This year’s top performer should be on its knees in the current economic climate but, instead, the telecoms recruitment agency tops the league table for the second year running. Neil Franklin, the karate black belt who started out selling wall cladding door-to-door and plays drums in his office to relax, has driven his business to break all records. His firm supplies engineers for big telecommunications projects across the world. Its clients include network specialists such as Lucent and Nortel and the mobile-phone giant Ericsson. These clients have culled thousands of staff this year. But Dataworkforce, started by Franklin in his south London flat in 1994 with £5,000 in savings, just carries on growing. Sales have rocketed 291% a year from £657,000 in 1997 to £39.3m in 2000, when the company employed 54 people. Franklin forecasts sales of £47m for 2001. He cannot explain his success. ‘If I knew what drove me, I would bottle it up and sell it,’ he says. But he does know a thing or two about finding the right staff for his clients. Instead of running a ‘great tank of a database’, he claims to find people who can ‘add something to a specific project’. In the early days his mobile phone was on 24 hours a day to field calls from multinational clients in several time zones. And he will fly anywhere at a moment’s notice for a five-minute meeting with a client. His engineers are similarly mobile. They can be found in the Pacific laying fibre-optic cables from submarines or on the peaks of the Himalayan foothills, installing networks in freezing conditions several days away from any road. With a need for staff who are ‘technically proficient, used to taking orders and prepared to work anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice’, Franklin uses many former soldiers, who are used to living like this. Franklin sees the slump in the telecoms sector as a temporary blip. In his opinion, the industry has only one direction to go – up. ‘I bought my house in 1989 and its value fell in the 1991 recession,’ he says. ‘But I held on to it and today its value is far higher. It will be the same story in telecoms.’ He points out that there are 1.4 billion people in China, for example, many of them hungry for the latest in consumer gadgetry. It is inevitable that more mobile phones will be sold. He believes the other big source of growth will be the convergence of telecoms technology. ‘In the future, we are going to see data, film, music and radio piped into the home to a single source, all accessible through television sets or mobile phones,’ he says. ‘We will probably be able to do anything with such a system, from switching on the cooker remotely to running a security system or the garden sprinkler. This is going to take a lot of engineering.’ Franklin serves multinational customers across the world and has recently added offices in Malaysia and Mexico to those in America. He also has a subsidiary in Singapore. He expects growth to slow next year – his financial year ends in February 2002 – but does not expect this to last long. In any case, Franklin is used to hunkering down in a crisis. When he was starting his company in the winter of 1995, he went every morning at dawn to an unheated barn in Sussex to learn the finer points of GoJu Ryu, an Okinawan martial-arts tradition that teaches balance in all things. ‘It helped me survive the tough early days of the business,’ he says. ‘You transfer the ability to pass the pain threshold to other things in life – coping with the delay of a big contract, for example, or a cashflow crisis.’ The drum kit in Franklin’s office has also helped his business. ‘I 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, delibera
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