Michael Tobin, OBE
From Bermondsey to Buckingham Palace.
Michael Tobin is best known for turning Telecity into a billion dollar company, but more recently has moonlighted as a philanthropist and author.
Michael Tobin, the architect and CEO behind the dramatic transformation of FTSE 250 group Telecity, had little in his early life that suggested the glittering career ahead. Born in Bermondsey, his father was violent and frequently in prison. His mother moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to escape him, but this brought its own problems. Caught up in the civil war, they were shot at and petrol bombed and eventually returned home as refugees.
On his return, he was a squatter in a condemned house in Stockwell, London. While his schooling was erratic at best, it was here he found the germ of entrepreneurship, fixing up and selling pianos with his stepfather. He left school at 16, joining Rockwell as an electronics engineering apprentice. He went there on roller-skates because he couldn’t afford the bus and worked on a fruit and vegetable stall in his spare time to raise cash.
He progressed quickly and by his early 20s he was UK Technical Director at Goupil, promoted to managing director at the tender age of 21 after a series of sales wins. He spent 11 years at International Computer Group, living in France and working with businesses across Europe.
His first experience of turning around a business came with ICL Denmark, a loss-making business that he turned to profit in just two years. After setting up Fujitsu’s e-business operation in Frankfurt, he came back to the UK at the end of the dot-com boom. As Sales and Marketing Director of data centre group Redbus, he warned the board that its finances were so poor it was about to go under. He earned himself promotion to CEO and was told to fix the problem.
On paper, this looks like a dream story. He took the company from near bankruptcy to a valuation of £3.6bn, cementing his own reputation in the process. However, he says the reality was less straightforward. "A lot of the time it felt like luck rather than planning. After two months in the role, I had to go to Prague and knew our business there was virtually bankrupt. All I could think of on the plane home was the cash burn. On the plane back I was thinking ‘this is a nightmare, we have no customers’.”
He got back to London to the news that the Danube had flooded, including completely inundating the group’s data centre. He immediately returned to Prague and cut a deal with insurers and received a significant insurance payment - £8m, which helped keep the company going long enough to get new investors. However, there was also some skill in knowing how to spot an opportunity. He says: “Opportunities present themselves and you take them. You need to say yes more often than no.”
Having restructured the business, de-listing it and leading a merger with Telecity in 2004, he led the combined group until 2014. He stepped down and founded Tobin Ventures, which looked at supporting new opportunities in technology, backing groups such as Audioboom plc – the world’s largest podcast platform.
What does he believe made a difference for him? “Surrounding yourself with great people. Many people are worried about finding people better than them. You need to recruit the best person you can afford in every department. Then, don’t give them a prescriptive route map. It will impair their vision. Let them find their own route through that.”
He believes in a 'no fear’ culture. “When you're in a situation where you're doing things that haven’t been done before. It is quite likely you will mess up because you are pushing boundaries. It should be the norm and more culturally accepted. By allowing people to fail, you learn something very useful - how not to do something!” He also looks to recruit people with the right attitude, believing it is more difficult to teach than skills. He talks about this in his first book ‘Forget Strategy, Get Results’.
Michael also believes in giving back. He has been very involved with the Prince’s Trust, which works to help get disadvantaged young people back on the rails, a cause close to his heart. His fund-raising efforts have included 40 marathons in 40 days. He also completed a month-long trip to Antarctica to raise money for children with brain tumors.
"I did two and a half weeks of trekking dragging a 100kg sledge. I lost 11kgs even though I was eating 7,000 calories a day. I really underestimated the impact of the altitude. We were at 10,000 feet above sea level and physically, we were constantly under pressure. It was 50 degrees below zero, one colleague’s tooth exploded, another got snow blindness, a third collapsed with hyperthermia. We had all sorts of issues, but we raised £500,000 for the charity.”
And just in case anyone thought that might slow him down, he admits he still has plenty to do. He sits on multiple boards as a non-executive, advises smaller companies and has further charity projects in the pipeline. His second book, ‘Live, Love, Work, Prosper’ which has become a recent hit about how to integrate life and work, was launched in 2017. He received an OBE from Prince Charles in 2014, and his third book ‘Lifting the Floor’ about the history of the data centre industry will be out in the autumn.
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