The mobiles make their move

Roger Trapp reports on a telecoms takeover of this year's Independent 100 listing of fast-growing private firms
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The Independent Online
THE BOOMING international market for mobile telecommunications has had a huge impact on this year's Independent 100 listing of the fastest- growing private companies, with all three of the top firms in the sector.

Slough-based European Telecom emerged top of the pile, with an annual sales growth over the five years to the end of March 1996 of 115.9 per cent. But it was closely followed by Ipswich-based Anglia Telecom Centres and Mobile Systems International of London's Docklands, with growth rates of 109.1 per cent and 100.9 per cent respectively. The latter is listed as a computer company, but is connected with the mobile telecommunications market.

Moreover, last year's winning company, The Carphone Warehouse, was fourth with sales growth of 94.9 per cent, and Caudwell Subsidiary Holdings moved up from 12th to 11th place in the main listing and held on to its top place in the Middle Market Award by achieving sales growth of just over 75 per cent a year.

In all, there are 22 companies in the engineering, electrical and telecommunications sector in the 1997 survey compiled by the Independent on Sunday in association with Price Waterhouse, the accountancy firm. However, that is still fewer than the 24 recorded by the computers sector, which has dominated the listings since they were launched seven years ago. Indeed, this year's figure is a rise on last year's 21, and would be even higher if companies with a heavy reliance on computers and related technology were included.

This is particularly true of Anglia Telecom, where much of the recent growth has come from selling networking and other computer systems. According to Bill Smith, the group chairman who runs the computer side of the business, this aspect accounts for about pounds 28m of the total pounds 39m achieved since the year to March 1996. In recent months, the shift in focus has been accentuated by the acquisition of such operations as The Computer Centre of Peterborough and Servo Computer Services.

The whole group now has nearly 400 employees, and computer operations are split among eight offices around the UK. But when Aidan Coughlan, the managing director, founded the business in 1984 it was a tiny operation seeking a toehold in the deregulated telephone market.

Initially, it sold ordinary telephones and answering machines. A year later, when Vodafone and Cellnet launched the mobile telephone network, it moved into selling handsets. Ipswich was not yet covered but Mr Coughlan saw a market in people commuting to London.

Now the company supplies the Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) systems that are becoming increasingly popular with businesses of all sizes, and which will ultimately let users dial telephones direct from their computer screens and allow them to see individual customers' databases as they call up.

Mr Smith, who became chairman in 1989, two years after the business transformed itself from a sole trader into a limited company, and Mr Coughlan attribute their success to the same sort of factors as European Telecom. "We handhold our customers - that's important in a hi-tech area," says Mr Coughlan. "If they don't use it properly, they don't see the benefit of what they've got. People are too busy to get out the book and read about it."

The arrival of cellular phones was also the spur for the development of MSI. Dr Mohamed Ibrahim, the chairman, is an acknowledged authority on radio planning, who was technical director with Cellnet before founding the business in 1989. John Carrington, the managing director, also worked at Cellnet and was the first managing director of Mercury One2One.

It describes itself as an independent consultancy specialising in the design, planning and operation of wireless networks for mobile phones, pagers and other radio based services.

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