From IT support to CEO via a date with sharks - 15th June 2017

Mike Tobin was interviewed by Paul Owen, our MD, for his forthcoming book: SECRET SKILL. HIDDEN CAREER. The myths you’re told and the scandal you’re not. 20 successful business leaders who started their careers in sales were interviewed for the book.


An engineering apprentice at the age of 20, Mike Tobin was to become CEO of the leading data centre business in Europe, Telecity, a company he took from a market cap of £6m to almost £3Bn in a little over a decade. Such an amazing story clearly had many twists and turns, many decisions that shaped an incredible life, but arguably the first one in his business life was born out of boredom.

“As an engineer for a computer company, my job was to fix computers that went wrong after we’d sold them. The trouble was nobody was selling any computers so I didn’t have much to do! I picked up the Yellow Pages and looked for companies that might be interested in what we were doing and then I called them. I got lucky on my first call and made a sale!” The engineer became a salesman and the salesman became one of the UK’s most successful (and least conventional) CEOs.

“I quickly learnt that you have to sell yourself first. You must build trust with your potential clients. If you abuse that trust, you quickly lose the customer.”

After beginning his sales career unintentionally at 20, he was MD of the French computer company, Goupil, by 22.

“Sales is about understanding people’s needs. If you do that well, that’s what you need in management too. I had the technical knowledge from my apprenticeship and I quickly picked up the sales skills. So, at a very young age, I was actually well-equipped for senior management roles which was not necessarily what I’d expected when leaving school at 16.”

Mike’s was a stratospheric and speedy rise up the corporate ladder but he only spent a short time in a direct sales job. However, the lessons he learnt played a key part in his ability to grow companies and build teams in what has been an outstandingly successful career.

“I had a mentor early on, Ian Watson, who taught me key lessons. First, learn to say no in sales. If you say yes to everything, strong buyers will drive you down on price much too easily.

“Second, never take a client’s ‘No’ as a negative thing. It’s a step closer to getting a yes. See it as an opportunity. Ask questions to understand why they said no. Learning that lesson has shaped my career more than any other. Imagine the salesperson who thought that every call would be a deal. If you’re afraid of failure, you won’t make the calls. If you recognise that every failure is step closer to a win, you’ll do it more. If you don’t have the mentality to handle that in order to earn more money and change your life, then you probably won’t do sales well.”

What would have happened to Mike’s career if people at his first company were successfully selling more computers that could go wrong at some stage so that a young Mike could fix them rather than having to sell them?

“We’ll never know that answer, I guess! But I do believe that my ignorance of sales at that age should be addressed but, 30 years later, we still don’t teach people about this key skill and the advantages it offers.

“We should empower kids to learn how to sell. Teach them to respect themselves, believe in themselves. If they learn to sell themselves, they’ll be much better prepared. When selling yourself, think of yourself as a product. Why would someone want to buy you? Once you think about that and can present that, you have a much better chance of getting any job, not just one in sales.

No article about Mike Tobin and his career can fail to mention his unconventional take on management and, in particular, motivation.  He is renowned for taking his teams out of their comfort zones.

When merging Telecity and Redbus in 2006, Mike saw that the management team were worried about the impending changes. Did he sit them down to reassure them? No, he took them to Scotland where they quickly donned wet suits to swim with sharks! No, there were no cages to protect them.

“They were terrified before getting into the water. Once in the water, they were still terrified though also excited. I asked how they felt afterwards and they said they were so happy they did it. I asked them to remember this in future – when you face something frightening, it’s rarely as bad as one fears. You’ll survive and you’ll learn.”

Maybe an early experience, sitting in Bond St station reading the offer letter for his engineering apprenticeship, influenced Mike more than even he realises.

A man spotted him and, having half read the letter himself over Mike’s shoulder, gave him a tip. The evidence since then suggests it was a good one that Mike has followed in many different ways. “Always go the extra mile, young man. There’s less traffic there.”


The book “SECRET SKILL. HIDDEN CAREER. The myths you’re told and the scandal you’re not” will be available in September 2017 in both paperback and e-book formats.