

An engineer by trade, Nicol grew up in Craigmillar, and had originally chosen to pursue a career in the telecoms sector after leaving school. It was one of five jobs he had been offered, and he ­decided it was more appealing than becoming a joiner or plumber.

He is now mulling the next phase of Commsworld, which he stressed has both rebuffed the many offers it has attracted, and has zero debt, having shunned taking on private equity or venture capital investment to instead remain in control its own destiny.

Nicol, whose spell away from the business after being diagnosed with throat cancer inevitably changed his perspective, stresses that the firm is a well-oiled machine that does not need money, nor does it want or need to take any risks.

But there is now the question of what new sources of backing could do to help it maximise its potential. “Obviously we want to grow as much as we can, as far as we can,” he adds, noting that the firm could quadruple its turnover in the right circumstances, and help to catalyse its growth would also not necessarily be money.

“We’ve been lucky, clever, whichever way you put it – to do what we’ve done. We are [wondering], can we continue to do that and grow at the rate that we’ve done on our own – is that actually logical? We’re exploring our options across the board.”