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Inside The Bradfield Centre Episode 32, Nigel Hall, CEO of Cambridge Broadband Networks Group

In this episode we meet Nigel Hall, CEO of Bradfield Centre members Cambridge Broadband Networks Group. We learn about Nigel's extensive experience including the launch of mobile network operator Orange, and all about Cambridge Broadband Networks Group and the impact of COVID.

Episode Transcription

James Parton:

Welcome to Inside The Bradfield Centre. I'm James Parton, the managing director of the Bradfield Centre. And joining us today, is Nigel Hall who is the CEO of Cambridge Broadband Networks Group, and a member of the Bradfield Centre.

James Parton:

So in today's conversation, just really looking forward to hearing about Nigel's background. Nigel and I've chatted before, and he's got a really varied and rich past. Really fascinating, so I'm sure that'll be an interesting listen. Also, looking forward to digging into exactly what Cambridge Broadband Networks Group does, and the products it offers. Certainly know it sinks that perfect product market fit right now with an explosion in demand for what they're doing.

James Parton:

And also just to understand how Nigel's adapting to COVID, how the team is being productive while it's being dispersed from the Bradfield Centre. And, just looking ahead to see what 2021 holds in store. So Nigel, thanks so much for taking the time to come onto the show today and have a chat with us. Why don't we kick things off with just learning a little bit more about you and your journey, and what you've been up to, and how you got to where you are today.

Nigel Hall:

Brilliant, James, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you. It's nice to actually get the chance to do that in the current climate. So, yeah my background's an interesting one from the point of view of entrepreneurial journeys, I guess. I started out as a kid in the Northeast working in a sort of a place that used to have about 32% unemployment in those days.

Nigel Hall:

Left home at the age of 16, went to work for a company that it was called Marconi as an apprentice. Went through the ranks there, and eventually became part of a group of people that merged to be corporate organizations together, which formed a company called GPT. Which was one of the biggest telecommunications vendors at that time in the marketplace.

Nigel Hall:

And, I was fortunate enough after we did the merger to work in a really interesting part of the business, which ran all the customer projects. And, I was fortunate to be responsible for some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the world at that time. One was the Channel Tunnel, and all the communication systems for that. I was also involved in the Jubilee Line Extension when that was built out the new location net two from the center of London out to Canary Wharf when there was just one building in Canary Wharf in those days. And I'm still on the hook for the software for that system, actually, some 35 years on.

James Parton:

Great.

Nigel Hall:

I was told there's no errors on it.

James Parton:

You still walk around with a pager?

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, and I was also sort of part responsible for the build-out of the new airport in Hong Kong, which was put together a few years ago and was joined to P&L responsible for that. But I think, for me, the biggest step in my career that I took on was actually leaving that world and joining... Which is probably when, I suppose you might say, my entrepreneurial period started, which is to get involved in a company that was just starting out.

Nigel Hall:

I was part of the startup team that set up the mobile operator, Orange, in the UK. Fortunate enough, responsible for 10 of my 14 years as well. I went around the world being able to plant a flag in the ground called Orange, and be responsible for launching all their international territories over that period of time, which was absolutely wonderful. Our real challenge, getting to work with some of the best people I've ever worked with in my career. And, just having that ability with such a powerful customer centric brand that was really only built around being disruptive in the market as well. And that's probably where in today's world, a lot of technology businesses have a DNA around being disruptive and trying to find ways to be innovative.

Nigel Hall:

Well, that was the only thing I knew at that time, because that's what Orange was about. We were the disruptive market player. We were often entering a market last, so we needed to be different. We needed to be customer centric, and we invented some of the things that have become the principles of the mobile industry since that time. Which are things like per-second billing, which didn't exist. Bundled tariffs, which have just become the norm around the world now and all sorts of fantastic stuff like that I was able to get involved with working with.

Nigel Hall:

And as I said, what was more important than me is that DNA that got created by Orange at the time infected us all. And, it's been that sort of journey, I suppose, that I've tried to leverage some of those capabilities that I learned during my time in Orange. And then after... I mean, it's a fascinating time. It was just a brilliant time in the world at that time to really go out and make a difference.

James Parton:

Yeah, well I mean, we obviously chatted and we've got some shared experiences in the telecoms world, and I agree with you. I think we probably were the kind of in the right to vote at the best possible time, because it's easy to forget now when you kind of look back. But, at the advent of 3G and the mobile operators were very much the kind of gatekeepers of the mobile into that. It was an exciting time.

Nigel Hall:

It was, it was indeed. And, I'm grateful for the opportunity to have learned so many things at that time and brought them forward to today. It was great. And when Orange went through a number of takeovers, I then became part of a big group organization. I worked for the Orange Ventures arm, I worked in group strategy. The enviable rock job title had been called the conciliary, which a lot of people used to find amusing at the time, because that was the done thing in Orange to have strange job titles.

Nigel Hall:

And, then when I was finishing some of those group roles, I went back into the operating units as a COO, CEO, CIO. I think the only job I've not done is probably the chief people officer role in an operating unit. And then in 2006, 2007, I sort of became part of the world of interim management and took it on myself to leave Orange and go on my own journey of being a hired gun in the market. And since then, I've pretty much worked for companies like anyone from PRS for Music to KPMG, to McLaren, to Telefónica which you know, James. And a number of other ones in the middle.

Nigel Hall:

So, I've been involved in transforming businesses from early stage tech startups, right the way through to mid-caps and corporates. I've done some major turnarounds of businesses. I was part of a team that did a change agenda in cable and wireless worldwide when we pulled it out of its fourth profits warning in a sort of in the market.

Nigel Hall:

But, my passion really is going and working with what I would say is early stage tech businesses. And fortunately, a few years ago, got the chance to do that based in the Warwick University Science Park and help to coach some entrepreneurs. Help to also lead a couple of businesses that were active with angel investors at that time, and to get them to commercial launch. And, then more recently getting involved in Cambridge Broadband Networks Limited late last year.

James Parton:

Which brings us right up today, I guess. So, yeah I mean, I'm going to come back and ask you a couple of questions because you've got such a varied and rich kind of career there. I'm going to come back and ask you a couple of things, but why don't you tell us all about the current role and how you ended up at the Bradfield Centre?

Nigel Hall:

Yes, so is a really interesting one. The story is as follows, I mean, I was brought in by the board of Cambridge Broadband Networks Limited as was back in October 2019. And, really the business was under a bit of challenge and a bit of stress at that time. And, the purpose really behind the process was to take it through an exercise of looking for a new owner or some new investment, and doing a transformation of the business at that time. And, it was really quite a distressed situation to deal with. And fortunately for me, there was a lot of really great people around inside the organization at that time who wanted to really transform the business into a new organization.

Nigel Hall:

And fortunately as well, we had a number of people who were running the process with us to find a new owner, who helped us identify a new owner, which we did. And that was through the months of effectively, November, December, January, and February, just before lockdown started. We then put the company into a new ownership state, and a plan to transform the company from what it was to what it is today. And effectively, we took it through and pruned it back, restructured it and created a NewCo out of the organization, which is now called Cambridge Broadband Networks Group.

Nigel Hall:

We felt it was appropriate to try and keep that strength of brand from the history of the business, 20 years older there as it is. But, a lot of our customers out there really have a strong affinity with Cambridge brand. And, we wanted to find ways to make sure that we transitioned that appropriately into the NewCo even though it was a very different business, but a new business nonetheless. But needing to make sure that we kept our old customers with us, and transform them into the right position with us as well, which is what we've been doing since pretty much locked down, which is last March. And that's how we came to the Bradfield Center, because that was going to be our new office at that time.

Nigel Hall:

And we started out in the building, which was great. It was a fabulous place to start the NewCo, and start the new company with all of the fresh things that were around us, and the ecosystem and the access to new talent that I know exists in that area. And, that was the plan. And then as you know, James, things changed a little bit. And, so at that point since pretty much the first couple of weeks of March, although we've still been using your office location, the Bradfield Centre for ad hoc events, we've pretty much been working from the home office, as they say, since that time. And, managed to generate some really interesting revenues in just the space of what was effectively just about a nine-month year that we had last year.

James Parton:

So, I'll come back and talk to you about your experiences of working from home and all those kinds of things. But in terms of Cambridge Broadband Network Group, what are the key products? What's the key offer?

Nigel Hall:

Cambridge Broadband Networks, as I said, goes back about 20 odd years. They are the leader in the provision of effectively licensed, the millimeter wave technology for the telcos and the wireless internet service providers around the world. And in fact, what they've done over that 20 years is provide most of the licensed spectrum microwave solutions to probably around about a hundred customers across about 50 countries. And, a lot of that equipment still exists in those markets and territories. It is a global business. It isn't something that's just very local, but the time was right to take a closer look in the NewCo, how we were going to come into the new world.

Nigel Hall:

And that new world really did hit us, as you know, in March because that triggered what I would call a major transformation of a need called broadband to everywhere. And we provide some of those solutions that help that along and in the particular solutions that we provide, we are focused very much now on a 5G fixed wireless access solution that we are just going on the journey of building for our customers right now, because that demand in the 5G world is more than ever. That exponential demand, particularly, in the non-urban areas of cities is where I see and where we see our proposition in the future going. And, that's really what we're now embarking on the journey of.

James Parton:

Okay, interesting. And you're seeing that kind of demand coming, you say globally, not just in the kind of developed markets.

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, that's right. I mean, to some extent you probably know, James, being in the telecommunications industry certain markets grow at certain paces and drive the rest of the agenda in 5G, and fixed wireless access solutions. Right now, the market in North America is very, very buoyant. That's primarily because the spectrum allocations have been made very, very clear and the applications for 5G have been made very, very clear in North America. And a lot of our existing customer base is already there, and therefore we're leveraging that. And I fully expect that over time, Europe will then follow suit with the allocations of spectrum and the particular applications of that spectrum.

Nigel Hall:

We'll find the same thing starting to happen as it already is, actually, to some extent in the Middle East. And then we've got Africa, which is already making great strides and never ceases to amaze me how innovative the African territories are at times. And then of course, we've got the Latin American region where I think there'll be coming up trumps as well on some of those demands in the 5G space. And in some cases, what seems to be the more or the less advanced markets. I find that at times like this, they often leapfrog. And, a lot of the spectrum allocations haven't been let in some of these territories. I fully expect that once they are, you'll see some incredible increases in demand for millimeter wave solutions and technology that fills that space.

Nigel Hall:

And it's, I think, a fascinating opportunity that I believe exists, which is the operators and the telcos, the wireless internet service providers. They all need blended solutions. It's never one size fits all, whether you're in the urban areas of a city, on the outskirts of the suburban areas, or whether you're in the rural areas or whatever else you are, you need a blend of all of these types of solutions.

Nigel Hall:

And even in this country today, I think we're beginning to see that, that'll start to become. It won't be just a fiber solution to everyone's home that will provide the service, even though that's the perfect world, of course. It will be also fixed wireless access solutions that generate the value. And I think more, and more, and more than that right now, particularly, I think we're seeing the evolution of that rather swiftly.

James Parton:

I mean, there was always that catch-22 that in the areas that where it was, it made little economic sense to cable or run fiber to. They also had the added issue of it didn't pay you back. You need to have good mobile coverage in those areas either. Is that changed over time? Are you seeing that kind of infilling now of those kinds of black spots to give people access to the kind of bandwidth they're going to need?

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, well, it's interesting because as you know, it's quite a challenge economically speaking with many of these types of solutions. And I think it's one of the things that Cambridge Broadband Networks Group, as it now is, has spent a little bit of time trying to work out how it can add more value to the economic solution part of the solution here. Because it's not just about technology, you have to make it valuable. And economically speaking, that's always been the issue if you're putting fiber to everyone's home. Whilst I think that cost of doing that is rapidly decreasing, equally I don't think there'll be enough to make it work.

Nigel Hall:

And so point to multi-point solutions, which is the particular specialism and the particular differentiation that Cambridge Broadband Networks has, plays very, very nicely into providing what I would call an economic solution into the blend of solutions that are typical telco or wireless internet service provider needs in whatever part of their footprint. So economics will play a much bigger part, I think, in the future, absolutely right, James.

James Parton:

Just to pause the conversation a second, and tell you a little bit more about the changes we're making at the Bradfield Centre. We now offer a whole range of new flexible membership packages, which support homeworkers, hybrid homeworking blended with access to high quality office space, and meeting room hire by the hour. Starting from as little as 45 pounds per month, visit Bradfieldcentre.com for more information, or call 01223 919 600.

James Parton:

It's always difficult not to talk about the impact of COVID and what the future of work might look like. I mean, from the conversations you have with your telecoms partners and your clients, how are they kind of looking ahead? Because, obviously they have to make decisions considerable amounts of times in advance when you think about infrastructure deployment. Are they predicting there is going to be a shift in kind of demand away from the traditional offices in city centers? Or, there's going to be a shift towards a kind of balance of working from home and working in the office, but you just expect the same level of quality in the home environment as you would have done in the office, say, 10 years ago?

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, I think it's all of the above that you just mentioned there, James. I think there's certainly, for me, going to be a balance of a more flexible working approach from office and out of office. There always was to some extent, but I think the COVID situation has heightened that. And, if you only just look at the number of people that are moving out the city centers now. I've written an article only the other week that property searches at the moment in the UK are really focused on outlying areas like the likes of Cornwall and Dorset and places like that.

Nigel Hall:

And, that's because a lot of people are choosing to move out of the major cities and go and work in those locations, because it's a much better higher degree of quality of life. And, yet they can still deliver the products and the services that they need to do in their work environment. So, I think there will be a shift to the broadband needs, which are more rural. And I think also at the same time, there'll be an expectation that's up to equal to, if not better than what is like to work in an office.

Nigel Hall:

Having said that, I always believe that the pendulum won't swing completely in one direction or the other, it'll probably land somewhere in the middle. And, I think places like the Bradfield Centre and other organizations like that will need what I call the team ethic approach, whereby teams do need to collaborate and come together in unique and different ways. And the only way, I think, we've been effectively do that is to have those types of locations like the Bradfield Centre available to people.

Nigel Hall:

It may not be that it's there five days a week for a typical working environment, but certainly I would imagine that two or three days a week would start to become the norm. And, the expectation would be how have you balanced the peaks and the troughs of the urban solutions, as much as the rural solutions that you need to balance that. And in the old days, it was pretty easy to predict. I think we'll find there's a lot more randomness in those predictions now. But nonetheless, I think there'll be a little bit more imbalanced. It will be much more a bit of each, shall we say.

James Parton:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mean, why don't we specifically talk then about how you and your team have coped with the situation? You talked about being a home-based over the last few months, what have been the pros and cons of that? Where have you seen the challenges? Where have you seen the benefits?

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, I think the big one for me was I thought the team would struggle. I mean, we started the company with only 20 people back in last March. And, I got the distinct impression that the team would struggle to help get this business off the ground from a standing start, and do all the things that are necessary like you would do in a startup environment. Which is really what we were, and still are to a large extent.

Nigel Hall:

Finding new customers when you're remote, you can't sit down and have a coffee with those customers. And specifically, even if they're remote as well, I've got team in north America. So team in LatAm, a team in Middle East and North Africa. So we thought that would be quite a challenge, but I have to say everyone coped with it really, really well. I think there's been a little bit of a challenge as time's gone on. I think it was quite unique at the time, quite different. And I think people engage with it a lot, but also people found it challenging on different levels. When you've got homeschooling to deal with, I mean, some of the teams have meetings and they're being sat in the kitchen with the kids running around in the background. And, so it also brings it home to you how difficult it can be for people in those environments, and you have to be respectful of that as a leader, and try and do your best to work around that because it isn't easy.

Nigel Hall:

And for some, it's quite difficult. Some cope with that very well, some don't cope with it very well at all, and you have to be supportive in the organization and find ways to do that. And, the other thing I found as well as part of the coping mechanism is also having a bit of fun on the journey as well. When none of you are meeting together, you have to find ways to collaborate and have a bit of informal time with each other. There's no longer that the coffee machine to go and have a chat and then interact. There's no longer the ability just to bump into someone in the corridor, so you almost have to force that mechanism to some extent in the right way, of course.

Nigel Hall:

So, we have coffee sessions where we just have an open session on a Thursday at a certain time of the day. And then we'll book in an event around a bit of fun quiz, and we try and keep them light as well. But, we interlace those with the normal workings of the day as almost like an alternative to meeting up with people at the coffee machine. And I have to say, it's worked pretty well. I've been surprised at how well it has worked. I was a bit skeptical at the beginning that it would work, but we seem to come through it well.

James Parton:

Yeah, and like you say, they'll still be those times where there'll be the benefit of being together, co-located together. Have you had to hire people during this period? Has it been hard to onboard people into the culture and kind of... It must be difficult not... I've heard a number of stories where people have never actually met someone in person that they've hired. The whole interviewing and onboarding process has been a hundred percent remote, which is a little bit strange.

Nigel Hall:

Well, it is. And you're absolutely right, we have. We've had about three or four new recruits in the last year. One, including our new CTO, a gentleman called William Webb who's a guru in the telecom space. And William and I, although we crossed paths many, many years in the past, we haven't met in this process. We speak every day, two, three times a day, but we've never physically met. Not in the context of the newer organization, and two or three of our engineers has been the same. I've not met them physically yet, but I'm sure over time we'll get to that and in the next few months that will be real life, I'm sure.

James Parton:

Yeah, and like you say, I think the challenge for workspaces like the Bradfield is just to adapt, and just to be attentive to customer's needs and just be as flexible as we possibly can be to provide the services that you need in this new way of working.

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, and I think it does, if I'm being honest James. I think that's exactly what it does do. It creates a location for people who need to have that interaction for whatever reason, whether it's a strategy day or collaborating on a piece of project work. There's a limit to what you can do over Zoom and Teams, and everything else. And, that's why I think the pendulum will swing a little bit the other way over time. It won't be fully one way or the other.

Nigel Hall:

But, I do think there's still an enormous space to take, to make sure that environments are collaborative enough. And, particularly in the tech startup world where you do really need to be together at times to figure out problems that you've got to solve. And, yeah I absolutely believe that there's a big place for that and it will still remain.

James Parton:

Yeah, I mean, you touched on the heritage of the brand with the Cambridge connection, and the fact that you are... You mentioned talent earlier in the conversation as well. I mean, what's your take on the Cambridge ecosystem? I suspect there's an element of COVID there too, in terms of you might not yet have been able to fully embrace the local ecosystem. Is that something you're looking forward to kind of getting into once the event starts to come back and the networking sessions? And as you say, those spontaneous conversations in the kind of cafe in the Bradfield and that kind of thing.

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, absolutely, James. I mean the big thing for me, and one of the reasons I chose to have the team set up, or the NewCo setup in the Bradfield Centre was for a number of reasons. But one of them was, I think we needed to embrace new partnerships, number one. And, I think this was a great way of doing that. I think with the ecosystem of organizations that, James, you have in the building and the types of organizations and that Cambridge ecosystem that everyone knows and loves, it's all there.

Nigel Hall:

And, I wanted us to wire ourselves into that so that we could build some strong partnerships for future product development, number one. Number two, I think it's also a great place to bring good talent on. And I think when you have an ecosystem like that, and you have it, particularly in the Cambridge vicinity, everyone recognizes what Cambridge brings in terms of strength of talent. And I think for us to be able to be wired better into that world, I think creates a really beneficial opportunity for Cambridge Broadband Networks Group going forward as well. Because, I'm a great believer that there is this going back to my DNA thing, if you have the right types of people with the right DNA, you can really an organization for the better.

Nigel Hall:

And, we've built ourselves on some new values and some new behaviors that we want to install in the business to allow the business to flourish, and go to a lot of different places. And, I think you only get that when you start to introduce talent with that capability in them. Strength of accountability, working collaboratively, having more agility and speed in the ways of working, driving change agendas, building products in different ways. These are all the sorts of things that I think being part of the Bradfield Centre, and being part of the companies that come in and out of the Bradfield Centre, it's certainly something that we want to leverage more than we have done.

Nigel Hall:

And, one of the reasons that I've been a big advocate for more flexible working even before COVID, is that I also think that lends itself to attract talent. Because, I think certain organizations don't see the benefit of that and I do. I think it's the fact that we can choose people from different locations now in the and round the world as well, and do it in a collaborative manner in this way and do it in working environments like yours from the Cambridge area.

Nigel Hall:

You leverage an awful lot of capabilities that you wouldn't normally be able to leverage. And, I think it's a fantastic opportunity for us to wire ourselves in more. And in fact, even William, he's a local chap from Cambridge, and I don't think we would have been able to access him throughout that relationship that we did grow through the Cambridge links. That wouldn't have appeared and William wouldn't have joined us. I'm absolutely sure of that.

James Parton:

So, what's coming up? Are you still hiring? How can people get in touch? What's over the horizon for you guys?

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, so the big thing right now is obviously we've just designed the next generation product that we want to go to market with. We are currently working with some investment organizations to see whether they could assist us with that, so with the fundraise for that. And at the same time, as we just talked about, we're bringing on some new talent in a variety of different ways. We're bringing it into the engineering side of the business, we're bringing it into the system side, software, hardware. We're building out some new products that are not just hardware generated but software, and service, and support.

Nigel Hall:

So, we will be looking for in some new talent in the area and that for us is the big thing. So our primary market right now, and our primary focus is to build this new product, which we call Sickness for that North American market, where it's a specific 5G fixed wireless access solution for that market. But as time goes on, we fully expect that at the same time that we're doing that and building that product, what's going to happen is, is that we will be seeing the rest of the markets around the world also follow by describing what exactly is the frequency and applications of those frequencies the way we then can say, "Okay, so we now need to move to the Middle East and North Africa as a region." And, we'll start to take the opportunity for our Sickness product there as well, and we fully expect all the markets to follow suit over time.

James Parton:

Sounds like you're got an exciting ride ahead of you. 2021 is going to be strong.

Nigel Hall:

Yeah, no, it will be. And like I said, investment is key for us right now. We've got a number of things going on in that space. So any investors out there want to talk to us, please feel free to do so. But also more importantly, it's getting on that journey of building that new product for the new markets that we see out there. And I'm really hopeful that in the next six, 12 months, those markets will start to see some interesting products coming out.

James Parton:

Fantastic. Well, thanks again for sparing the time to come on and talk. I'm sure you were a very busy guy. Very much appreciated.

Nigel Hall:

Thank you. Thanks very much indeed for the chance to speak with you.

James Parton:

So, just really interesting to hear from Nigel on how they've adapted the kind of the pros, the cons, the strange situations we find ourselves in, where we're hiring people without actually never physically meeting them. It's becoming the norm now, but great to hear that Nigel and the team are looking forward to getting back into the center and really benefiting from being around the Cambridge ecosystem, and having those spontaneous conversations. And going to those events, and tapping into the kind of talent pool that's certainly in Cambridge.

James Parton:

Also, just fantastic to hear what a growth story they're sitting on. Demand springing up all around the globe, just sounds like a great time to be in the position they're in. So what a fantastic addition to the Bradfield Centre community, great to have an experienced leader like Nigel in our community. And, I'm sure if you're looking for support and guidance, Nigel would be more than happy to grab a coffee with you in the future. So another great interview, thanks again to Nigel for spending the time with us today.

James Parton:

Thank you once again to Nigel for coming onto the show. Also, a big thank you to Carl Homer of Cambridge TV for producing the podcast. You can listen to previous episodes by searching for inside the Bradfield Centre on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and many other platforms out there. If you have five minutes, just give us a five star review. It'll really help other people discover the show.

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