Making the smart move when opportunity knocks
Communications specialist Rob Webster landed on his feet just as he was facing an uncertain future. Our Business Editor highlights how Rob has seized his opportunity with the Smart Group...

Communications specialist Rob Webster landed on his feet just as he was facing an uncertain future. Our Business Editor highlights how Rob has seized his opportunity with the Smart Group and is driving for growth.

Good fortune comes in many shapes and guises. Just when your career looks like it’s about to take a turn for the worse, a lucky break can emerge from the gloom. Rob Webster has been on a career roller coaster during the last three years. But today, the father of one can look in the rear mirror with a smile on his face as he sees a brighter journey ahead.

He’s spearheading the growth of two communications businesses and is in the process of a company relocation as part of a wider expansion programme. But back in 2020, his management ambitions took an unexpected jolt, and he was facing the prospect of redundancy.

With the Covid-19 pandemic just taking a hold of the country, the blow couldn’t have come at a much worse time. The telephony communications company he worked for, Nice Network, was acquired by a larger player. His ambitions to one day be part of a management buyout team evaporated

Fortunately, Rob’s strong relationships with many of his clients meant an offer quickly appeared. Smart Outdoor, specialists in digital outdoor advertising, who he had sold a telephony system to months earlier, invited him into the group to establish a telephony business.

“It was a fabulous opportunity. It’s been tough, like it is for any start-up business. But we are on a journey and going in the right direction. There is no shortage of good business in the North East,” explained Rob, MD of Smart Communications.

The telephony business was set up in Houghton le Spring in April 2021, during the pandemic. Today, Rob, 46, looks back in some wonder and bemusement. “It might not have been the perfect time to start a business, but we have been steadily growing,” he said.

But isn’t this a crowded market and haven’t IT and telephony converged? Rob, who used to be an IT engineer, explained: “IT companies sell telephony but most don’t have the skills and experience
to provide the right solution. There’s a couple that do it well, but most don’t. Also, some of the other traditional regional players have sold out and been bought by national corporates.

“There’s a niche in the market for a dedicated, experienced telecoms provider. And it’s clear to me that North East companies like dealing with other North East companies, rather than corporates.”

Solid customer service and great after sales care remain paramount. However, everchanging technology means there are new products and solutions coming to market. Rob believes these will help drive his growth plans.
“Starlink – Elon Musk’s satellite broadband – is a gamechanger. It offers speeds and reliability never seen before. There are only two recognised resellers in the UK at the moment and we have applied to be the third. It is a real opportunity for many businesses, especially those in more rural areas where internet access and reliability is a problem,” said Rob.

Starlink is a satellite internet project, and a subsidiary of aerospace company SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk. It’s an alternative to optical fibre and 5G internet many of us currently use in our offices and homes. Starlink beams internet data from satellites in earth’s orbit, which is then sent to local receivers. It doesn’t rely on costly groundbased infrastructure near to where you work or live.

Basic kits, along with high-performance kits with a larger satellite receiver for areas with a partially obstructed signal, can be bought direct or from certain retailers. However, many people don’t have the confidence or where-with-all to install properly. This is where Smart Communications and others will step in to help businesses. Rob recently installed Starlink into the regional business premises of Parkers Chauffeurs near Newcastle International Airport, making a significant difference to reliable, speedy connectivity. Just when Rob was getting comfortable with the direction of travel for the business, Mark and Iain Catterall, the owners of Smart Outdoor, asked Rob to also head the group’s Smart Vision subsidiary.

Smart Vision has partnerships with LED manufacturers across Europe and can fabricate and sell bespoke screens for clients, to fit a range of spaces and uses. The company supplies and installs screens into multiple establishments and industries such as bars, sports bars, eateries, external and internal container parks, hotels, clubs, theatres, sporting venues, shopping centres and roadside advertising.

Rob said: “Smart Vision is a sleeping giant, a bit like Newcastle Utd has been in recent years until the takeover and Eddie Howe’s arrival. We already have a great pipeline of business established by Lee, the sales director. My role will be to add processes and systems to the business and steer future strategy.”

He sees better communications as a key foundation to improving the business and ensuring all employees are on the same page, fully understanding the business, its potential and ways to cross-sell services and products. This philosophy, endorsed by the owners, is one of the reasons Smart Group is relocating from its two sites in Houghton le Spring and Felling to a single site in Boldon. It’s hoped that everyone will move and be in the new site well before Christmas. Come the new year a recruitment drive for more sales staff and engineers will be launched.

“If someone has said to me in 2020, I would be in the position I am today I would have cast doubt given the position the country was in due to COVID. I’ve always had the ambition to run a telecommunications business myself but with Mark, Iain and the team alongside me great things are on the horizon,” said Rob.
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Posted 7th November 2023

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