When LSE-listed data centre operator, Redbus was taken private in 2002, the company had just £6m in the bank to support monthly outgoings of £2.5m. Over the next five years of private ownership, the fortunes of the business changed dramatically.
With CEO Michael Tobin at the helm, Redbus merged with rival Telecity and by 2007 a reinvigorated company was ready to return to the stock exchange. “When we delisted Redbus was valued at £23m,” recalls Michael. “We relisted at £400m and in 2014 sold the business for £2.5bn”
The successful turnaround of Telecity and its subsequent rapid expansion established Michael as an influential player in the digital economy. As mobile and conventional internet usage spiralled upwards, Telecity was, and now as part of the world’s largest data centre operator still is, a key component of Europe’s internet infrastructure. Michael's contribution to the digital sector was recognised by the award of an OBE in 2015 and a series of industry accolades.
Having stepped down as CEO of Telecity in 2014, Michael continues to play an active role in supporting the development of the technology sector in Britain through investment in a diverse portfolio of startups and his work as a non-executive director. He is also a committed advocate for transformational power of tech to improve lives and businesses; - a commitment that even extends to Michael signing up for an RFID implant carrying micro-chipped personal records and virtual keys. “There is,” he says, “endless value in embracing tech as a tool.”
Michael's non-executive directorships include VR business Ultrahaptics, communications equipment company Satellite Solutions plc and New York based hybrid cloud solutions provider Datapipe inc
After more than a decade as the decision maker at Telecity, he acknowledges that the advisory role of a non-exec is very different to that of a CEO. But not necessarily alien to his style. “There is a natural progression in business from the hands-on chief executive to the more advisory role of a chairman or non-executive,” he says. In that respect, one vital responsibility of the CEO is to ensure there is talent coming through. “The best thing a leader can do is to create more leaders.”
It's a philosophy that he still applies. Having worked his way up the corporate ladder from an electronics apprenticeship (aged 16) at robotics company Rockwell, through senior sales roles before arriving at Redbus, Michael stresses the importance of having rounded business knowledge.
Today he is passing that knowledge on. As an NED he is not there to countermand the decisions of young CEOs but he can, for example, help them avoid the pitfalls of growing too fast and running out of cash. In addition to providing advice to his own portfolio of companies, he also offers mentoring to fast-growth companies via the ScaleUp Institute. “It's a way of putting something back and acknowledging that I've been lucky,” he says.
Assessing the challenges facing technology business, he says money isn't the problem, although there is need for patient capital. “The biggest brake on technology is reluctance to embrace change,” he says. “There is also still a need to conquer the fear of failure in the UK.”In business terms, Michael sees the turnaround of Telecity as his biggest success, but perhaps more important have been the personal achievements, notably winning the respect of peers and employees and (closer to home) bringing up his children to be wonderful, engaging and confident young individuals.