Tim Mercer had to adjust to life on Civvy Street after a spell in the Army and a move into technology has worked wonders. Ismail Mulla reports.
When soldiers leave the army, many usually find themselves having to readjust to civilian life.
It was a process that Tim Mercer went through. However, not many armed forces personnel end up heading up a cloud technology business as he has.
Mr Mercer, who founded Vapour Cloud in 2013, left school at 16. After taking on a couple of jobs he joined the Armed Forces just before his 17th birthday.
“I knew I was joining while I was in school,” he says. “I firstly joined as a chef. They all say you need a trade but I was a soldier first and foremost.”
He didn’t particularly enjoy being a chef and instead transferred to the air corps.
“I was there for nearly six years,” Mr Mercer said. “I did two tours of Ireland around 1989 and 1990 and then was part of the first Gulf War in 1991.”
The first Gulf War changed Mr Mercer’s relationship with the army and he ended up buying himself out of the forces.
Mr Mercer said: “We had six weeks off after that campaign. Then you went back to your regiment and the guy you’d been in the trenches with was now shouting at you for not cleaning your boots correctly and things like that.
“It felt a little different. I agree and understand that there is discipline but I also understand we were in a campaign eight weeks ago and it lost its desire for me at that point.”
At this point he found himself, like many other former soldiers, trying to readjust to civilian life.
Mr Mercer said: “As you can imagine you’re trying to find your feet a little bit. I did a few jobs then. I think it’s the old soldier mentality you’re trying to readjust a little bit to civilian life.
“You’re trying to find a role that you’re comfortable with. I worked in a few jobs. I sold cars, I sold coffee machines, I went to seek fame and fortune in London.”
This is where the seeds for a career in technology were planted. After selling photocopiers and fax machines on commission, he began to see that change was afoot with the rise of the internet.
“I’m not the latest iPhone person or anything like that but I’ve always been interested in new technology so consequently I decided to go into the network and data space because I could see the growth around the internet coming,” Mr Mercer says.
He started working for Telewest in 1999 as a sales person and lived through the company’s changes – it would go on to become Virgin Media.
“I worked for them for 11 years until 2010,” Mr Mercer said.
It was in that year that he then decided to build a company within a friend’s business delivering similar services that Vapour does today.
Vapour builds networks for clients, delivers secure voice platforms, back-up storage and infrastructure platform as a service.
Mr Mercer says the one thing he didn’t realise was just how difficult it would be setting up the business.
“I sold my house, my cars, my pension. I sold everything to put into Vapour Cloud,” he said. “From a family point of view that was an incredible risk for us but the belief is there that you’re going to succeed.”
However, since founding the business in 2013, Vapour Cloud has grown to 31 staff and a turnover set to hit £2.2m this year.
The company has also attracted funding from venture capitalists, completed a merger and will be hosting an innovation and disruption in tech event this week.
“It’s been interesting working with some venture capitalists,” says Mr Mercer. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done that.”
He added: “For a guy from a council estate in Halifax with a soldier’s background and having no understanding of how the corporate finance world works it’s been an eye opener.”
Does the soldier’s background have an impact on how he runs his company?
“There’s a thought process around people who have not been in the forces that someone shouts a lot, tells you what you’re doing and that’s the decision that’s made,” Mr Mercer says.
“It’s not always like that. The main officer who is in charge of the objective will ultimately make the decision but they will glean all the information from the people sat around the table because you need the knowledge and you need the understanding of people that are there.
“I like to think that I’m a good leader and the reason I’m a good leader is that I listen as much as anything. I think that’s important.”
“The staff will probably tell you better,” he added with a laugh.
The Elland-based firm is looking to grow further. The challenge to that growth is finding the right people.
But Mr Mercer says that they haven’t encountered a skills gap. Instead the firm wants to make sure it recruits people that fit the culture of Vapour.
He said: “We’ve got a good tech sector in Leeds and Yorkshire. We’ve got plenty of people with skills and we’ve got great universities, good colleges.
“We take apprentices on. Why? Not everyone is academic. I went to a grammar school but I wasn’t particularly academic. Some of those people are really, really good.
“Especially the young guys. They need a break. We’ve taken four on over the last two years and two of those are full-time with us now and two are going through their accreditations.
“If you were their parents you’d have been incredibly proud of them. They’re great for the business. They bring new ideas to us.
“Sometimes I think you’ve got to look at the person and not necessarily their qualifications.”
When asked if this is down to his own background, Mr Mercer says: “There is a bit of that”.
Tim Mercer factfile
Title: CEO, Vapour Cloud
DOB: February 26, 1970
Lives: Tickhill, small village South of Doncaster
Favourite holiday destination: Langkawi, Malaysia
Last book read: I love anything spy thriller, John Le Carre style
Favourite film: Depends on mood. Three days of the Condor, Inception
Favourite song: Most old soul and funk. Ron Hall and the Motherfunkas, The Way You Love Me
What car do you drive? Mercedes
Most proud of: Apart from my children, the way we have built a company from nothing whilst risking everything, driving towards a dream
Education: Highlands Grammar School, Halifax