Cheers mate

Fast talking, fun loving and quick thinking, Jim Morrison has turned i-mate into a US$500 million empire, making himself seriously rich along the way. He tells Alicia Buller the secret of his success.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  January 29, 2006

|~|Jim3-200.jpg|~|LOCAL EXPANSION: Rumours that i-Mate is broadening its base in the Middle East remain open.|~|Fast talking, fun loving and quick thinking, Jim Morrison has turned i-mate into a US$500 million empire, making himself seriously rich along the way. He tells Alicia Buller the secret of his success. Shortly after the interview with Jim Morrison, the i-mate boss invites me to test drive a Hummer through the streets of Dubai. Five minutes into the journey, I mention I’ve never driven in Dubai before and don’t even have a driving licence. But he doesn’t seem too bothered. “That’s okay,” he says. “I’m a guy who likes to take risks.” He can say that again. Five years ago, the Scottish-born Morrison founded i-mate with around US$10 million of his own cash, persuading a bunch of his telecoms engineers to move with him to Dubai. Today, the 41-year-old runs i-mate plc worth just under US$500 million on the London Stock Exchange. Last year, he managed profits of US$35 million on sales of US$136 million, a staggering profit margin nearing 27%. Quite clearly, the world has become rather fond of his wireless integrated Pocket PCs and Smartphones, all - quite naturally - equipped with the Windows Mobile Operating System. Sales rose by nearly US$100 million in the past year alone, suggesting Morrison can enjoy an economic and market confidence like never before. As a result, Morrison has become seriously rich. According to the British Sunday Times newspaper’s annual Rich List, he has amassed a personal fortune of around US$150 million. Enough to make him the 607th richest man in Britain. “Well, not quite”, says Morrison, quick to point out he is actually far richer than that. “I find it [the list] very invasive because it is not accurate. They look at public records and work out how much you’ve spent that year and come up with an approximate total of how much you’re worth. But they were way off the mark last year,” he says. “I’m worth more than they thought!” Given the company’s current market value and his 80.1% personal stake in i-mate, US$400 million is closer to the mark. Clearly, a lot of cash has come his way in the past year. “I’ve got a feeling they [Sunday Times] are going to be even further off the mark this time around,” he says, “and under again!” He may have spoken too soon. Just four days after our meeting, he issues a statement to the London Stock Exchange explaining that the company is facing technical problems, which are affecting sales. The statement adds: “Sales now have been further affected by the sad demise of the ruler of Dubai which has resulted in cancellation of certain major marketing events in Dubai during January and February. There has also been an unexpected manufacturing delay in the production of the JAM PDA. This delay has most significantly affected the development of the USA territory where the JAM PDA is one of only two devices currently available.” The statement continues: “The cumulative effect of the factors detailed above is expected to result in sales and profits for the year to March 2006 being lower than market expectations.” Oops. So it’s just as well Morrison has always had plenty of spare cash. “You’ve got to start with money — it’s very difficult to make it on your own without money,” he says. “i-mate did cost millions of dollars to set up — this business isn’t cheap — it costs US$10 million alone to produce one prototype of a new i-mate model,” he adds. The CEO was lucky enough to come into a rumoured few million US dollars when he was younger. Effectively, this allowed him to ‘retire’ at the age of 32. But ever the energetic whirlwind, this was no way to live. He enjoys working too much. “Doing work you love is no longer work,” he explains. “To get as far as I have, you have to stake your life on the business. Literally, give it everything — because if you don’t have that 100% commitment, you won’t be able to stick with the business through the rough patches,” he explains. But perhaps this is what you’d expect someone to say when they have built a business worth around US$300 million and floated it on the London Stock Exchange — and single-handedly. No one said running a multi-million dollar communications empire was going to be easy. Fortunately for Morrison, (personal sacrifices aside), i-mate continues to go from strength to strength. The company raised around US$80 million from the London floatation, he says. Rumours have also surfaced that i-mate is looking to float more capital on the Dubai market. But the CEO remains non-committal about this. “We are debating floating on the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) but it’s not something we need to do right now. I have people queuing up to buy shares locally and they are already oversubscribed,” he says. “Right now, we just don’t need the money.” These are the words of a very confident — or very rich — man. Most self-respecting capitalists would balk at the fact Morrison is putting a cap on his growth, but the CEO insists that there is method in his madness: “We don’t want to be so big that we lose our personality. And [to be as big as] Nokia? Oh god, I hope not — that day that happens, I’m out of here,” he promises. “Who wants to be Nokia anyway? They’re boring!” Fair enough. But even if Morrison’s i-mate doesn’t grow as big as his Finnish competition, there must still be a fair profit splashing around. Fuelling this theory is the constant speculation that the Scot is gearing up to buy Dumbarton, the football club of his birth town, for millions of dollars. However, “it’s a lie!” squeals Morrison. “It’s a very incorrect rumour, I would never buy a football club — I don’t even like football! The only sport I watch is World Cup football, but I don’t think Scotland made it in this year and I don’t support England; I support whoever is the underdog.” Morrison claims the public have pinned him down as the buyer because the Dumbarton syndicate has links with Dubai and “I’m known to come from Dumbarton and have a few bob”. He even offers to run naked down the Sheikh Zayed Road if the rumour does indeed turn out to be true. “Actually, don’t put that,” he implores. “Somebody will buy the club in my name, just to see me do the forfeit!”||**|||~||~||~|After spending just a short time with Morrison it becomes clear he feels vilified as a result of his power and wealth. He says that people always want to bring successful players down: “that’s always been the way,” he says. But do we feel sorry for him? After all, Morrison always does things his way, and more often than not they prove to be the right way. The tycoon’s management style includes frequent visits to consumer electronics shops on the off-chance he might catch i-mate buyers in action. And whenever he sees someone holding an i-mate, he asks nonchalantly, “How do you find it to use?” He claims this gives him a vital insight into a customer’s decision-making process when choosing a phone. “I once walked into Jumbo and started talking to a guy about i-mate, then he asked me who I was,” he recalls. “I said I was the boss of i-mate. He looked taken aback that i-mate was a Dubai-grown company … So he said: I’ll have two more of these [i-mates] please! That just shows how proud nationals are of business being done in their own country.” Morrison claims that i-mate is actually one of the few companies to export manufactured goods worldwide from Dubai. The mobile devices company has certainly come a long way from when it began as a spin-off from Morrison’s last job with British Telecom’s think-tank. “People say i-mate is only four years old, but really it has nine years of history if you include the formative years in British Telecom. We were lucky enough to already have a big team and most importantly, the support and funding of BT to come up with ideas.” When Morrison decided to leave BT because of his doubts about the company’s direction, he recruited a four-strong team and created his own company, Carrier Devices, which was evolved into i-mate. The CEO had already researched into the potential for launching in the Middle East as part of a separate project for British Telecom, and decided the time and place was right to set up his global headquarters in Dubai. “I had the idea that mobile phones should be data-centric and act as a hub for all kinds of data - not just voice. We all know that WAP was a disaster and I wanted to create something that was easier to use while still giving consumers the full data experience,” Morrison explains. “i-mate is a success because it has customised its offerings. When I first came to Dubai I saw that it seemed to be used as a dumping ground for trash, there was no customisation, no support, no service. i-mate has a policy of customising each product for its territory, particularly the corporates,” he observes. “I mean, imagine a corporate phoning up Nokia and asking for customisation … they’d be firewalled!” i-mate certainly appears to have a value proposition that works: “We have a policy of making nice phones and getting all the things you can get on a PC into your fingertips on the road … for business … for pleasure,” says Morrison. Speaking of pleasure, I enquire where he got the ‘i-mate’ name. “Do you want the real version, or the ‘kind-of-true’ version?” he asks. “We figured i-mate sounded like ‘I’ and ‘my mate’ and made the device sound friendly — like you’ve always got your mate with you.” Yes. That was the ‘kind-of-true’ version… As any of his colleagues or friends will testify, Morrison is a larger than life character and has a great sense of humour — as befits his Day-Glo orange jumper. He is a born leader who doesn’t care what people think — as long as what he’s thinking is right. It is actually quite an endearing quality. But one question still nags: for a man with such a sense of mischief it’s hard to believe Morrison is really in the office all the time. What about his personal life? But the CEO defers to his executive assistant. “He doesn’t have one,” she admits. But surely Morrison must do something for fun — especially as rumour has it he is popular with the ladies. “It’s a complete fallacy that I have women hanging off my arm,” he insists. “I have a girlfriend, but I have no plans to get married at the moment.” In fact, it appears that Morrison leads a blameless life. He likes to drive fast in his Lexus or slow in his company Hummer, yet he’s not “all that into cars.” He never touches alcohol, and his biggest love for the past five years has been i-mate. Similarly, his devotion to the region is beyond question. Last year, for instance, he donated US$15 million of his own cash towards setting up an incubator fund, aimed at developing local ideas from local Arab businessmen. This announcement has brought him acclaim in the region, and interestingly, Morrison may even be remembered for helping others more than himself, one day. He explained at the time: “I have been very lucky and succesful. This is my way of thanking Dubai, of giving something back. It's my way of doing something good. I've really looking forward to it.” So far the fund has helped start up a number of different projects, some of which, Morrison hopes, may one day prove as successful as i-mate. “If that happens I would be very pleased. It would give me immense satifiscation." Indeed, Morrison seems highly occupied with this “giving" theme. A week after our meeting, he calls me on my mobile phone just as he is heading off to Seattle for a business meeting. “I have some big news. I have decided that from now one, whenever I employ somebody in the UAE, preference will be given to locals. I want to help with the UAE's nationalisation drive. It's about giving something back. It's what I like doing." Right now, it is something he is doing very well. How long the i-mate dream continues for, only time will tell.||**||

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