Hossein Yassaie: Meet the man with the big Imagination
The technology chief played a vital role in developing Apple's new iPhone5 – but there is a lot more to come, he tells Gideon Spanier
Friday 21 September 2012
Few FTSE 100 bosses will be keener than Hossein Yassaie to follow today's launch of Apple's iPhone5 as it goes on sale in stores in America, Britain and seven other countries. As chief executive of Imagination Technologies, Mr Yassaie has played an integral role in the development of the iPhone, as his company designs the graphic-processor units that help to drive the dynamic display on the screen. And if iPhone5 turns out to be a record-breaker, as expected, Imagination will benefit in royalty revenues.
Just don't expect the self-effacing, Iranian-born boss of Imagination to talk about it. Over a relaxed lunch in a central London hotel, he politely bats away questions about Apple, his most celebrated client. He won't even discuss whether he ever met Steve Jobs, although he concedes he enjoyed reading Walter Issacson's biography of the late Apple founder.
As Imagination's chief executive for 14 years, Mr Yassaie knows it pays to be discreet, especially when Apple is one of its biggest shareholders, with a stake of almost 9 per cent.
The fact that virtually all his clients demand discretion may be one of the reasons why Imagination isn't as well known as it should be. Yet this FTSE 250-listed company, with ambitions to join the FTSE 100 in the next few years, is a rare British technology success story.
Revenues rose 30 per cent to £127m last year as Imagination saw an increase in royalties from its chip and graphic designs, with pre-tax profits jumping 74 per cent to £28.5m.
Mr Yassaie is convinced the best is yet to come, especially as graphic-processing technology improves. "There is no limit," he says. "We still haven't got to the point where graphics look like reality."
There are so many other opportunities as "the internet of things" becomes a reality, he explains. Virtually everything in our lives – from the TV set to the car, from central heating to healthcare – is becoming "smart" and connected to the mobile web.
Imagination also owns the digital radio business Pure, which sells sets directly to consumers and gives another insight into our changing behaviour.
Mr Yassaie says his aim for Imagination to enter the FTSE 100 – it is currently about 130th in size – is achievable. Key to that is his ambitious target of one billion in annual shipments of its chip and graphic technology by 2016.
Growth depends in part on the wider macro-environment and Mr Yassaie certainly feels that Britain and, importantly, the Government, doesn't rate our tech industry as much as it should. "Not everyone gets super- excited about electronics," he says. "We want people to get involved like they are in art, music and acting. It would be good to have the same thing around technology.
"Most people wouldn't realise the huge number of companies that are shipping products with British technology – it's good to make that known," he adds, referring not only to Imagination but other companies such as FTSE 100 chip designer Arm.
For Mr Yassaie, government can help both in terms of the economy and the wider eco-system. "I'm a great believer in reducing the deficit," he says. "But I would certainly expect that once the recession is under control that there is more needed from the Government. Within the constraints that they have, they're doing quite a lot, but I'll always be asking for more." Taper tax relief for staff who hold shares in Imagination for the long term is top of his wish list.
Britain should also do much more to encourage young people to study computer science and electronics. Imagination, based in Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, looks to hire at least 100 graduate trainees a year so he wants UK universities to do more to produce world-class talent. "These guys need to be the best in the industry," says Mr Yassaie, whose company employs more than 1,200 in offices including Bristol, Chepstow and Leeds as well as overseas.
It's not only government and schools but also parents that have a role to play: "I'd like to see kids being told by their parents that technology is cool and that they should go to university."
Mr Yassaie emphasises that he feels his own training – he studied electronic and electrical engineering at the University of Birmingham and has a PhD – was crucial. He thinks it's "hard" for anyone who doesn't have a technology background to head a company such as Imagination.
The Imagination boss, who first came from Iran to Britain as an Anglophile student at the age of 18 in 1976, still clearly has the benefit of seeing his adopted country through the eyes of an outsider. He recalls with a smile how he first fell in love with the UK while reading English newspapers. "Everyone was telling me I should go to the US," he says. "But I just developed this affection for England."
While he is a great champion of technology, he is also a believer in creativity and ideas. "Artists are very important in this industry – mathematical artists are really what they are."
The likeable Mr Yassaie also believes Imagination has a duty to be a good corporate citizen, and contrasts that with the behaviour of some other technology firms. "I hate all this tax- dodging nonsense," he says. "I'm domiciled here. The company is domiciled here. We are a British company so we don't take any steps to minimise our tax. We like to participate, we like to help universities, we like to see kids getting the right education."
He thinks the Government should crack down harder on corporate tax avoidance when revenues are diverted overseas: "I'm surprised that with all the clever people in Government they can't come up with a scheme to beat that. I'm sure I could design a net without any holes."
Mr Yassaie's passion for Britain extends to the Olympics which, he says, were even more a triumph than he expected, particularly the opening ceremony. "I always complain the UK should be more proud of its heritage and it was great to see that positivity. All we need to do is take that into every other area," he says. "Technology will be the force that will help the recovery and that is where the action is."
The long queues expected outside Apple stores today are proof of that.
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