Me And My Partner: 'We confide in each other daily'

Sarantel, established in 2000 by Oliver Leisten and Barrie Foley, makes antennas for wireless technology. With a turnover of £6m, it employs 40 people
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The Independent Online

Oliver Leisten

I've been working in the GPS (Global Positioning Systems) industry since 1989. In 1999 my employer's US parent decided to divest out of the UK and I was given the opportunity to lead a management buy-out of the research division. But at the peak of the dotcom boom in late 1999 and early 2000, it was very difficult to get the attention of investors. It was more practical to approach the venture capitalists (VCs), so I got in touch with 3i, who expressed an interest.

They insisted that we got a high-level, experienced CEO on board. It hadn't occurred to me that this would be a problem. I thought there would be a formula in the VC industry for doing this kind of thing, but there isn't.

We went through lots of candidates and Barrie was by far the best. He invested a considerable amount of his own money in the company and came on board.

He interviews very well. What I saw then was a very dynamic man. He's played rugby for Wales and he's got tremendous drive and enthusiasm.

Not every person in management is entrepreneurially inclined. You can have a successful career in a large company without taking these sorts of risks. Barrie isn't like that. He was prepared to take a considerable risk in joining Sarantel.

It was an incredibly gutsy thing to do. In the British enterprise system we depend on people like him, people who are prepared to take that step and put their money where their mouth is.

There are many people in management who have quite rigid views and strategies, but he doesn't. It's something I saw then and I still see. He appraises a business model very flexibly.

At first, we did occasionally argue about things. I had to get Barrie to understand that he sometimes oversimplified his thinking. He needed more insight into my decision-making process in order to understand how best to move things forward.

He is a general manager so he knows all the things that a senior business executive should know. He knows his way round the balance sheet and business models; he can debate things with investors. These are things I can't do.

He is very good at getting all the tiers of the company to work together well, but he won't suffer fools. If something is not working, he is quite prepared to make the necessary changes, but at the same time he is a very sociable person and a very good manager of people.

We work together on a daily basis. We share each other's problems. We confide in each other our anxieties about the company. It's important that we are able to calibrate each other's views and ideas on customers and product development. Sometimes, I have to lead him to the conclusion that an opportunity exists. Other times, he makes me realise that my understanding of a situation isn't as complete as I think it is.

The business was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2002 when the main backer walked out. There was a possibility that my life's work would go down the pan. Barrie managed to keep us afloat. He is a very good man to have around in crisis situations. He has a way of joining the dots and finding a way to keep things moving forward. It was a very tiring period for us both, but I feel obliged to him for pulling us through. Throughout my career I've made some decisions that have exceeded my expectations and at least as many that haven't. Getting Barrie on board was definitely one of the former.

Barrie Foley

We started the business in September 2000, which was probably the worst time ever to start up a business in the telecoms industry and we've got the bruises to prove it.

My background is in large conglomerates at the divisional director or managing director level. I was still working at my former company in the summer of 2000 when I was approached by VCs to join a start-up they were looking to invest in, and asked to invest in it as well.

So when I met Oliver, it was very important that I understood him. I was not just starting up a business with a stranger, I was investing a lot of my own savings into the idea. It was scary, but investing is all about spotting potential and taking calculated risks.

He interviewed me, and at the same time I was interviewing not only Oliver but also his idea. I had to make some quick judgements: could this guy come up with something that was going to work?

He is quite unusual because he is an inventor and a very intelligent and creative person. He looks like an inventor as well, but unusually he also has a commercial awareness. He enjoys the challenge of selling his idea.

He certainly has the passion to make it happen, and we have a rapport. There is a chemistry there and that is very important. You can look at it logically and analytically in terms of has he got the right attributes on paper, but one of the most important things is chemistry: a personal connection. Can you talk to one another? Do you like each other as people? We have quite distinct roles. He looks at the new product development and the research. My role is not only running the company and setting up operations around the world, but also proving it can be volume manufactured.

We interact on a daily basis. The product needs us to do that because the technology is so fast-moving that there are always issues arising that we need to discuss.

At the same time, I can't go running to him every five minutes. He has had to accept that things sometimes have to be done in different ways if they are to work. It's meant he's had to bite his lip sometimes and allow the manufacturing team to get on and do it their way, but he's been prepared to do that.

Now the business has grown so much we do spend less time together. My experience from growing businesses is that the culture changes, but you have to try to manage that change and retain the good bits. So we do work less together and the relationship isn't as close, but the product and ideas brings us back together again.

We don't really see each other outside work. Firstly, because we've both got our own families and secondly, because we are at work all the time. If I took Oliver home to see my wife, she wouldn't be very happy, as I spend most of my time with him anyway at work!

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