Alistair Houghton meets TOM CULLEN, managing director of Wirral’s Digitel Europe
TOM CULLEN is a man with a mission – to get drive Britain back to growth in the internet fast lane.
Mr Cullen, a passionate enthusiast for the power of technology, founded Digitel Europe 20 years ago to offer telecoms services to small firms.
The firm has kept pace with the global communications revolution, starting with landlines and moving on to mobiles and internet services.
Now Mr Cullen says the company is primed for its fastest growth yet with the launch of high-speed broadband service INET, which brings together voice and data services.
“We’re a very strong regional telecoms company,” he said. “We plan to become a strong national company.”
As a champion for the telecoms industry, which he argues is the most important in the UK, he is quick to enthuse about how small technology firms will drive economic growth.
So the grandfather-of-four is also angry about the Government’s decision not to bring superfast broadband to Liverpool, calling it a “kick in the teeth” which could leave firms lagging behind those in rival cities.
In his Budget last month, Chancellor George Osborne said ten cities – excluding Liverpool – would share from a £100m funding pot. But Mr Cullen says the Government needs to roll superfast broadband out nationally if the UK is to remain competitive, and says cities such as Liverpool could lose investment to better-connected rivals.
“Technology is absolutely key to the growth of the UK,” he said.
“When you think that countries such as Korea have had superfast broadband for 10 years, and we are scrabbling and trying to deliver it now, the Government decided that it was going to fund superfast roll-out in Manchester, Birmingham, and other places and left out Liverpool entirely.
“What are we supposed to do here? What are the businesses here supposed to do?
“Businesses like mine are doing something. But there should be a national plan for broadband.”
Mr Cullen was born and brought up in Liverpool and after leaving Gateacre Comprehensive, he went to work for the North West gas board.
But in 1975, he and his wife, Ann, emigrated to Canada. He said: “At that time there was a three-day working week and the lights were going out all over the place.
“We saw that wasn’t really for us. We needed a change in our lives.”
In Canada, Mr Cullen took his first steps into the telecoms industry by joining conglomerate International Telephone & Telegraph (IT&T).
He soon headed its southern Ontario telecoms business, and progressed to running its Canadian operations “coast to coast”.
He said: “It was the first conglomerate. They owned in excess of 700 companies around the world.
“Their core business was telecoms, but other companies they owned included The Hartford insurance company and Sheraton Hotels – not nit-picking little businesses.
“It was an aggressive organisation but it was a really good organisation to work for, because I started running its operations when I was 31.
“I got opportunities I probably wouldn’t have got in other businesses.”
Mr Cullen left IT&T after 10 years when it sold its telecoms business. He worked for IMB before moving to Trillium to run its sales operations in North American and Canada.
But in 1991, he returned to the UK.
“The question is why I moved back to the UK,” he mused, unprompted. “That’s a tough one.
“I really enjoyed North America. I travelled all over North America – at one point I had something like a quarter of a million Air Miles.
“But I remember being in downtown Toronto, at an IT&T corporate law event. I looked down and saw a small church in the middle of all this glass and chrome, an original building in Toronto. It struck a chord.
“That little church meant more in its construction – and not necessarily in a religious sense – than the 85-storey office buildings. It’s an English thing – the UK tends to be built on a more human scale. That was probably the start of me considering moving back.”