Telecoms firm aql is behind a new £43m data centre for Leeds, set to boost the city’s digital sector. Suzan Uzel met CEO Adam Beaumont.
ADAM Beaumont showed entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. At nine years old he was repairing bike punctures, attracting business by advertising his services in the local newsagent.
“That got quite busy to the point where I was repairing 20 plus bikes per week,” he recalled. “So we always had a garage full of bikes to fix.”
Later in life, after gaining a PhD in physical chemistry from Leeds University, he did a three-year stint as a lecturer – at the age of 24 he was the youngest lecturer there.
But he decided it wasn’t for him. His enterprising nature had not disappeared.
“I don’t think I was best suited to an academic environment. I wanted to try and run my research group more like a business.
“It’s probably not conducive to the main goals of academia so I found myself moving on.”
He went to work for a Ministry of Defence agency in secure mobile networking in Malvern, Worcestershire, later setting up a website allowing people to register domain names.
This marked the birth of Leeds-based aql, which expanded from domain registration to hosting and email.
“That was in response to the internet boom, which very, very quickly turned into the internet bust. It was a quick peak that quite a few companies rode for a few years, but then struggled with as it became a commodity industry,” said Dr Beaumont.
“There was a race for the bottom price for domains and hosting... so we needed to re-invent ourselves, otherwise we’d be in trouble.”
Today, the £7m turnover firm uses its data centres to handle millions of SMS messages each day on behalf of third party software systems that need to notify people of appointments, orders and such like.
It also provides voice over IP (VoIP) services – which allow phone calls to be made over the internet.
aql is a wholesale provider which looks after around 66 million numbers for this industry. The third part of the business sees it provide wholesale mobile data to companies.
aql’s customer base includes Deutsche Bank, Fujitsu, Boots, Stagecoach, Motorola, UCAS, Thames Water and Leeds-based medical software company Emis.
“What’s come of all this is our need to interconnect to ISPs, to other fixed operators and other mobile operators, so we’ve unwittingly become a full-blown regulated telecommunications operator and also a fixed network operator and with all that brings the need for infrastructure,” said Dr Beaumont, who owns aql.
The business is pushing ahead with plans to build a £43m data centre on part of the former Yorkshire Chemicals site in Hunslet. It is set to be the UK’s largest independent data centre outside of London.
Leeds is already home to three aql centres, which means that local internet traffic no longer has to be directed via London.
Dr Beaumont said: “Leeds is the second financial centre in the UK. This is important as if you are a financial institution you’ll have your main offices most likely in London and you’ll probably have your main disaster recovery or main satellite office in Leeds or nearby.
“Historically, if both offices are dependent on London for their connectivity, and connectivity is the lifeblood of a business these days, then an issue with a London data centre would affect both offices, so to be able to have Leeds as an independent, resilient part of your infrastructure is very, very important.”
Two of aql’s data centres are run out of the former Salem Church in Hunslet Road.
One of them houses IX Leeds, the only mutual not-for-profit internet exchange outside London, whose aim is to improve connectivity between ISPs and content providers such as social networks or web TV.
“The demand for our data space has been increasing exponentially to the point where we now need our next site,” said Dr Beaumont.
Lurene Joseph, chief executive of Leeds and Partners, an organisation whose goal is to promote Leeds nationally and internationally, has said that the new data centre “anchors the region’s digital sector, sending a strong message to national and international investors that they can have confidence in our infrastructure”.
The facility is designed in collaboration with local architects Garnett Netherwood, to sit within a larger scheme by Yorkshire Design Group, where the data centre will share not only connectivity, but also heat with surrounding businesses and residences.
Dr Beaumont said: “We have one of the largest internet connections to our site with Media City in Manchester.
“So as a mixed-use ecosystem starts to build around the data centre, between the Hunslet and the Holbeck corridor will be an ideal place for the media industry to grow in Leeds.
“We are trying to create a proper joined-up story to say Leeds can have a media city and it’s not just a name. So the bit that we do is the nuts and bolts, behind the scenes, so you can create a vibrant community, you can create nice buildings and a nice working atmosphere, but you have to have the support of infrastructure to make that happen.
“The big one is real-time streaming and real-time video editing. It uses massive amounts of bandwidth, so the only way for example a video-editing company in Leeds could compete with one in London is if they are properly connected.”
aql’s existing data centres have been funded out of cash flow, but it is now bringing in external investment, the source of which it did not reveal, to support the firm’s growth and build the new data centre.
Dr Beaumont said: “aql is a highly profitable business and one of the reasons we’ve survived in a harsh climate is our aggressive re-investment in expansion and infrastructure, which has led to high customer retention as a result of our highly reliable and secure platforms.”
aql is also in the process of building a technical conference centre, which will be used to bring technical conferences and forums to Leeds.
More than 20 events are booked for 2013 so far.
The firm, which employs about 40 people, expects to increase turnover by around 30 per cent from £7m this year.
The new data centre won’t be the last to be set up by aql, Dr Beaumont says.
“We have other plans for other secure sites. We are going to be running more turnkey projects in the future, custom engineering projects”, he said.
The firm also plans to move into a new sector, which it is expected to reveal later this year.
Dr Beaumont said: “After consistently building innovative services about two to three years before they become market mainstream, I’ve started to trust my own judgement now.”
Adam Beaumont Factfile
Title: Chief executive of aql
Education: PhD in physical chemistry and Bsc degree in colour and polymer chemistry at Leeds University
First job: Repairing bike punctures at the age of nine
Cars driven: Aston Martin and Range Rover
Last book read: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Favourite film: Repo Man (the original)
Favourite holiday destination: Croatia
Favourite band: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Most proud of: My children (aged six and four)