Fireworks and telecommunications. It's an unlikely coupling at the best of times, but Craig Neil found success in both fields at an age when most people are still contemplating their career options.
Neil founded telephony services company NSC in 1989 - a time when unions were blacklisting private contractors because the Telecom (now Telstra) mindset was so entrenched, and a time when very few could envisage a day when the boundaries between IT and telecommunications would blur into insignificance.
That wasn't Neil's problem. He had just finished training as a technician with Telecom in PABX services.
"I saw deregulation as the biggest opportunity ever," Neil recalls. "I remember studying for my last series of exams. My marks were always 75-80 per cent, but the last couple I got 100 because I thought, "I really have to make a go of this now'."
Telecommunications was not always Neil's passion. Like so many success stories that come out of the IT community, his training had far more to do with circumstance.
"When I left school I wanted to be a plumber, but I couldn't get a job," says Neil. "My grandfather knew someone at his local bowling club who worked for Telstra so I went to the job interview with my grandfather. It is the only job interview I have ever had."
But with the small-business culture instilled by his family, Neil never really warmed to the idea of a lifetime in a government-run company. Soon after he finished training, he left the utility that morphed into Telstra to start his own business.
"I was only 23 and at first it was difficult - no one really took me seriously until I was about 30. They'd think, Oh, who is this kid?' Even today, you have to be a certain age in some organisations. That's rubbish."
But before this decision was made, Neil was working on another project. He had met pyrotechnician Syd Howard while still working at Telecom. Howard's fireworks displays were all being lit by hand, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that would have to change and Neil became part of the team that developed the electronic firing systems. It not only revolutionised the sophistication of the shows, it made the process very much safer.
"The first thing we did was the Minchinbury Champagne advertisement and then we started going after events," Neil says. "Once we had put all the firing equipment together we needed something to choreograph the show and we used computers - old 286s and all that sort of stuff. I took a few months leave from Telecom and we developed a computer program and system that would do the whole show. Then we won the contract for World Expo 88 and that launched us. We did the Harbour Bridge for the first time and it went from there."
Today, Syd Howard Fireworks is an international company, responsible for some of the most famous fireworks images such as the New Year's Eve 2000 displays in Sydney and London and most recently Riga's 800th birthday celebrations in Latvia. In the midst of it all, Neil started NSC and ran the two projects concurrently. But the IT itch never left and, although Neil still sits of the board of Syd Howard Fireworks, around 90 per cent of his focus now lies with NSC.
"I realised that my strengths were in the IT side of things and although I had a great time as a young bloke travelling the world and doing all these fireworks, I decided to settle down and get stuck into the telecommunications side of things."
NSC began life as Northshore Connections, but as the company grew to encompass Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane, the acronym eventually became the business name. The company has grown from three staff to 75. Nevertheless, success did not come easily and Neil was forced to learn some hard business lessons very early on in his career. Shortly after Northshore Connections was started, one of its principal partners, an Australian PABX manufacturer called Ti-tel, went out of business, leaving NSC with a $30,000 debt.
"I had a contract to do all their PABX installations and maintenance," Neil says. "It was quite a good contract but they went bust three months into it and I never got paid. It nearly put us under. A week later my van was stolen. I had the van insured but all the tools and equipment that were taken out of it wasn't and I thought Is this worth going on with?' It was almost [a case of] pull up stumps and shut the doors. But we persevered."
Despite the odds, the company recovered.
"Ambition drives you," Neil says. "We also always had a strong belief in the market being there. We knew call centres would be very strong - we know it is a $900 million business and we only take a very small share in that. When you know the markets are there, you keep coming back. But I think the big killer with some businesses is that the market is there but the margins aren't. In a lot of the industry the margins have disappeared."
Having recently expanded its data offerings, the subject of margins is close to Neil's heart, but the continued growth of the company will have more do with maintaining a high level of quality and looking outwards, Neil says.
"You can become very inwardly focused because of process issues and you've got to be really careful of that because to be successful you have to have a good outward focus. We have also kept a fairly cool head: there have been a lot of changes, a lot of twists and turns, but we've kept going along, doing good work.
"All the changes have been good for the industry. If we were still under the monopoly regime of Telstra it would be terrible. People couldn't afford to buy homes because they would be trying to pay off their phone bill. Every change has been for the good of the customer and of the industry as a whole."
CRAIG NEIL'S TIMELINE
1980: Joins Telecom via some well-directed nepotism.
1987: Completes training as a telco technician.
1988: Distracted by the challenge of pyrotechnics, Neil joins Syd Howard to build an internationally renowned fireworks firm. He still retains a 20 per cent holding in the company.
1989: NSC is founded. Three months later, partner Ti-tel goes bust, almost sinking the fledgling telephony service provider.
1995: NSC takes over direct sales for Fujitsu PABX.
1997/98: NSC forms a partnership with Avaya (then Lucent Technologies).
2001: NSC staff numbers reach 75 with offices in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane.