Interview on Monday
Via Kristy Dorsey
Tommy Cook is a “accidental entrepreneur.” by his own admission. He was a few years past his 40th birthday after more than 23 years as an electrical engineer employed by multinational technology firms when he was convinced to launch Calnex Solutions, which became the first Scottish business to be listed on the London Stock Exchange in October in more than two years.
“If I’d been told at the time that it would come to this – a listed company with a valuation of more than £40 million – I would have been terrified,” he says frankly.
He gave up his childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot, the son of a farmer from Port Logan in southwest Scotland, when it became clear that he lacked “physical ability.” With a head for math and physics, he opted instead for the then emerging electronics sector and went to Paisley College of Technology to earn a degree.
A summer work at Hewlett Packard in South Queensferry culminated in a permanent position as a design engineer for research and development. From there, he worked his way up to project manager and finally program manager for R&D over the next 18 years.
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As he rose through the ranks in the department of testing and measurement, Mr. Cook described HP as a place that “really understood” how to create a culture and team – elements he was trying to embed at Calnex. But the last few years have been more challenging. In 1999, the spin-off of HP’s test and measurement company into Agilent – then the largest IPO in the history of Silicon Valley – was soon followed by the fall of the dot-com bubble, which drained most of the investment from the technology and communications industry.
As part of the Scottish activity of Agilent in South Queensferry, Mr. Cook observed firsthand the drastic shift taking place within an organisation that had “never laid anyone off before.”
“As a culture, they really struggled with it,” he said. It was a hard time. I think I went through about five years when we were downsizing the team almost continuously.
“What I learned from that is you have to enjoy the good times, because when the bad times come, there’s nothing for how you performed last quarter or last year.”
As a boss, he acknowledges that it was difficult during that period to keep his staff motivated, and Mr. Cook was also on the verge of being fired in 2005. While attempting to broaden his network in pursuit of a new career, he was introduced to Campbell Murray, a member of the High Growth team that supports Scottish Business start-ups, through a friend.
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Almost a decade before his untimely death in 2014, Mr. Murray persuaded Mr. Cook that instead of seeking a new employer, he could start his own business instead. Mr. Cook successfully applied for a start-up grant with the help of the man from the development agency, turned down a job offer in Southampton and created Calnex in January 2006.
“Campbell was so enthusiastic,” remembers Mr. Cook. “After living with downsizing for five years, I thought it all sounded pretty exciting, and it seemed like it would be a lot of fun.”
The company existed almost hand-to-mouth for the first 18 months, as with almost all start-ups, while Mr. Cook worked on creating its first product, which today remains a staple of the company. It is a test system that demonstrates that the devices of a mobile operator relay phone calls from one station to another – for example, while traveling from Edinburgh to Glasgow on the M8 – with a synchronization of up to a
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Mr Cook sold part of his interest in Calnex as part of the £ 42 million listing on the Alternative Investment Market last month, earning a £ 2.8 million profit. He still holds 21 percent of the company’s equity, which paid off some of its costly old debt, while he was left with £ 6 million from the IPO proceeds.
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