Only someone with a blinkered vision of business would be surprised to find a drum kit in the office of this year’s top performer, Neil Franklin. The founder and president of Dataworkforce claims the drums help him relax. ‘I like to think that to improve your speed you have to take things more slowly,’ he says. ‘All those great jazz drummers said that speed comes from slow, deliberate practice. Turnover is the same. It comes from long, deliberate sales practice.’ Franklin should know. As a classically trained pianist who failed his music O-level before doing his retakes at the same sixth-form college as Liz Hurley in her punk days, he redeemed an inglorious academic record with outstanding performance in business. The recruitment company he started in his south London flat in 1995 with £5,000 of savings now supplies telecom- munications engineers all over the world and has driven up sales by 273% a year, from £388,000 in 1996 to £20.1m in 1999. Franklin attributes his success to two main factors: an unflinching focus on the customer and investment in research within a rapidly changing sector. ‘I always try to meet our clients face to face,’ says Franklin, who learnt his sales technique at the sharp end, selling wall cladding and kitchens door-to-door before moving into recruitment. ‘I will fly anywhere in the world to meet clients. They are often surprised to find the chairman of the company on their doorstep. And that makes them remember you.’ He does not approach companies until he has a proposition to sell. Instead of building up a large and indiscriminate database of engineers, he claims to have built up a small list of top performers. Recognising early on that deregulation would require a highly mobile workforce, he decided to use former military personnel, who are, he says, ‘technically proficient, used to taking orders, and prepared to work anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice’. Franklin then researches target companies thoroughly and works out ways in which his engineers can add value to big projects, ranging from installing a mobile-phone network in south- east China to laying cables for broadband data communications across the Atlantic. He hooked his first big customer, Netherlands PTT, with this two-pronged strategy. After being given 10 minutes of a director’s time, he flew to Amsterdam for the meeting instead of doing it over the telephone. The director was impressed by how much Franklin knew about his business and called him later when he had a staff shortage. Also, in an unusual move for the sector, Franklin brought in Bob Mayston, a former Saatchi & Saatchi director, as creative director. He put together a marketing campaign that positioned the firm as ‘No1 for people in telecommunications’. It worked and sales rolled in. Dataworkforce has about 400 engineers working at any one time in 53 countries. Customers range from mobile-phone manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericsson to leading service providers such as British Telecommunications, MCI WorldCom and Vodafone. The company has offices in America and Brazil and a subsidiary in Singapore. Franklin, whose grandfather was a military bandsman, still finds time to practise the drums between board meetings. ‘I’m at my most inspired when most relaxed,’ he says. ‘Cultivating my creative side is the only way to move the business forward.’
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