The Mystery Millionaire

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The Independent Online
Tahir Mohsan is one of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs. He is only 28, worth a reputed pounds 27m, and last year joined the list of the country's 500 richest men. He has built his business from a part-time operation above a corner shop in Blackburn, Lancashire, into the biggest British computer company. But you will have no idea what he looks like.

This quietly spoken son of immigrants from Pakistan is possibly the country's shyest multi-millionaire. Despite appearing on media lists of eligible bachelors, and abundant wealth that would tempt many men of his age into the odd indulgence, he works an 18-hour day, six or seven days a week, in his company's headquarters, an overgrown warehouse on an industrial hillside in Lancashire. In an age when celebrity has never been easier to achieve, Mr Mohsan protects himself from publicity assiduously.

His wealth comes from Time Computer Systems, the computer retailer he founded with his brother in 1987 after leaving school at 16. He is managing director and, with 60 per cent, the majority shareholder. Time is the biggest British manufacturer and retailer of computers - its 1998-99 turnover was more than pounds 200m, and net profits, when announced, are expected to be well up on 1997-98's pounds 2.95m. Mr Mohsan's company bucked the trend towards direct sales, turning from a mail-order business in the early 1990s to a retail giant with 147 shops across the country. This week, it announced 50 more shops would open by the end of the year, creating 950 new jobs.

Yet local newspapers in Blackburn and Burnley, the two towns closest to the Time factory and headquarters in Simonstone, Lancashire, have an implicit agreement never to publish his photograph or personal details. This is despite the fact that Tahir Mohsan is the area's biggest employer, a member of the East Lancashire Training and Enterprise Council (Eltec), a guest speaker at the business school of the University of Lancaster, and a governor of the secondary school near Granville Road, Blackburn, he attended as a child. "If we ever take his photograph, at a bash or something," a local photographer says, "the company is on the phone to the editor before the film even gets back to the office. Time is a very big advertiser."

Mr Mohsan has never given an interview, or even a quote, to a newspaper or computer magazine. His picture has never been published. He would rather nobody, save his employees, family and friends, knew who Tahir Mohsan was. He never goes clubbing in Manchester, where he lives, or even bar-hopping. The Independent's repeated requests to speak to him about the business were turned down. When the Asian newspaper, the Eastern Eye, last year feted him among a group of the community's most successful members, he refused to comment.

But the irresistible rise of Mr Mohsan and his elder brother Tariq Mohammed, the company's chairman and a practising NHS paediatrician, is likely to continue. The 1998-99 turnover figure was up 70 per cent and sales this financial year are expected to exceed pounds 300m. Time won its reputation as a manufacturer of value-for- money PCs, mainly for domestic use - the Vauxhall Vectras of the PC world - with marketing nous and flair for repeatedly setting trends that triggered prosperity in a sector where many rivals have closed or stayed small.

Time Computer Systems was started in Blackburn in 1987 by Dr Mohammed as a money-earning scheme on the side while he was a junior doctor. He shared his parents' concerns about what would happen to young Tahir after leaving school so early, so he put his teenage sibling in charge while he was in the wards. The brothers found a gap in the market for cheap computers delivered unfussily by mail-order, buying them wholesale and selling at a small profit.

By 1990, the company had moved from their parents' corner shop (which was becoming overrun with computer boxes) to an old mill in Blackburn. The 19-year-old Mr Mohsan looked after 30 employees, though Colin Silcock, an experienced salesman, was helping on the marketing side and Dr Mohammed spearheaded the promotion and advertising in his spare time.

The brothers believed there was a genuine hunger among consumers for PCs, but many were put off by jargon and high prices. Their no-frills marketing strategy meant the company doubled its turnover each year in the early 1990s recession, a considerable achievement for a school leaver and a full-time doctor.

By 1995, Dr Mohammed was a consultant paediatrician in an NHS hospital in Manchester. He cut back his medical work to part-time. As chairman of Britain's fastest-growing computer company, it would have been logical for him to have consigned medicine, by then contributing a tiny proportion to his net worth, to the dustbin, but he declined to give up completely.

The doctor, described by those who know him as enthusiastic, dedicated and untiring, told friends it would be betraying the state's investment in him, and that of his patients. He cites his medical work as a reason he, too, shies from publicity. Four years ago, he declined to have his picture taken by The Independent, saying: "The parents of my patients might worry unduly if I was recognised first and foremost as a business whizzkid rather than a paediatrician." That was the only known interview with any member of the family.

The Eltec director, Mark Price, says: "Mr Mohsan is very community- minded. He's wise, analytical and sees through problems immediately. His views and his perspective are very mature and I seek and value his views." Another acquaintance says: "He hates all the media hype and publicity, he dislikes everything the Sunday Times Rich List stands for. He's is a private person, quite unprepossessing when you first meet him, and he doesn't want glory or fame. He thinks that's missing the point completely."

The industrial park where Time operates is Simonstone, on the side of a moor halfway between Blackburn and Burnley, a bleak spot on the western edge of the Pennines. Mr Mohsan is in day-to-day charge of the complex, which includes an assembly hangar the size of a football pitch, where a row of workers, from white-haired pearl-spectacled matrons to fashionable young Asian dudes, click together motherboards, bits of circuit and cases like so many sets of hi-tech Meccano. More than 2000 computers are made here every day. Next door is a repair centre of similar dimensions, where hundreds of monitors in need of attention stare down from high shelves at lab-coated technicians.

The sales floor, where your call in response to one of Time's busy, basic advertisements (all designed in-house) will be taken, is crowded with hundreds of telephonists chattering in broad East Lancs. The margins on a business such as Time's are very narrow - some rivals fell by the wayside after failing to realise how precarious the position is. Mr Mohsan's most important duty is overseeing the company's purchase of components for the computers they assemble, sourcing parts that are reliable, cheap and consistent. The livelihood of 2,000 people depends on his decisions.

Former employees say on first sight you could mistake the MD for a trainee technician. "When you meet him," says one, "you wonder if this slight, thin, shortish bloke, who looks like any other Asian bloke in his mid- 20s, is really him. Then quickly you realise he's got a mind that's incredibly focused and very quick. He's not interested in office politics or small- talk. He just does it - you should do this here, that there, bam, bam, bam. He's got an amazing memory and the most incredible thing is he never gets tired. He just keeps on going. He's a machine."

Dr Mohammed and Mr Mohsan are the sole directors of Granville Technology, holding company for Time Computer Systems, but three other brothers work at Time. Shahid was a director until 1997 and Zia Mohsan is head of the manufacturing division, known as VMT. The brothers are known as "family" by the 800 employees at Simonstone, marked for the sheer, relentless efficiency with which they operate, and their fierce work schedules.

There are no reserved parking places nearest the front door for the directors in the company's car park: in keeping with the egalitarian management principles the company preaches, it is first come, first served. But the joke among the employees is that Mr Mohsan and his brothers are always there first anyway. "Come here on a weekend and you'll see family here," says a current staffer, with a weary expression. "They expect you to work your bollocks off, but they do it themselves."

Colin Silcock, the sales director, says Mr Mohsan and his brothers "want to keep it as a family business", reflecting the company's roots and the fact that profits are consistently ploughed back in to allow expansion, with minimal borrowings and no outside shareholding in the company, despite its size.

Another family acquaintance goes further. "It may be a big business, and Tahir may be a multi-millionaire, but in a way they see it as a corner shop in Blackburn. Family started out with nothing, and their view is very much that they're working to survive and put clothes on the backs of the other family members. Tahir doesn't see himself as a rich, eligible bachelor, which is why he hates the publicity so much; he sees himself as a hard-working bloke."

"Family" are devout Muslims, and they have a prayer room, known commonly as "The Mosque", in Simonstone. Some 300 of the 900 employees there are of Asian Muslim origin and many use it for their daily prayers. Mr Silcock says religion "is an important aspect" of understanding how Time operates.

He would not elaborate, but Islam, with its strong codes of modesty, self-sacrifice and duty is not a religion that sits happily with fame, conspicuous consumption or media star status. "The extended family and the community is the most important thing, that's who they're working for,"says the family acquaintance. "In a sense, it doesn't matter who does it, it's not for an individual

to sit up and take the glory." For a majority shareholder in a company estimated to be worth around pounds 55m, Mr Mohsan's own salary is relatively modest, pounds 150,000 last year, a cut of pounds 60,000 from the previous year, according to accounts at Companies House. Those who know him say he has no time to spend it.

Only in business does the young managing director go in for risk-taking. In 1996, the brothers made the decision that was to turn Time into what it is today. Escom, a German discount computer manufacturer, had closed all its 300 shops in Britain because the cost of retail trading proved too much. Then, Time was a successful mail-order computer company with no retail presence. If you walked down the High Street you could buy a Toshiba or a Compaq, but not a Time. Unless that changed, the company was destined to stay in the second division.

Despite the Escom collapse, Time decided to move into retail. It opened about 25 concessions in electrical goods stores for Christmas that year, and dozens of stand-alone shops bearing the green, curiously outdated- looking Time logo sprang up in shopping centres the next year.

The company had a less than glittering reputation for reliability in the mid-90s, but computer magazine editors say their products are now on a par with the best. A year ago, retail accounted for 30 per cent of sales against 70 per cent mail order. That ratio has been reversed. Mr Silcock says they learnt from Escom's failure. Time shops do not hold computer stocks. They are display showrooms, and customers play with machines and place their orders, which are delivered, the next day, through the company's regular mail-order system.

This cuts out an enormous amount of logistical problems, and, in a deflationary market, avoids computers meeting the same fate as Escom's, where a top- of-the-range machine built in the factory in June and retailing at pounds 1,000 turns into a mid-range bargain selling at pounds 799 in a shop in September.

"We realised our adverts were pushing a new generation of buyers to somebody else," says Mr. Silcock. "They'd read the ads and go down to Dixons and buy one there, in the flesh."

The gamble worked, and less than three years later Time had 147 stores - the numbers increase every month - with two in The Hague and Amsterdam this summer and plans to open in Germany and France. "The story of computers is like the story of televisions and cars, but compressed into a shorter time," says Mr Silcock. "Once there was one TV in the house, now there's one in the living room, one in the kids' bedroom, one in the study, and so on."

He pointed out that during the rail strikes of the mid-1990s, there was a trend for company bosses to buy managers laptops so they could work from home and on the move. That, he says, freed the home computer for use by the rest of the household, and now the decision to buy a computer in a shop is one taken by the whole family.

Before Time opened its shops, the majority of buyers were ABC1s. Now they come from all social groups, says Mr Silcock. In the industry there is broad agreement that companies such as Time, with their visible, populist advertising are partly responsible for the change, as well as responsive to it. Mr. Silcock says: "If 40 per cent of UK homes have PCs now, that still means there are a lot of homes that do not."

The fast-moving Time lords of Simonstone are determined to capture those sales. So the very private Mr Mohsan will have to put up with the irritating spotlight of the Rich List for some time yet.