Property business enhances efficiency with Vodafone mobile… in 1985

Property boom spurs a small business to enhance its workforce productivity with a mobile communications deployment – 30 years ago

"Booming property business invests in workforce productivity with mobile working deployment" could be a case study headline lifted wholesale from last week's issue of Computer Weekly.

The only appreciable difference in the story of chartered surveyor, property investor, manager and Vodafone customer Roger Southam, is that his case study is lifted wholesale from January 1985.

At the start of 2015, Vodafone marked 30 years since the first ever mobile phone call was made over its network, when chairman Ernest Harrison’s son Michael snuck out of a party to surprise his father by calling him to wish him a happy New Year (pictured left).

For those still preoccupied with 1985, it was an important year in IT. Among other things, 1985 saw the registration of the first commercial dot com domain and the introduction of Microsoft Windows. Meanwhile, Amstrads, Commodores, Spectrums and the first Apple Macs were walking off the shelves as personal computing went mainstream.

The expansion of the Vodafone network – which had its first basestations in London at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, Crystal Palace, the Royal Exchange, the Thames Barrier and Highgate – continued apace, its sales teams hitting 12,000 sales in total, opening six sales offices and adding another 100 basestations by September 1985.

In 1985, Southam – who now owns a property firm called Chainbow, which he set up in 1989 – was running a company called Speciality Shops, which specialised in commercial office and retail spaces during the heady boom years of the mid-1980s.

Red Dawn

Frequently on the road, Southam spent huge amounts of time travelling around the country inspecting development sites, negotiating deals, meeting landlords and tenants, solicitors, architects and planners and local authorities.

But being away from his desk meant Southam was also away from his phone, his typewriter and so on. Maintaining productivity was becoming a challenge, particularly when he had to waste time hunting for telephone boxes on the street.

Everything was to change when he installed the Vodafone VM1, a bulky Panasonic-built handset, in his car.

“There was no catalyst that moved me to get a mobile phone as such, because they didn’t exist before then,” says Southam. “But the moment it did exist I bought into it. Mobile was an attribute that, for me, made working more efficient. If there is ever a tool that lets me be more efficient, I will invest. So for me it wasn’t a case of ‘I’ve got to get this.’

“What I do recall is people saying, ‘Oh, look at that flash git!’ and not seeing the freedom in it that came from efficiency, and from the better use of my time.

“The huge change was, no longer was I driving around with dead time in the car. I could call while driving. When I visited sites I could call the office. It was liberation and freedom, and the ability to be more efficient, to close down deals.”

People didn’t really understand mobile at first, the concept was new, there was no such thing as voice and data convergence

 David Langhorn, Vodafone 

Risky Business

Being an early adopter of a new technology is always a leap into the unknown and, at the time, nobody had any idea whether or not mobile phones would take off. Today’s advances in touchscreen devices and 4G networking had yet to be imagined.

Southam takes a more laid back attitude to the risks involved: “What would the risks be if it didn’t take off? It was never not going to take off because so much investment had taken place,” he says.

“Would it disappear? No. Would it increase coverage? Well, that’s not necessarily a business risk. Did other people need one? No, they had desk phones.

“I didn’t need anybody to buy in, that was the beauty of it. I wasn’t gambling that other people would have one.”

However, for many, mobility was a slow burner. Investment in overheads such as real estate and maintenance meant startup costs were much higher than today and business owners often had to make significant personal investments to get going. Mobile was, for many, simply not a consideration.

“People didn’t really understand mobile at first, the concept was new, there was no such thing as voice and data convergence,” concedes David Langhorn, Vodafone head of corporate and large enterprise. “Back then, certainly it was hard for me to understand the technology completely.”

In a reversal of fortunes, mobility has played a part in bringing down startup costs in the intervening years, with the average consumer already having instant access to pretty much everything they need to start a business – for example, with smartphones and tablets for communication, and social media for networking.

The average cost of setting up a new business in the UK today has been estimated at around £300, almost ten times cheaper than the VM1 handset cost in 1985.

I actually came quite late to BlackBerry

 Roger Southam, Chainbow 

Back to the Future

Southam has stayed with Vodafone ever since. Following an office move in August 2012, he transferred his entire desk phone infrastructure to the provider as well.

Over the years, he marks a number of advances that have enhanced his ability to work efficiently, including the advent of mobile internet dongles for laptops. “I actually came quite late to BlackBerry because I could simply connect to Outlook on my laptop with a dongle,” he notes.

Langhorn at Vodafone says advances in technology make it hard to compare what Vodafone did in 1985 to what it does today, so transformative an impact it has made on the economy and ubiquitous its service; Southam is now just one of over 400 million subscribers.

It is a more pressurised world for Vodafone as well, and not just in competition, says Langhorn.

“We are continually under pressure to keep up with demands for business growth. Thirty years ago businesses had to keep up and adapt with us, and now that has completely flipped around.”

He concludes the race towards faster network access and anytime, anywhere communications has been, and will continue to be, a constant over the next 30 years.

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