Alan Needle is back at Filtronic as it taps into the mobile data explosion. John Collingridge met him
ALAN Needle pauses to silence his ringing mobile phone.
For a man whose company is helping power the smartphone technology boom, the ancient Nokia seems an anachronistic device.
“It’s my back-up phone,” he explained. “I’m an iPhone user. This has got a lower frequency – it’s got a wider range.”
Having worked in wireless and mobile technology his entire career, it’s perhaps not surprising that the new Filtronic chief executive has different mobile phones for different thicknesses of concrete.
He’s now on his second spell at the Leeds-based wireless infrastructure company, after helping grow it into a global technology company between 1986 and 2005.
In an increasingly digital world, where smartphones and tablet computers are placing huge demands on the mobile network, analysts believe Filtronic is a company on the cusp of significant growth once more. Panmure Gordon sees Filtronic making £34.5m sales this financial year, double the £15.5m it booked in 2011.
Mobile operator EE recently rolled out its fourth generation (4G) mobile network, which offers broadband internet via a mobile connection. Other operators are set to follow next year, meaning huge investment in upgrading mobile phone masts to cope with the explosion in wireless data.
“The demand from the consumer for more data with things like Netflix, that’s what’s driving the need for more frequencies,” said Needle. “Behind that we’ve got to link all the base stations up and get it onto the trunk network.
“There’s the proliferation of new frequency bands. Then there are environmental factors – people don’t want multiple masts.”
Filtronic’s combiners allow operators to share masts, an increasingly popular option.
Its E-band radio, a £2.5m project part-funded by former regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, helps alleviate the “data crunch” – too many data-hungry users and not enough airwaves.
The company also supplies equipment to football grounds to cope with huge numbers of mobile users, and its technology was fitted at the London Olympics.
“We see there’s plenty of growth for the company to go at for the next three to five years without having to do any acquisitions,” said Needle. “It needs to grow because it’s a solid company and very small for the main market.
“We’ve got to try and find some way to £100m turnover. I can see opportunities to get us to £50m-£60m, just looking at what is out there.”
Needle, 58, grew up with radios, building amateur receivers to pick up long-wave frequencies. His father was a chief technician in the airforce and Needle’s childhood was spent in Wiltshire, Australia and Lincolnshire.
Leaving school in Market Rasen, he went to the local polytechnic and enrolled on a sandwich course, working at telecoms giant Marconi on radar, interference and electronics.
That helped him get a job at microwave engineering firm EEV, where he moved into sales. In 1986, he joined Filtronic.
The company was still near the start of a journey which saw it grow into the UK’s most successful university spin-out.
Founded by University of Leeds Professor David Rhodes in 1977, it was working in defence electronics and early mobile phones.
Needle, who had been on the verge of returning to EEV, was persuaded to set up the company’s commercial division in 1989.
Its success winning work with Motorola resulted in the business branching off as a new company, Filtronic Comtek, in 1992.
Filtronic Comtek coincided with the launch of second generation (2G) mobile networks, and its filters were used in base stations.
In 1994 Filtronic Comtek floated on the London Stock Exchange, while the defence business remained private. A decade of acquisitions and growth followed, and during the dotcom boom the company’s market value surged as high as $2.4bn. As managing director of the wireless infrastructure division, Needle led it into Australia, the US and China. He was even made an honorary citizen of Suzhou in China.
When Needle retired in 2005, wireless comprised more than three quarters of the company.
“I did not agree with the strategy of the company,” said Needle.
“I thought we could expand the wireless infrastructure even further. The direction of the company had changed. It was being pushed in the direction of semiconductors and away from the business we had grown in.
“It had been quite exciting. I’d done quite a lot. I wanted to do something different as well.”
In 2006, Needle attempted a private equity and debt-financed purchase of Filtronic’s wireless business, but was beaten to it by US firm Powerwave.
Meanwhile, Filtronic was busy shrinking, selling off businesses and property and returning cash to investors.
Needle invested in a few companies with Yorkshire Business Angels, but then bumped into Professor Rhodes again.
Filtronic’s founder persuaded him to join a private company, Isotek.
“It was blue sky thinking. We were thinking about what new products you would need when 4G comes along. I worked for nothing for three to four months seeing what we could do with it.
“We spent time trying to grow the business and produce the product needed for 4G.”
Isotek effectively built another wireless business from scratch. It developed microwave filters to allow mobile operators to maximise their use of valuable spectrum.
When a three-year covenant preventing Filtronic competing with Powerwave in wireless expired, it moved for Isotek.
In July 2010 after protracted negotiations, Filtronic re-entered the mobile phone base station market with the £10.7m cash and shares purchase of Isotek, bringing back a number of former staff including Needle.
This September Needle replaced Hemant Mardia when the former CEO stood down after 28 years to take up a new challenge on the West Coast of the US. It made the Isotek deal look suspiciously like a reverse takeover.
“The way it’s worked out, I suppose that’s probably true,” said Needle.
“It (the CEO role) is not something I actively sought. It’s happened and I’ve embraced it.
“I was as surprised when Hemant left – I agreed with his strategy and thought he was doing a good job.”
Needle has moved Filtronic’s headquarters from an industrial unit in Shipley to a modern facility at Leeds Bradford Airport.
He spends his free time playing tennis and badminton, clay pigeon shooting or on his yacht on Ullswater in the Lake District.
After the interview he’s off to see his son, Andrew, perform as half of a comedy act called Dick Biscuit. It’s based on a private detective and a detached brain and is attracting interest from the BBC.
“It’s mad. They work their socks off.” His son is also in a rock band, Sulk, which has supported the Dandy Warhols.
But none of his three sons plan on following him into the mobile technology space – they’re into music and performing arts.
“It’s from my wife’s side – it’s the artistic side,” he said.
Alan Needle Factfile
Title: Chief executive, Filtronic
Date of birth: December 2, 1954
Lives: Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Education: De Aston School, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire; MBA at University of Strathclyde
First job: Cleaning toilets and driving a tractor at Lincolnshire Show Ground
Car driven: Mercedes 350C
Last book read: The Impossible Dead, Ian Rankin
Favourite film: The Matrix
Favourite holiday: La Gomera, Canaries
Family: Three sons aged 20, 29, 30
Most proud of: Being married to Paula for 35 years