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Phone call changed his life
2:22pm Wednesday 21st August 2013 in Business
I AM late for my meeting with Mike Odysseas. It is only by five minutes, but first impressions are important. My tardiness is down to the major roadworks in the centre of Stockton, a multimillion pound infrastructure project that will ease traffic congestion and open up quicker routes to and from the town’s Preston Farm business park.
However, this particular morning it’s a log jam.
Having successfully negotiated cones, ramps and traffic lights and arrived at Odyssey Systems, I’m relieved to discover Mike too is running late, as he’s just back from an emergency run for ice lollies for his entire workforce.
“They are the healthy-option ones,” he says, quickly doling out iced treats around the office as I offer apologies.
“Don’t worry about it. Was it the roadworks?”
“Yeah, they’re a pain, but those works are so important for Stockton and will really benefit businesses in the town.”
Mike Odysseas’ glass is always half-full.
An entrepreneur who, over the past 25 years, has built one of the region’s most successful telecommunications companies, Mike is as brutally honest about past business failures as he is about his commitment to his loyal workforce and further developing Odyssey Systems.
He thinks fast, talks fast and, over the course of the interview, it is evident that he also acts fast, with his ability to spot an opportunity and act on it clearly key to his early ventures into the world of business.
However, that business instinct is something that has been honed over the years.
Mike’s first foray into the world of entrepreneurism was, in his own words, an absolute disaster.
Stockton-raised, he moved to Preston as a teenager and was happily making a living as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant when an unexpected phone call was to change his life.
“I was the best waiter in the world,” laughs Mike.
“I could run the restaurant from the front of house and I’d be looking after 160 customers on my own.
“And, while I was obviously brilliant, the service was a complete joke. I couldn’t just make coffees for the two customers that had ordered them, I’d make them for the entire restaurant to save time, and by the time I’d finished making them all they’d be stone cold.
“I really loved the job and didn’t have a care in the world, then one day I took call from a friend of my father’s.
“It was a chap called Joe Telford who asked me one question, ‘Do you want to be a waiter for the rest of your life?’ “It was just one simple question, but it really hit home. I was happy and enjoyed my life, but until that point my future wasn’t something that I had really thought too much about.”
Mr Telford, a teacher, worked with Mike to create a piece of software to provide online help for users of the early BBC Model B computers.
“This was an unmitigated disaster,”
says Mike. “People could not get their heads around it, we were constantly asked ‘why do I need this software?
I have this enormous book that tells me what to do’.
“These books were hundreds of pages thick, but people just weren’t ready for online help at the time and we lost a lot of money. But this provided my first real lesson in business and that was that the latest cuttingedge technology is not always the answer.”
Glass cases surround the boardroom table at Odyssey Systems containing telephones from the very earliest models to modern touch-screen iPhones.
The collection includes a selection of mobile devices, from bricks made famous by Michael Douglas, in Wall Street, to the first car phones, WAP phone technology and right up to modern devices.
It was the rise in popularity of carphones and mobile systems that was to set Mike back onto the entrepreneurial path and ultimately lead to the creation of Odyssey Systems.
“After the software disaster I was broke”, he says. “I literally did not have a penny and I bumped into a friend of mine while I was driving my car. I had installed a car phone in this piece of junk Mazda I was driving and it immediately caught his eye.
“He said that he wanted one and, out of instinct, I told him that I sold them.
“Of course I didn’t, I have no idea why I said that, but it was out before I even had time to think about it.
“He asked how much and I plucked the figure £1,500 from somewhere. I didn’t have a clue.
“I told him I could have it fitted in his car and we shook on it.
“Fortunately, I found someone who could install it and that is how I started selling car phones and mobiles.”
IT wasn’t long before Mike had taken on a couple of employees and was operating from a base in Middlesbrough, but was to soon realise that the rise of large mobile telephone retailers like Carphone Warehouse could spell the end of most independent traders.
He said: “I decided to concentrate on telephone systems and we began installing telephone switchboards, supplying cabling, providing call logging, doing anything the customer wanted really.
“And we developed our products, concentrating on providing excellent customer service, better pricing and clever features that would help our clients.
“We grew the business without over-reaching.”
From Odyssey Systems’ Preston Farm offices in Stockton, Mike’s 32 employees can constantly monitor customer service, with wall mounted flat screens showing everything from the number of calls a client is making and receiving to their internet usage.
They can pinpoint faults within seconds, switching clients to back-up systems so their telephony always remains online.
The offices have a vibrant feel with all employees encouraged to use their initiative and a focus on providing excellent customer service.
Mike also always employs at least two trainees in his team of 14 engineers.
“We have been in operation long enough now for the industry to know that our employees have the best training available,” he says.
“We always employ at least two trainees. Some you win, some you lose, but that’s business. Our trainees know that if they work hard and perform well, we will look after them.
“Our only aim here at Odyssey is to do a brilliant job, for our customers and for ourselves.
“All our employees must have a personality. If you don’t have that we’re going to struggle to get along.
“We also match our guys with the customer to ensure that they will get along.”
And it is all about the customer service. Mike’s team builds the telephone systems they sell in-house to enable engineers to simply plug it in for customers to use.
He insists on taking calls himself, whatever the time of day or wherever he is in the world.
“My staff don’t ask any questions if someone calls and asks for me,” he says. “They simply put them through because if one of our clients wants to speak with me then I am available, anytime, anywhere.”
Mike, who was raised in the Bowesfield Lane area of Stockton, is equally committed to the North-East.
The vast majority of his 1,500 clients are in the region.
He said: “I believe in buying local.
“If local authorities purchased local the net effect would be threefold.
If they bought from me I would source my materials locally, employ local people and they would receive more in taxes.
“Unfortunately that doesn’t happen, but it would be a brilliant way to revitalise the local economy.”
This commitment extends to refusing to make any cuts to staffing levels as a result of the recession, even though Odyssey Systems saw a five per cent drop-off in business, which it has since won back.
Rachel Anderson, North East Chamber of Commerce head of member relations, praised the company’s work. She said: “It’s refreshing to see Odyssey’s commitment to the area and how everyone at the company prides themselves on customer service above all else.
“Mike is an example of how a combination of hard work, innovation and a willingness to back his own judgement and abilities can lead to success.”
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