Jane Gray talks to Mike Norfield, CEO of telecommunications specialist Team Telecom Group, to discover the drive behind an ultra-varied career path from manufacturing apprentice via a gamut of industry sectors to a management buyout of his own SME.
“You are only limited by your own imagination,” says Mike Norfield decisively, describing the philosophy which has guided his professional and personal choices in life. And it would seem that Mr Norfield must have an intrepid imaginative bent, for this principle has taken him on a route from a less than luxurious upbringing in South London to owning a UK company which turns now turns over £50 million and is on a striking growth trajectory.
A strong foundation
And at the start of it all, a foundation in appreciation of quality, and the interaction between product and service delivery, gained through a manufacturing apprenticeship with Wandsworth-based electronics manufacturer, Redifon. “Making the choice to work for Redifon was undoubtedly a turning point for me,” says Mr Norfield. “At sixteen years old I left school and had no idea what I wanted to do – apart from to play football for Chelsea.
“On reflection, I realised that probably wasn’t going to happen, so I went and looked for a job. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I did recognise my own aptitudes – most kids do – so I knew I found maths and science pretty easy.”
In the South London area this presented Mike with several engineering-type choices including positions with service organisations like British Telecom and the Post Office, but he plumped for the manufacturing company – despite the fact it was lowest paid. “With Redifon I gained my radio engineering and electrical qualifications,” recalls Norfield.
“And at that time I gained an insight which new engineers entering the telecoms industry in the UK today will never acquire. Redifon did all its own manufacturing under one roof, even down to component level. And so I got to understand the products they were turning out right from R&D through production and to installation and servicing.”
“I am not driven by money, but by success in itself. It is a wonderful thing to be part of building a company, creating jobs and the opportunity for others to put food on their families’ tables, pay their mortgages and so on” – Mike Norfield, CEO, Team Telecom Group
At first it was the starting point of this product journey which fascinated Norfield, and his first professional position with Redifon was in its R&D department. “But then I realised that there was a disconnect between what we were doing and the experience of the end customer,” Norfield explains. “As a whole manufacturers have tended to be very engineering led,” he goes on, “but I have come to see that you simply must be led by the market; by sales. It is no good having a beautifully engineered product if the customer doesn’t want it, or can’t use all the capability you have designed into it.”
With this thought in mind Norfield set out to investigate the art of ‘delivery’. Of identifying customer needs and translating them, not only into products, but also business models and service offerings which answer their needs with efficient ingenuity. “I set out into the ‘big wide world’ as I saw it, to find out what service delivery was all about,” sums up Norfield.
En route to this investigation, Norfield found himself working for both public and private sector with organisations as diverse as the Metropolitan Police, Scottish Telecoms, financial service company Fidelity Investments and consultancy Project Techniques, where he delivered major IT projects for Microsoft, Cisco and Sony among others.
Leaping from opportunity to opportunity in a bid to gain as broad an understanding of the way products and business models deliver value as possible; Mike also discovered that he had a talent for leadership. And that he thrived on responsibility for business risk.
“I was always first in and last out,” he says. “I am not driven by money, but by success in itself. It is a wonderful thing to be part of building a company, creating jobs and the opportunity for others to put food on their families’ tables, pay their mortgages and so on. You can’t learn business leadership in school. But when you are in a decision making seat you learn very quickly about the importance of cash flow and your relationship with investors.”
An awareness of how employees rely on the success of the businesses they work for is a strong motivator for Norfield. “It is what has always made me put finance first,” he says. “I never had much money growing up and so I have been fascinated by making what I gain work.”
The boy dun good
And there can be little doubt that Norfield displays an aptitude for making money work, both personally and professionally. He bought his first house before his parents owned theirs and by the age of 30 had managed to wrangle an appointment as general manager of the Indirect Telephony Services unit of Scottish Telecom. While also building his family unit Mike managed to turn this business into the fastest growing unit at Scottish Telecom within two years.
“I had gained a wife, who was heavily pregnant by this time – and two cats,” Norfield comments, raising the question of how to achieve that worklife balance, so elusive to many driven businessmen.
It is not a challenge to be underestimated, says Norfield. “If you want success and a good lifestyle it will come at a price,” he comments, “but there are things you can do to make the most of the time you have with your family. Make sure you get supermarket deliveries in the week so that you are not shopping on Saturday’s and book great holidays.”
Mike recently rated his most extravagant but worthwhile spend as a month long exploration of Australia with his wife and two children in an interview with Real Business magazine.
Rescuing an national asset
Norfield’s strong work ethic and ability to engineer resilient business models put his services in high demand and it was not until the 2000s that he was given a prospect that allowed him to return to the roots of his professional life and back these attributes up with personal technical knowledge of the products he was helping to design, produce and implement.
On being approached by excolleague Peter Burridge, now chairman of TTG [Team Telecom Group], however, Mike found himself faced with the chance to turn around a struggling British SME with an aging product range, but which he none-the-less believed to have huge potential.
“TTG was losing money at the time and Spice [then owners of TTG and a fast growing FTSE 250 company] wanted to get rid of it, as it was quickly becoming noncore to their vision of providing a one-stop-shop for utilities services,” explains Norfield.
“What I saw in TTG was a chance to demonstrate everything that I had become good at; managing an acquisition, turning a business around and internationalising a business,” he continues. “There was also an attractive opportunity to get back in touch with my roots in Simoco, the radio telecoms arm of TTG.”
A plan was swiftly hatched between Burridge, Norfield and the Spice board to transform TTG with a view to buyout. Simoco formed the focus of Mike’s business turnaround strategy and despite losing £300,000 in his first financial year at the helm he was able to flourish £800,000 profit in the next. By 2010 Burridge and Norfield had created a promising enough proposition to raise £32.8m, with private equity support from Gresham, and were able to go ahead with their management buyout.
Today TTG turns over £50m and Mike hopes to double that in the near future. “Our
success then and ever since has been a mark of the way we started revisiting the products, the manufacturing processes and internationalising the business,” says Norfield. “When I took over, Simoco was eighty to ninety per cent a domestic business. Now we truly address and service a global marketplace.”
In addition, Norfield provided “a shot in the arm and some belief” into the company’s sound but aging technology range in analogue radio communications. “There was a great core there,” says Norfield. “But from the mid-nineties the products and the people had suffered from poor management – only in it for the money and with no consideration for what was best for the company, for its customers – or for UK manufacturing.”
A new era
For TTG and Simoco in particular, Norfield took the view that ‘what was best’ would be to continue a trend for outsourcing most of the manufacturing process and concentrating on an integrated process of product R&D and service development.
Retaining a lot of analogue technology long after others shelved such products, Simoco redesigned to corner a huge market in the developing world. At the other end of the technology spectrum, Simoco’s development and test site in Derby is also a List X supplier site to the Ministry of Defence and its key new technology, the Xfin Blade is playing a critical role in the management of international telecoms networks from the South West of the UK to Afghanistan.
While some manufacturing has gone abroad, components with high IP are sourced locally, like TTGs specialist PCBs which are made by electronics manufacturer Tioga – also based in Derby. For quality assurance, final assembly and testing are still carried out in-house at sites in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire and Derby.
“This is a natural progression,” comments Norfield. “Manufacturers like us need to move out and become the industry. We then feed back in with better design and our supply chain develops. Without this, technology, and manufacturing would never move forward.”
But there is a catch in the UK. “It’s farcical, the approach UK government has taken over the last few years to supporting SMEs and manufacturing in the UK,” states Norfield. “They flippantly change policy with every change of power. But this nearly always means a change to tax and the way in which businesses need to manage their costs.”
Support for R&D and education, unsurprisingly, are the two areas Norfield believes must be addressed most urgently. He explains, “If the manufacturing sector is to take on responsibility for economic growth, which government is now laying on its shoulders, we need then to understand the way we are signing contracts and the length of development cycles.”
“Moreover, there needs to be a broader responsibility for preparing our next generation of engineers. My daughter will be coming to do her work experience with Simoco – I want to inspire her and show her what we do – but government provision of apprenticeships needs to be truly employer led, which in my experience it is not yet.”