Science: First the hot air, then the fuzzy logic: Lynne Curry meets a heating expert who has made millions helping people to by-pass BT directory inquiries

Trevor Burke has had a lifelong obsession with how things work. Sitting in an office at his advertising agency, his eyes alight on a radiator. 'Wrong place,' he says. 'In fact, in a room this shape, I would have had a convector.'

Mr Burke was an excellent designer of heating systems, though he appears reluctant to admit this. His success with a small heating company in England's North-west is bettered only by his wizardry in - and earnings from - computer software.

Last month Mr Burke's personal stake in his company, PhoneLink, was worth pounds 79m. Between 22 December 1993 and 28 February this year, the joint paper wealth of he and his wife, Heather, had increased by pounds 17.6m to pounds 87.6m, mostly on the strength of their new venture, Tel-Me.

Tel-Me provides access for both the home and business computer- user to BT's database of telephone directories, plus company profiles, travel information from the AA, business findings, Press Association reports, destination mapping, weather forecasts, the British Rail timetable and postcodes. IBM has been sufficiently impressed to pre- load Tel-Me into all personal computers, using the common 486 processor (and those higher up the range). It will be launched next month with an annual subscription of less than pounds 300.

PhoneLink shares came to market in May 1993 at a value of 155p. Since then the price has rocketed. A computer magazine claimed Mr Burke had made more money than anybody - about pounds 52m - out of information technology last year.

This is serious money for somebody who can remember being strapped for school fees, but Mr Burke remains realistic about his fortune. He travels on British Rail - often using routes selected for him by his own software - and continues to work a 12-hour day.

Meanwhile, BT is planning to instal an 8,000-line fibre-optic cable network to serve his offices in Prenton, near Birkenhead. The premises are near an electricity sub- station. 'It's the only software house in the country with a 320,000-volt ring-fence around it,' Mr Burke says. 'We don't have 'keep out' notices but the real thing: 'Beware, danger of death'.'

Mr Burke says he hopes to make PhoneLink 'one of the world's most significant businesses'. 'My ambition comes from fact that I was a teenager in the Liverpool area; chasing women at the age of 14 and never being able to catch them left me with an appetite.' Fortunately, he diverted the appetite to work, capitalising on the traits that were to become his principal assets: an interest in how things work and an enthusiasm for combining disciplines.

Mr Burke says that as a heating engineer, he was 'pernickety'. His success at selling the product resulted in a request by his company to move into sales. He never lost an order in seven years and earned pounds 12,000 in 1978, mostly from a 2 per cent commission. He took a pounds 7,000 pay cut to become a director and doubled turnover in five years. With 15 months of advance orders, he had more time to dabble in computers and came up with 'the best heat-loss programme around'.

From a small desktop computer in his office flowed additional expertise on hot air. The programmes grew into Technique, a software company, and Mr Burke left heating to develop his new venture. Technique's move into kitchen-design programs resulted from a chance meeting with David Spicer.

Mr Spicer and Mr Burke toured the country for three weeks, promoting their product. When a supplier said the package was worth pounds 6,500 to his business alone, the two men knew their product would be a success. By 1987, when it was sold to its American distributor to finance the development of PhoneLink, Technique was taking orders from 3,500 manufacturers worldwide, churning out kitchen plans in three-dimensional colour and, according to Mr Burke, had a two- year head start in its market.

Shortly afterwards Mr Burke and his wife, a solicitor, developed Profile UK, a planning application service for builders and other craftsmen. A team of 64 researchers combed 430 local authority planning offices and noted down details of building projects, sifting them and sending details to 3,500 customers. Gaining telephone numbers from BT, through directory inquiries, was costing Profile UK at least pounds 100,000 a year.

After a lengthy wrangle with BT, Profile was allowed to try out BT's Phone Base, a direct-access link. The company immediately made suggestions on ways to improve the link's software.

'I said we'd like to do things with your interface, please. We'd like to make it more efficient,' Mr Burke says. 'BT went into a state of shock and talked a lot about perceptual problems. I said that their software was crap, and if they gave us six months we could improve it. After nine months we took our system back. We had developed a 'fuzzy logic' process which had a 42 per cent success rate against their 12 per cent.'

BT launched its Teledirectory service in December. For pounds 300 plus about 13p per call, subscribers can bypass directory inquiries (calls cost 38p plus VAT). PhoneLink set up DataCare to provide automated bulk retrieval of numbers for business purposes.

Tel-Me has evolved using this logic and finance raised by selling Profile UK. The Burkes own about three-quarters of the shares in PhoneLink. Trevor Burke, meanwhile, has sharpened his business acumen alongside his technological skills. 'When we sold Technique to its American distributor it had more money in the bank than I sold it for.'

Ian Woolsey, PhoneLink's production director, who has worked with Mr Burke for 12 years and developed Technique's kitchen software in nine languages, says: 'Trevor always seeks excellence with any product developed - visually, technically and functionally. It was apparent early on that he was destined to make a name for himself in the business world.

''He has an amazing capacity to absorb information and to find a new avenue for the 'front edge' of technology.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all