Mike Tobin talks of his daring fundraising efforts supporting the Tobin Foundation, and how they helped create a positive ‘no fear’ business culture.
Mike Tobin had a tough start. The architect and CEO behind the dramatic transformation of FTSE 250 data centre group Telecity Group PLC suffered violence and poverty, alongside erratic schooling before an electronics engineering apprenticeship set him on the path to success. Through the Tobin Foundation, he now strives to ensure that other young people get the same chances.
This has involved some dramatic fund-raising efforts, including running ‘40 marathons in 40 days’, a trek across the Tamil Nadu mountains in Southern India and, perhaps most notably, a trek to the South Pole. He built a refuge in Mumbai for trafficked girls. While he has supported a range of charitable causes, they have all had a common thread of the education, empowerment, and welfare of young people.
Of these adventures, the polar trip stands out as “the most brutal thing I’ve done”, he says. The ten strong team was headed by polar explorer Alan Chambers, and included rugby player Lewis Moody. They trekked 111 km in unimaginable conditions across the Antarctic Plateau to the southernmost point on Earth.
From spending three hours every morning and evening boiling snow to rehydrate food and create drinking water, to sleeping in tents that were consistently between 25 and 50 degrees below zero - he knew it would be difficult, but even he was surprised at how awful it was.
“We had frostbite – I lost sensation in my hands for months. We were trudging for 14 hours a day, dragging a 100 kg sled. You have to sleep with the sun in your face because the sun never sets. You have to weather storms as high as skyscrapers. One of the team collapsed with hyperthermia and couldn’t complete the trek. One guy got a crack in his tooth, ice got in and it exploded. There was no way to be rescued if we had got into serious difficulty. Most of us suffered from altitude sickness too. The 10,000 feet altitude was too high for helicopters and travelling just a few miles can take hours on a skidoo.”
He wouldn’t do it again or “if I did it would be in a more luxurious cruise around the coast.” Nevertheless, the trek raised £700,000 to enable clinical trials for targeted brain cancer drugs.
‘No fear’ culture
He found the journey had some applications to his business life. He has always believed in a ‘no fear’ culture. “When we’re in a situation where we’re doing things that haven’t been done before, it is quite likely we will mess up from time to time because we are pushing boundaries. It should be the norm and more culturally accepted. By allowing people to fail, you learn something very useful - how not to do something.” He also looks to recruit people with the right attitude, believing it is more difficult to teach attitude than specific skills.
This has involved some eccentric management training options. Amid a stressful merger, he took his management to the Firth of Forth marine aquarium, Deep Sea World. They thought they were doing a whisky tasting, but instead they got into wetsuits and into the aquarium. There were no nets and they were swimming with sharks. The aim? To teach them something about fear.
He admits that he was called a lot of names, but he believes that fear is an unreasonable emotion.
“Fear isn’t useful. Resilience is an amazing thing. Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ wasn’t talking about being the biggest or the fastest, but the most adaptable. Once people are out of their comfort zone, they need to find a way to adapt.”
He believes Covid, in spite of its horrors, may ultimately prove a good example of this. The difference between successful and unsuccessful businesses has often been whether the management teams have been able to adapt: “Much of that is how you deal with reality. I think you need to keep testing yourself in whatever area you’re in. When I was 16, I was waiting to see whether I got an apprenticeship or not. An old man told me “always go the extra mile, because there’s less traffic there.” Whenever you feel comfortable, put yourself out a bit.
The Tobin Foundation
Mike’s foundation continues to expand the range of causes it supports, all within its original framework. The Loomba Foundation, for example, helps widows around the world. In many countries, he says, widows are victimised and stigmatised. They can’t work, and they often have to send their children out to work to help support the family, which in turn impedes the child’s education. The foundation has spent ten years building ecosystems in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, giving micro loans to widows to support their business ventures.
He supports Action for Children, having pioneered the annual CEO sleepout. This is where CEOs sleep in Paternoster Square overnight (and pay for it!). These sleepouts have seen 3,800 executives raise more than £2,800,000. He has also raised money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Prince’s Trust and Pratham UK.
Mike’s current range of entrepreneurial ventures is similarly eclectic. Having led Telecity for a decade up to 2014, he stepped down and founded Tobin Ventures, which looked at supporting new opportunities in technology. This included backing groups such as Audio Boom – Europe’s largest podcast platform, where he is chairman.
He is now involved in a range of businesses as a non-executive and/or chairman, predominantly in technology. This includes Bigblu Broadband, Ultraleap, Pulsant and many others. He recently IPO’d his own SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) – Crystal Peak, one of the first European SPACs. He has already been involved with the SoftBank SPAC. He is also invested in London restaurant Park Row and Six Cricket Club. For an entrepreneur, hospitality currently looks attractive and he believes everyone will want to go out and have experiences.
He’s even an accomplished author with three bestsellers to his name, the most recent of which is a no-holes-barred history of the data centre industry called ‘Lifting the Floor’.
As for his adventures, he has one more in mind, but isn’t revealing it until he’s managed to convince his wife!
This article was previously published on Smith & Williamson prior to the launch of Evelyn Partners.