Phone systems sell worldwide

Queen's Awards
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The Independent Online
A multilingual Scot, who last year spent the equivalent of three weeks in the air between Britain and China, has steered his second company to a Queen's Award for Export.

Alex Findlay, described as an entrepreneurial operator with endless energy, trod a familiar path to propel GPT's public telephone networks from nothing to a current turnover of about pounds 200 million in five years.

In 1990 GPT's predecessor, Plessey, won a Queen's Award for Exports after Mr Findlay created an enormous market for its payphones. Before that, Plessey's only customer was British Telecom.

Under Mr Findlay's tireless pursuit of new markets (for which he is learning Russian and Chinese, to add to fluent French and German and passable Spanish, Italian and Arabic), GPT's international business division, of which he is director, has gone from the two people to over 200.

GPT, which had no exports at all in 1991, now has exchange systems in Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Czech republic, each the equivalent of a BT. China took pounds 100 million worth of electronics last year.

Mr Findlay, a Scottish schoolboy soccer international whose travelling started when he left to play football in France as a teenager, is consequently away for two thirds of the year, sweeping up Azerbaijan and Kuwait and, most recently, Hong Kong.

"When we wanted to set up an export market I had to find a sales force and fit a sales plan around the products we had, then go out and find out the rest," he said. "Nothing happens by chance; nothing of any significance or consistency, at least. You may get lucky one year but that's it."

Mr Findlay and his team pushed Plessey's payphones into 60 countries, in a business worth pounds 100 million. After an interim spell on a joint venture for GPT, he began the same process with the company in 1991, at a time of redundancies and uncertainty.

"The history of telecoms had been one of limping along and my task was to take this ailing business, which was reeling and had no export side to support it. You always need some good luck and mine was a produce called SDH, the synchronous digital hierarchy, a new standard of transmission, which was going to hit the world. GPT already had the technical brilliance; what had been lacking was a bit of sales and marketing flair."

GPT's SDH is joined by the System X digital exchange, which forms the backbone of Britain's public network, and intelligent network solutions, which Mr Findlay explains to his non-technical buyers as "add-ons to the network that can help you make more money".

Mike Parton, managing director of GPT's public networks, said: "The award reflects a magnificent team effort and shows how a British manufacturer, backed by parents GEC and Siemens, can make an impact on a world scale."

GPT is not the only similar story to emerge from the world of telecommunications. Mo Ibrahim, a former academic and technical director of Cellnet, has steered his company, Mobile Systems International, from nothing to a pounds 25m business in just six years.

The company specialises in the development of computer software used to plan radio networks, most successfully for mobile telephones. By combining data on population, topography and even the size and shape of buildings, MSI can predict how many transmitters a network will need. With each base station costing up to pounds 200,000, an accurate prediction can save millions.

John Carrington, former head of Cellnet and the first managing director of Mercury One-to-One, recently joined MSI to help manage the pace of growth which has seen MSI go from five employees to 350.

"The nature of telecommunications is changing very fast," said Mr Ibrahim, who arrived in Britain 25 years ago from Egypt to study for a doctorate at Birmingham University. "It's very exciting. All my working life I have been an engineer down to my fingertips and it's very pleasant to still be working as an engineer at the age of 50."

Exports make up 84 per cent of MSI's earnings while it has taken equity shares in the mobile networks established in India and Uganda. Other large recent contracts have been signed in Brazil and in the United States.

A third beneficiary of the rapid expansion of mobile telephones is Motorola. Two of the company's cellular communications divisions have won export award for the second year in succession.

Millions of handsets have been exported from the company's plant at Easter Inch in Scotland, while a pounds 116m investment has been announced for the second winner, the Infrastructure division based in Swindon.