Can he fix it? Yes, he can!

08th Aug

As a boy, Mike Smith was the type who would take things apart just so he could put them back together. He was fascinated by electronics and, even at the age of 13, had a flair for wiring. When he left school, all he knew was that he wanted to somehow get paid for tinkering in his shed.
Now, aged 44 and heading up Cobus Communications, Mike has pretty much realised this ambition, although Cobus’s smart offices are somewhat above the level of a shed.
Seeing himself as a bit of an inventor-type, a “man in a white coat”, Mike started out at the Hull Information Technology Centre in Goulton Street, which was, coincidentally, just around the corner from Strickland Street, where Cobus is now based. There, he was trained in the manufacture of electrical circuitry, right down to component level. “I was in my element,” says Mike. “I thought I’d get a job doing this type of thing – but of course you couldn’t really, you had to apply it in a commercial environment.”
Mike hadn’t been at the IT centre much more than six months before a job interview came up at Wyke Communications, a start-up business run from a converted house in Newbridge Road, east Hull. After Mike demonstrated his mastery of the cable-cutters, the business owner was impressed and asked if he could start that very afternoon. Mike explained that he’d only come on his bike, and he had exams to take, but agreed to start the following Monday. That was in 1991, and he was just 16 – and from those humble beginnings Cobus would emerge.
But back to his first day at work. He was shadowing the business owner, who was struggling to get a newly installed alarm system working. “It was my first day, I’m a young kid of 16, and I was a bit daunted by everything, and it was getting quite late. I knew it was late because it was a residential property and I remember Coronation Street coming on!” Mike asked if they minded him having a look at the wiring, and he instantly saw what was wrong and got it working within minutes. Naturally, this impressed the business owner, and Mike was soon given more responsibility. “I was no longer the tea boy – the relationship changed a bit as the guy I was a trainee for became more of a driver and a labourer for me while I looked after the technical bits. We got on great – we just worked together and got the job done.”
The company later changed its name from Wyke to Cobus, and it was well placed to join the impending revolution in telecoms technology. In the early days, a lot of its work was subcontracting for larger telecoms firms around the UK. Once he’d passed his driving test, Mike was tasked with installing telephone systems in just about every Woolworths store in the country. “I would carry all my equipment and ladders like a packhorse through pedestrianised city centres, and they were often 16-hour days, but they didn’t feel like long days to me – they just felt pretty standard, really.”
As the business grew, Mike’s passion for the job meant that he was increasingly becoming the main point of contact for customers, and he already felt that he was achieving that long-held ambition to get paid for doing something he loved. “Even back then, working all those hours, I did feel as though I was getting paid to do a hobby in some respects. I had friends working in various different places, not enjoying it and just living for the weekends, but I enjoyed work, and getting out and meeting people, and I didn’t think much about the money side of things. It’s amazing how far I made that £29.50 a week go!”
But it wasn’t luck that enabled Mike to get by financially – he credits his parents with instilling in him a sound work ethic and understanding of the value of money. “I was brought up just off Holderness Road, and my parents still live there. They’re well-off now, and they could have moved, but they’re comfortable where they are. They gave me a very good grounding. My parents always did give us a lot of time and were very encouraging for whatever we wanted to do and didn’t push us into anything. I thought we were rich kids – but we weren’t. I know now that they struggled to make ends meet at times, but there was never an impact on any of us. I think a lot of the values that I’ve got out of life – the work ethos, the commitment, determination and dedication – come from them.”
Mike’s father set up his own car garage business many years ago, and, aged 72, he’s still running it alongside Mike’s twin brother. “That’s because he treats work like a hobby too,” says Mike. “It’s not for the money. He does it because he enjoys it. I’ve seen what my dad’s achieved in being his own boss, and in my work, I’ve mirrored that. I thought I’d like to be involved with the business beyond just working for it. It wasn’t a power thing – it was just something to achieve, a goal to reach.”
Cobus grew organically over the years, Mike says – there were no huge revolutions or sea changes, no major investments or marketing strategies – just good, hard graft. “I was just a young guy who was willing to roll up my sleeves and work hard. The business owner arguably paid me more than he could afford; I was never used or abused, but I was regularly working 60-odd hour weeks.”
In 2007, Mike bought into the business, and began to gain more experience in the management and financial aspects, going on courses to pick up new skills, from bookkeeping to marketing. “As I’ve needed to do everything I’ve appropriately trained and upskilled myself, but as much as I’ve done that with external training, I’ve got to say it’s been just through sussing it out; I’ve just been given the job to do, and just applied myself in a methodical, logical way, and that’s how I think.”
Mike acknowledges that the term “OCD” is often bandied about like a fashion accessory, despite being a serious mental condition – but says he certainly has traits. “I need things to be in the right place. If I’m leaving the office, I might turn around and walk back to the desk and move something, because in my head it’s in the wrong place. I’m not one of those who turns the light switch on and off 10 times. It’s just that I have a compulsive need for organisation, but I class that as a positive, especially in a technical environment and a service industry, overseeing lots of different roles; it’s an advantage to have a logical, process-driven approach.” All I can say at this point is that I’m glad I’m speaking to Mike on the phone and he can’t see the state of my desk…
It was in 2013 that Mike finally bought out his business partner and took full control of the company – and since then it’s grown exponentially, more than in the preceding years put together, Mike says. “I was making more strategic decisions about where I wanted the business to be. I invested more and more in marketing the business, staff health plans and wages, the fleet of vehicles – everything, just going for an overall more professional outlook. When people look at the journey and ask whether I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in the past 28 years, I say, yes, I am. It has literally been blood, sweat and tears. It’s been a sacrifice. Unless you inherit something, or your lottery numbers come up, you’ve got to be willing to roll your sleeves up. If people ask what the secret is to success, it’s that you’ve got to be willing to work hard, and you’ve got to know when to take educated risks.”
He’s quick to credit his team, too. “I haven’t done this on my own – I’m just the driver, the captain of the ship, and all the other clichés! I’ve done the very best I can to invest in the best management team and then support them and their relative teams, creating a positive work culture that makes the people in the business buy into it and want to work here, and want the business to be successful.”
So now, Cobus offers a range of business services, from traditional desk phones to the latest in VoIP and SIP technology, as well as CCTV, access control, security systems, business mobiles and cabling infrastructure, whatever the size of business and its communication needs. It has a strong local customer base, with 82% based in the Hull and East Riding area, and the rest dotted about the UK and even in Ireland. But Mike doesn’t seem too worried about the idea of competition. “I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but we do believe that we don’t have any true competition because what we offer is unique in terms of the overall service wrap that we provide, and because we’ve been going so long; and everything’s internal, including our engineering teams – we don’t subcontract and can therefore guarantee a quality delivery.”
I’m left thinking that “communications” might as well be Mike’s middle name, not least because our interview was easily the longest I have ever done for BW. I must mention Cobus’s charitable arm – the Cobus Foundation, which was launched in 2010 and has since supported chosen charities including the RSCPA, Hull Children’s University, PAUL for Brain Recovery and, for 2018-19, Hull for Heroes with fundraising, business promotion and acumen, valued at well over £100K. Outside work, Mike’s a big rugby man – and for me, Cobus will forever be inextricably linked with Hull FC and that unforgettable Hull FC stadium announcement: “Sponsored by The Cobus Communications Group, the conversion, scored by Danny Tickle!” Now that’s what I call a shrewd business move.

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