Derwyn Jones fell into telecoms sales by accident – but since then, helping companies communicate with their customers has defined a 40-year career that took him from his South Wales roots to working with some of the world’s biggest business brands.
Having spent his working life driving the telecommunications revolution, helping to lead the way in the widespread adoption of customer contact centres, the softly-spoken Welshman remains at the forefront of customer contact technology.
His current role, as CEO of Portsmouth-based Ultracomms, sees him steer the firm as it continues to provide a -leading omni-channel contact platform while leading the charge against debit and credit card fraud with a new product called PaySure, an ultra-secure telephone payment system.
It’s not a conventional career path, and one which he almost didn’t follow at all. “I took a fairly roundabout way to where I am today,” recalls Derwyn, who left school at 16 and was put through university on a BT apprenticeship scheme, training as a structural engineer, and then an architect. His first years at BT in the early 1980s, where he was involved in the building and modernising of the company’s vast exchanges, coincided with a period of rapid change.
“At the time, BT were the second largest property owner in the UK, behind the Church, but with the advent of modern technology behind the exchanges they required far smaller spaces, so they were being sold off,” he remembers.
“A lot of the work from an architectural point of view was just drying up.”
At the same time, a newly-privatised BT was coming to terms with having competition in the market, employing salespeople for the first time. For a father-of-two who had relocated with his family to Brighton from South Wales because of the amount of architectural work in the south-east, this meant a career shift became necessary,
“I often get asked what attracted me to sales,” he says, “but I don’t think I can honestly say at the time that I knew I would be a good salesperson. Actually, I didn’t have a clue! But the thought of a company vehicle and expense account and driving round on my own all day was a good idea, so I applied and got the job.”
It turned out to be a milestone in Derwyn’s career journey, at a dynamic time in the telecoms world that saw the introduction of innovations such as Freephone numbers and the first forays into contact centres.
Airlines, in particular, led the way – fortunately for Brighton-based Derwyn, who found nearby Gatwick Airport a convenient and fertile hunting ground.
“Gatwick was just up the road and you had major companies like Virgin Atlantic, which was just starting out, Dan Air, and Air Europe – emerging companies that wanted to attract new customers. American Express was starting to grow, US Airways were there – all on my doorstep. So I fell into becoming a salesperson for contact centres – simple as that.”
By 1991, BT was beginning to practise what it preached, setting up its own regional call centres to manage its 20 million customers, seven million of which were businesses – the majority SMEs. Derwyn led on the introduction of these Telephone Account Management Systems (TAMS), setting up teams to dial businesses and manage their accounts.
Derwyn found himself on the fast track, moving up the BT chain to become a sales director, then sales and marketing director, with stints in New York working with AT&T and six months in Germany. But after 18 years with the same company, he began to realise that there were aspects of the corporate culture that didn’t suit his personality. A restructure at BT helped bring that into focus and set him on a new path.
“By 1994, I was a general manager, and the next step was to become what was known as a regional board director, two levels down from the main board. Before I went to Germany, knowing there was a restructure, I asked my boss what the situation would be. He told me I was the sort of person who was the future of BT, people in their early 30s to take the business forward. So I thought I’d come back from Germany and be a regional director somewhere.
“When I came back, there had been a change of plan. I was told – and these are the actual words used – that I ‘didn’t have enough grey hair’ to step into those shoes yet. That was it. Meritocracy didn’t exist in certain areas and it was all about experience. They guy who took the job was probably 20 years older than me.”
The episode was one that helped shape Derwyn’s view of work – particularly his attitude to how contributions to the workplace should be measured and valued.
“I don’t talk about dramatic moments in my life, but it changed my way of looking at many things – more than anything else, I realised that I do not agree with institutions. I can’t work in large organisations. I dislike bureaucracy.
“I can’t cope with the approach that rewards people for just being there – you get an extra day’s holiday because you’ve been here for five years. It’s not how I operate. To me it’s not about input, it’s all about output.
“In certain organisations it may still exist today. Meritocracy isn’t prevalent in all companies – they still believe that certain people should be rewarded for commitment and tenure, and if that’s how you operate then that’s fine.
“But there was a realisation for me that I wasn’t going to thrive in that environment. At that time I was based at Holborn Circus and I remember ringing my wife while walking along High Holborn and saying I’m about to make the biggest decision of my life, I hope you’re going to agree with me - and I handed in my resignation. That was October 1994 and it changed my life.”
The decision to leave the security of BT wasn’t completely reckless – by now, Derwyn had built up a strong network of allies in the contact centre world, among them Andrew Tillard, a former Procter & Gamble executive who had set up a small contact centre in Kingston-Upon-Thames called The Decisions Group.
Decisions Group was a training ground for a host of individuals who became leaders in business – many of them today in influential roles in large organisations
Decisions, one of the first outsourcing companies of its kind in the UK, grew rapidly over four years before being bought by US-based SITEL Corporation. Following the sale, Derwyn spent a couple of years in Texas, where he ran into Michael Dell, who at that point was selling Dell computers online and through contact centres rather than at retail.
Upon his return to the UK, Derwyn received a call from a headhunter on behalf of Dell, and as a result became Vice President of its European operations, leading around 3,500 people across six contact centres within the consumer division. The two years spent at Dell were a mixed experience - another which shaped Derwyn’s management style and view of success.
“It was two years in which I learned an enormous amount,” he says now. “I’m not going to say it was the most enjoyable two years of my life. I was turning into a person I didn’t like. My wife sums it up by saying if I hadn’t left when I did…”. He leaves the thought hanging.
“You’re selling boxes, it’s all about numbers. Yes, the rewards were there, but that’s not the point. It was literally 24/7. If Michael Dell rang you, you had to have your phone on. He’d be in a different time zone and he wouldn’t even think about where you were.”
Dell had a rotation system, which meant senior staff had to move roles and regions every two years, and Derwyn decided it was time to move on rather than take an offered post in Dallas. Once more, his personal network came into play, and he set up a consultancy with a former colleague from Decisions Group.
Together, they worked with major clients including Microsoft, T-Mobile and AIG, to build call centres in collaboration.
“Clients were saying to us we want to build a call centre, but we haven’t got time,” he says.
“We would locate the building for them, fit it out for them, help them choose their technology partners, help them train their people. After six or nine months we said OK, the call centre is yours now, and handed it over.”
It was a model that worked so well it caught the eye of marketing agency Golley Slater, which bought the firm and kept Derwyn on as group MD, although he wasn’t comfortable in the position: “Again, I was working for somebody else and I’d got to the stage where just implementing somebody else’s ideas wasn’t for me.”
It was time for a new venture and, in 2006, Derwyn put a business plan together and raised £10m in capital with the aim of bringing quality to the market he helped to create.
“By then, the contact centre world had really become flooded with utility company contracts, telephone company contracts, with huge organisations doing lots of massive outbound work with no real quality behind it,” he says.
“I felt there was room for a high-quality company that could do a lot of customer management over the telephone to a high standard.”
With the capital raised, Derwyn set to work on several fronts under the banner of The Panther Group. The first acquisition was Pell & Bales, a high-value fundraising company for not-for-profits. A separate contact centre followed, with clients including Virgin Atlantic, Nestle, and Hastings Insurance. Panther acquired a data company and a consultancy, with the group growing from turnover of £8m to £23m in three fast-moving years.
“Then,” Derwyn says simply, “the world fell apart.” The recession of 2010/11 left its mark on him as one of the most sobering moments of his long career.
“We had to retrench and take the business back – it was one of those moments in life you look back on. At Christmas 2010, I spent Christmas Eve putting letters in envelopes because on January 7th I was going to send about 500 letters to people saying they no longer had a job. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but you have to do what is right for the masses.”
Panther Group survived and grew again before it was acquired by Parseq in 2013. Derwyn was asked to stay on a “temporary basis” - which turned into two and half years before he moved on.
During a few months off, Derwyn was approached by another member of his personal network, Robert Bates, Chairman of Ultracomms, who was keen to discuss the cloud-based contact centre software that forms the core of his business.
Initially retained as a consultant, Derwyn became CEO, spotting opportunities for growth not just through the contact centre model but through a new product developed in-house and now known as PaySure.
PaySure is an anti card fraud solution for businesses that take payments over the phone. It is designed to eliminate the points of risk where card details can be stolen – either by the customer who is reading the details out being overheard, or by unscrupulous individuals within the organisation taking the payment
Instead of reading out numbers, the card-holder presses numbers on their keypad, which are received as flat tones, meaning no card data is revealed. The system is compliant with PCI-DSS regulations, which govern telephone payments, enables continuous call recordings for compliance, and replaces out-dated an unsecure pause and resume call recording, which is likely to become non-compliant in the near future.
For Derwyn, Ultracomms, and PaySure in particular, represent the kind of challenge he relishes – allowing him to combine his decades of insight and experience with his love of growing businesses.
“What I saw within Ultracomms was a business that had a lot of history and pedigree but hadn’t really moved in line with the market,” he says candidly.
“It has a lot of talented people and, with the right product development, I really felt that we could move things forward, especially around the PCI phone payment solutions.
“Over the past 18-24 months, what we’ve been trying to do is get the right people with the right skillsets and the right attitude. I don’t want people to work here because it’s convenient – I want them to come here because it’s a dynamic company; we’re going places.
“These are the reasons why I work – when I’ve worked in organisations I want my boss to be better than me so I can learn from them, and I want my people underneath me to be better than me, so they push me as much as possible.
“With Ultracomms, we have been through the transition, got a proper product road map in place, brought in the right people and, for me, the future of this business is about being a leader within an area that still has huge potential for growth, and that’s around compliance, fraudulent activity, not just cards but all non-cash-related transactions.
“There’s a next generation of credit and debit cards but they will still need an anti-fraud approach. Fraudsters out there are very, very good and we’ve got to stay one step ahead. Our product will grow with the market and with the demands of banking technology.
“Our contact centre solution will continue to be the bread and butter of our business because the market is there – but the differentiator for us will be within secure payments. What marks us out is that we can bundle the secure payments solution and the contact solution together as One Stop shop approach, but you don’t have to – you can have one or the other.
“We’re going to see a continuing growth in card payments, non-cash payments over the coming years, so I would like to see us focusing on products and services by enhancing what we have got, in line with or in advance of what the market is looking for.
“We have to build our reputation on what we do best, and what we do best is being a leader in payment processing.”
Now aged 58, it’s clear that the lessons Derwyn has learned over the years have informed his approach to both his business and personal life.
“There’s no question for a long time I was the absent father and absent husband – I travelled a lot and was away a lot,” he says.
“But that’s me. I was driven, and still am. In business, there’s no silver medal. If you want to be remembered and successful, there’s only one winner.
“I think I have the right work-life balance at the moment, because I have more choice. I couldn’t go back into corporate life. I have a lot of interests outside and I have the time to put something back with charity work.”
That work includes Derwyn’s role as trustee and chairman of St Barnabas and Chestnut Tree – hospices which he has been involved with for seven years. St Barnabas is a hospice in Worthing for adults, while Chestnut Tree, in Arundel, is for children. Derwyn finds volunteering there to be a grounding, humbling experience.
“It provides respite for the children, their siblings and the families, and those children tend to have life-limiting illnesses and conditions,” he says.
“I got involved because my wife wanted to do some charity work – she goes along two days a week and volunteers – and she mentioned that they were looking for trustees. I wrote to them and became a trustee and have been giving guidance and input and helping with the governance.
“Two and a half years ago, the chairperson stepped down, so I took over. Chestnut Tree itself puts life in perspective. If you want to have the most humbling experience of your life, go to a children’s hospice and see what goes on there.
“It’s completely different to an adult hospice, where you feel as if you are walking into a clinical environment. You’ve got kids running around, it’s joy, it’s happy but of course some children go in there and don’t come out.
“We’re fortunate that both our daughters have grown up to be healthy, so for me it’s about putting something back. It’s a great leveller.”
With so much on his plate, has Derwyn thought about retirement? The answer is an emphatic “no!”. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I still want to be meeting people. I love talking to people.”
Ultracomms is a leading provider of omni-channel customer contact management solutions and PCI DSS level 1 certified secure phone payment technology for contact centres.