A global telecommunications link may depend on the expertise of one person. Jane Bird meets the telecoms boffins.
The power of the telecoms manager has never been greater. Gone are the days when he was the man who fixed the phones. Telecoms managers now control multi-million pound budgets, their technology is at the heart of company operations, and their empires span the globe.
Worldwide computer networks, fax machines and mobile phones are contributing to the expansion. But even the top telecoms managers find resistance to their ideas in the boardroom.
Graham Marriner has never forgotten seeing a new piece of test equipment that he had just designed and installed on a production line being smashed up the first time that it was used. "Someone took a 14lb sledgehammer to it. The instrument had failed, and was interfering with a continuous production process, which could have been disastrous. It had to be destroyed on the spot. The experience taught me the discipline that nothing can stand in the way of production," Marriner says.
The incident occurred during his first job as a designer of electronic instruments for BICC, the cable manufacturer. But as 49-year-old head of telecoms for UBS Phillips and Drew, the stockbroker, it is a lesson that he still finds useful to recall. A few seconds' downtime on the trading room floor can cost millions in lost deals.
Although Marriner enjoyed developing test equipment at BICC, and gained an external London University degree in electrical engineering while he was there, he became increasingly interested in management. In 1975 he was hired by Ealing Borough Council in West London to become one of local government's first telecoms managers, linking 200 schools, elderly care centres and sports stadiums with a voice and data network.
Five years later he added responsibility for neighbouring Brent, when the two boroughs merged their information technology (IT) operations. "That was quite a tightrope. I had two masters of completely opposing political complexions, and had to justify spending on telecoms against support for all sorts of community groups with special needs. It was very much the real world," Marriner says.
By 1985 he had become hot property, headhunted this time by Grand Metropolitan to run the group's voice and data services. "We had to sell contracts to GM companies guaranteeing performance for them and profit for us. We were always in competition with BT and Mercury, although during my two years there we always won," Marriner says.
Less successful was his attempt to diversify, by selling GrandMet's network to the travel trade. The cut-throat competition in this part of the market proved too much.
Then the phone rang again - UBS Phillips and Drew wanted a telecoms expert to see it through Big Bang. Marriner arrived eight days before blast-off in October 1987 to find a "welter of nefarious £1,200-a-day consultants" - whom he soon got rid of.
But he was pleasantly surprised at how easily the stockbrokers took to the telecoms revolution. "It was such a fundamental change in the way stockbroking worked - people used to rush around the Stock Exchange floor like chickens without heads. I thought they'd go spare sitting at their desks staring at computer screens, but they soon adapted to the technology."
Then followed his greatest challenge so far - to merge the UBS London businesses when the company moved into its high-tech Broadgate headquarters. This task had to be carried out while building was in progress. "We worked in plastic bubbles with controlled atmospheres, tacky mats, and security. A team permanently cleaned around us, like the Forth Bridge, taking off every slightest bit of surface-level dust, for five months. Builders had to wheel their barrows through inner corridors of polythene sheeting. It was extraordinarily risky compared with all accepted practices for installing high-tech equipment."
In two years Marriner took just two days off. His team sometimes had to begin at 3.00 am in order to get five hours to fit a new computer before the builders arrived. By the time the traders arrived, in February 1989, Marriner had created one of the world's largest local computer networks with more than 2,000 terminals. When they switched on at 7.00 am on the first morning it worked. It is the sort of dedication that has made Marriner a name to watch in telecoms.
He says that the secret of success is to avoid being viewed as a techie. "While senior managers have the highest regard for the techie when they fix a problem, the warm glow usually lasts just a couple of days. You won't find boffins in the boardroom. The more I've distanced myself from the role of being the man who fixes the phones, the higher my success rate has been. I sell every telecoms message at a business level, as an application, at a certain price, offering a quality of service. The black art of the telecoms manager makes them uncomfortable and is something they'd prefer not to know about."
Nick White believes that he has found his ideal job. As head of worldwide telecommunications at Unilever, he can combine advanced technology with the opportunity to perform a useful social task. "Helping people achieve international communications is the most interesting and rewarding dimension of information technology," says 45-year-old White.
After reading Maths at St John's College, Oxford, he trained as a programmer with English Electric - now part of GEC. "I could have ended up as a lifetime systems engineer, but I homed in on telecoms partly by accident and partly through my experience at Reuters," he says.
White joined Reuters in 1973 and became project manager for Reuter Monitor - a pioneering foreign exchange system now used by dealers worldwide. He was also responsible for hardware and software development, working on telecoms standards and open systems before they were widely adopted.
Taking his expertise to Midland Bank in 1982, White created one of Britain's first networks capable of carrying voice and data. It linked 30,000 computers, cash dispensers, telephones and desktop PCs in 700 branches.
At Unilever he has become a customer for networking, using a number of third party suppliers. "It would be impractical to build an in-house private network because we buy and sell around 50 companies a year. You would be forever adding in and decoupling users," White says.
The Unilever job involves co-ordinating £50 million of telecoms activity across the group's 500 operating companies worldwide, determining strategy and negotiating with suppliers. "It's partly an internal selling exercise. At the moment our companies don't all communicate with each other. But in future far more information will be shared." Standard applications are being developed that can be transferred across the group.
White arrives at his office, with its panoramic view across Blackfriars Bridge, at 7.15 am, and works through lunch to be home with his wife and five children by 7.00 pm. Trips abroad are frequent. "It's truly a worldwide job."
White's other mission in life is evangelical christianity. "It is the absolute centre of my existence, my number one priority. I try to apply it at work by sharing my faith, and by being ethical, open and honest," he says. Prayers before important meetings help to give him guidance, and he refuses entertainment from suppliers. "I feel its only real purpose is to influence my decisions," he says.
White is saddened by the fact that few young people are offered telecoms as a career. "In the US there are 31 universities offering telecoms degrees, some with 200 students. I'm aware of none here." As chairman of the Telecoms Managers' Association (TMA), he is considering whether it should fund a chair at a British university.
He believes that part of the problem is that computer people tend to be more extrovert, with more drive and ambition, and are better at selling themselves. "They regard voice communications people as an inferior breed even though phones have been around for 115 years, and data communications for around 40. It's rather a cheek really." Meanwhile telecoms people tend to be invisible. "The more successful a telecoms strategy, the less apparent it is."
He says that during the 1980s the privatisation of British Telecom fuelled interest in IT. "But the telecoms people did not really capture the opportunity to get themselves fully cemented into board-level discussions and now the glamour has slipped away. Telecoms managers have almost missed the chance; unless they do something fast, they will continue to be seen as a support function."
Adrian Squires, aged 40, has come a long way since 1975 when he joined a small Hertfordshire travel agent, OSL, as office services manager. Now group IT executive for The Rank Organisation, he is one of a new breed of senior managers with responsibility for overseeing both computing and telecoms. His role spans the group's 30 subsidiary companies with an annual IT budget of £200 million.
It was when Squires installed one of the first computerised telephone systems for OSL that he realised the potential of telecoms. The new exchange could handle many more calls and reservations. "We gained much greater flexibility in running our business. We had hands-on control of communications instead of BT telling us what we could do."
As the business grew, Squires became its first telecoms manager, installing an automatic telex switch for communications with airlines and overseas tour office networks. Diversifying into office automation, he built the company a network that enabled staff in different offices to swap computer data and exchange messages electronically. When OSL was taken over by The Rank Organisation in the early 1980s his empire grew again. Within a year he had become the group's first telecoms executive.
But with seven O levels and his qualification as a chartered engineer, Squires felt the need to beef up his expertise. So he joined the TMA, rapidly assuming responsibility for regulatory affairs. During preparation of the 1984 Telecommunications Act, Squires put the telecoms managers' views to government - an exercise that he repeated for last year's telecoms review. He now sits on a number of international telecoms committees that set worldwide policy and make technical recommendations for the development of industry standards, and heads a new company which markets the skills of TMA members.
Traditionally, companies have viewed the computer manager as strategic and the telecoms manager as an overhead, says Squires. But he believes that telecoms is increasingly seen as a strategic opportunity, the key to a company's competitive edge. "It offers the fastest route to getting products in a company's shop window. Just-in-time information is what it's all about - having the information you need at the right time and place, with the ability to move it effectively round the world."
Appointed group IT executive two years ago, Squires says that it took a long time to persuade senior management of the importance of telecoms. The goal is to push for telecoms to be considered along with IT at the earliest stage of a new project. "The IT manager has to be able to turn new technology into an opportunity to improve bottom-line profit," White says. "It means being one of the most knowledgeable people in a company because you must understand all about running the business as well as the technicalities of telecoms and computing."