Ian Gillespie, chairman of Activ Telecom

It's 17 years since Ian Gillespie started Fone Logistics, one of the North East's fastest growing telecoms businesses, which reached peak turnover of £100m within 10 years. He talks to Karen Wilson about why he sold the business and how his new company Activ has helped him achieve a better work life balance

Ian Gillespie, chairman of Activ Telecom
Ian Gillespie, chairman of Activ Telecom

For someone who only achieved one O’ level to becoming the boss of a telecoms firm in charge of 180 staff, Ian Gillespie is living proof that a lack of qualifications is no barrier to success.

He’s undoubtedly in possession of a certain wiliness to have survived in such a fast-paced, ever-changing industry. But the 54-year-old from Northumberland remains modest about his achievements.

“The important thing about being an entrepreneur is to have the right people around you,” he said. “I know how to use technology but I admit I don’t know what’s behind it. You have to build the right team and keep them motivated.”

Born in Morpeth as the eldest of three siblings, his mum Sylvia was a housewife and primary school teacher while his dad Ken was a butcher who got into the motor trade.

Ian, meanwhile, preferred rugby to the classroom but studied landscape gardening at college before joining the family firm, National Communications, as sales director. “Dad always said I needed to go and do something for myself first,” he remembers. “So I worked down south for a bit as a landscape gardener before coming back north to learn how to spray-paint cars.”

It was 1985, just two years after the first mobile phone was commercially available.

“We saw a mobile phone at a Motor Show and started selling them from the garage,” said Ian. “Eventually we were selling more phones than we were cars.

“In those days they were the size of a brick or a car battery and used to plug into a suitcase. Unless you went into Newcastle city centre you didn’t actually get any mobile phone coverage. Initially they were a boy’s toy, but as soon as the tariffs and sizes came down and it moved out of the business world and into the consumer world, things started to get interesting.”

During this time Ian says he “worked hard, learnt to take the knock-backs and kept fighting on”. And when the business was sold in 1994 so his dad could retire, Ian started working for the company that bought them out, Aztec Communications.

A year later he cashed in the shares he’d built up and quit to launch his own business, Fone Logistics.

“Originally the business was set up to deliver products on behalf of other people to the end user, but over a period of time we became a wholesaler of hardware,” says Ian.

The company was hugely successful in supplying mobile handsets and airtime to more than 600 dealers, who predominantly sold to small-medium businesses, receiving commission from the mobile networks for connecting customers. Before long it rose up through a crowded marketplace to become one of the top two or three network distributors in the UK, and Ian was a runner-up in the 2007 North East Business Executive of the Year Award.

“I suppose we were successful simply through delivering a good, honest service to our customers,” he says. “And we developed some clever technology so our customers could talk to us electronically through a portal rather than over the telephone.”

Ian admits he always wanted to create a business he could eventually sell, which he did twice.

In 2006 he sold two-thirds of his share and in 2010 the business was bought by Lancashire telecoms plc Daisy for £3.6m.

However Ian retained part of the business, Activ, which handled the business-to-business work with the 3 network and also took his senior management team.

“We were looking to acquire another business and they turned it around and said we’d like to acquire you,” he says. “I’d worked hard for a long period of time and thought it was time to take some financial security.”

Ian took the sale as an opportunity to spend more time with his family while former financial director Michael Fitzpatrick took the helm as managing director.

Along with his wife Lynne, 48, who deals with HR and “all the nitty gritty stuff behind the scenes” at Activ, Ian renovated a derelict farmhouse and farm buildings into a 12,000sq ft home.

With 20 acres of land and 14 horses, it’s been the perfect training ground for their son Adam, 18, who’s recently been long-listed to join the Junior British Eventing team for the European Championships and youngest daughter Anna, nine, who shows ponies. The pair’s eldest daughter Emma, runs her own gift business, The Orangery House, from home and works full time at Activ.

Ian admits his family may have suffered when the company was growing, but now feels proud that he sold up at the right time so they could enjoy the fruits of their labours. “We live quite an active outdoor life,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time I watched a film on the telly.”

Activ, which provides unified communications for SMEs, has since doubled its staff numbers to 25 and moved from Cramlington to Balliol Business Park in North Tyneside.

It now has a turnover of around £2m and 500 clients including Muckle LLP, Ringtons Tea and Port of Tyne.

“It was a predominantly a business-to-business mobile business but we’re now moving into fixed line telephony, IT support and cloud software,” says Ian who re-joined the business 18 months ago as chairman. “Windows 8 and Microsoft 365 is a big step forward. Nowadays you can have access to all your documents and work anywhere. It breaks a lot of barriers to business on the move. I’ve got our CRM system on my tablet so I can view all our customers wherever I am.

“Because we’re not tied into any one network or provider, we can search the whole market to provide impartial tailored solutions.”

Ian says the business has flourished despite the downturn due to its loyal customer base. “We very rarely lose a customer,” he says. “Growing the business and getting people to spend a bit of money has been difficult but we’re certainly seeing companies starting to be a bit more outgoing now.”

With a new sales office in Leeds that opened six weeks ago, it looks like growth is certainly on the cards again. But Ian sees himself more of a mentor these days – analysing strategy and passing on his management style. “I’m fairly structured,” he says. “I like people to get on and do their job so I don’t interfere unless I think something isn’t right. I’m very open and don’t lock myself away. I have an open door policy and think I’m quite an approachable person.”

Despite the techy world he works in, Ian admits he prefers talking face to face.

“I hate sending emails,” he says. “I’d much rather have a conversation.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
A Range Rover.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Sale Pepe in Jesmond and Dabbawal on High Bridge in Newcastle, which does great Indian Street Food.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Mrs Brown’s Boys.

What’s your favourite book?
I don’t have one, but I read Horse & Hound every Thursday.

What was the last album you bought?
I can’t remember but I like Tina Turner and Robbie Williams.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Running a beach bar in the sun somewhere remote.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Good morning.

What’s your greatest fear?
Falling off my horse.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Turnover’s vanity, profit’s sanity. Cash is king.

And the worst?
From the finance director of a big firm who said you’ll get paid next week. I took his advice and never got paid.

What’s your poison?
Red wine or real ale.

What newspapers do you read other than The Journal?
Just The Journal. Unless I’m travelling and there’s a paper lying around.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? About £10-£12 when I was an apprentice landscape gardener.

How do you keep fit?
I used to have a personal trainer three times a week but I don’t have him any more. We’ve got about three acres of grass that needs mowing and I muck out the horses.

What’s your most irritating habit?
Chewing my fingernails when I’m driving.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Horses.

What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
James Bond (Daniel Craig).

Which famous people would you most like to dine with?
Tina Turner, Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft and Margaret Thatcher.

How would you like to be remembered?
For my openness and honesty.

 

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