AS one of the country’s biggest internet providers, tech company Exa Networks is a huge Bradford success story supplying a multi-award winning service to thousands.
By Anila Baig
Bradford Means Business spoke to co-founder and director of the company Mark Cowgill to find out the secret of their success.
HE is a self-confessed geek who was obsessed with computers and video games from a young age but it wasn’t just all things technical that helped propel Mark Cowgill to the top of his trade.
The 49-year-old Bradford born and raised entrepreneur said: “The pandemic has really highlighted the importance of technology and as we supply to schools & businesses, we need to ensure that they have fast reliable broadband.”
He attended Parkside School in Cullingworth and Bingley Grammar and has lived in every corner of the district.
His parents ran a hairdressing salon in Girlington and his first job was sweeping up hair as a ten-year-old to earn pocket money.
“I always had a strong work ethic,” he said.
From stacking shelves at Morrisons in Girlington to working in restaurants and bars, he would earn money to indulge his hobby of computer games and paraphernalia which were emerging at the time.
“I had all the computers like the Commodore 64 and Amiga and would write games programs for them.”
He was bright but not overly academic.
“I wasn’t interested in the way subjects were taught at school. I liked Maths, Chemistry and History but the others didn’t grab me.”
He left school after his GCSEs not really sure of what he wanted to do.
“I had a friend who thinking about doing a BTech in Leisure and Recreation at Craven College in Skipton and that looked interesting so I decided to do that. In the end my friend never joined the course but I loved it, working as a ski instructor in Austria for six months and then as a trainer at Children’s holiday camps.”
His interest in tech was always there.
“The roles were quite limited at the time, you could either be a programmer and build physical hardware or you could work on the sales side and because I hadn’t been to university the options weren’t just limited they were zero.”
Instead he continued with the leisure and recreation industry working at the Hollins Hall Hotel in all aspects of management from bar work to wedding planning.
He married his childhood sweetheart, whom he had met when they were 14, Lindsey, at a wedding reception at the hotel too.
His role involved anti-social hours including late nights and overnights, not conducive to being in a relationship, so after three years he began to look elsewhere.
At the time the telephone and internet bank, First Direct, was starting up and he got a job there as a customer service advisor.
“I realised pretty quickly that I was good at selling and progressed to sales coach.
“I made a conscious decision to leave every three years and look for a fresh challenge if I didn’t see it being a long term career.”
He realised his skills could earn him good money and went to work in the car trade and joined Perrys Toyota in Bradford.
Tech was burgeoning and he could see the opportunities but without suitable qualifications he wouldn’t get a foot in the door let alone be able to decide what role he actually wanted in the industry.
His wife had a good job at the Halifax Building Society and supported him while he enrolled on an intensive IT course.
Armed with this qualification he applied for a job at a now defunct business called Legend Internet on Sunbridge Road in Bradford.
The business grew quickly from 15 staff when Mark joined to 45 three years later.
In 2003 the company was going to be taken over and Mark and his colleague, Thomas Mangin, were on the way to meet the new owners.
“We were concerned because the takeover company had a completely different ethos- they was going to lay off key staff, they didn’t care about the customers or the service. We thought we would probably be made redundant and Thomas, who is French, would go back to France.
“We were on the M62 on the way to Salford and by the time we back from that meeting we had already decided we were going to start our own internet service provider, had given it a name and planned which staff we would hire.”
And Exa Networks was born.
“I naively thought the old customers would flock to us when Legend folded, but when you are a start up the goodwill vanishes and you are starting from scratch.”
But with Mark, buoyed by his success at sales over the years, at the helm of the marketing and customer service and Thomas in charge of systems and operations, they hit the ground running and within a few weeks had their first customers. The third director, Michael Syree, joined the company very shortly after they started and brought a wealth of project & financial experience to complete the company’s leadership.
Now the company is going from strength to strength as one of the major suppliers of internet to businesses and schools which have mostly switched to online learning.
“People have realised just how critical good infrastructure is. We were very fortunate to be classed as key essential workers and have worked throughout the pandemic.”
The business has reaped the rewards and had its best ever quarter in late 2020 with no staff having to be furloughed or made redundant. In fact, Exa Networks is expanding and hiring more employees.
And how is lockdown for the tech king?
The father-of-one said: “Normally I would attend the Consumer Electronic Show which is held annually but this year it was virtual. It’s always interesting to see what innovations will become mainstream and filter down into domestic use. At the moment a lot of robots who will be able to do the mundane household tasks but I don’t want to see us all becoming like the film Wall-E and just sitting at home doing nothing because robots have taken over.
“I’m really lucky to live in Ilkley so it is easy to go for plenty of lovely nearby walks and I am in lockdown with my wife who is my best friend. We stay in touch with our actor son, Alex, who is in London, via Zoom.
“This time last year not many people would have heard of Zoom now it is used so much and vital for staying in touch.”
Whether you’re interested in Internet services or have an inquiry of any kind, Exa would love to hear from you! Call them on 0345 145 1234 between 8 AM and 6 PM from Monday to Friday, or between 10 AM and 4 PM at the weekend, and they’ll be happy to help in any way they can.