Two-track mind

Two-track mind

Even as he advances communication tech for trains, Graeme Lowdon also finds time to direct Virgin's F1 racing team. Brian Nicholls finds out how he fits it all together.

Pioneers of engineering once worked their wonders with water, iron and steam. Now, looking at Graeme Lowdon, they may prefer electronics and gasoline. Nomad Digital, the Newcastle firm employing 55 he co-founded, is globally recognised for developing a fast, reliable relay of high bandwidth data for moving transport; notably trains and buses.

Passengers on the move can now work on the internet without fear of laptop cut-out under bridges and in tunnels. The data connection also improves management for the fleet operators, not only in the UK on the Heathrow and Brighton Expresses and Virgin West Coast main line, for example, but also in Norway, Holland, Dubai, India and North America.

Trials are running now in South Korea and China, with more to come. Offices have opened in London, Dubai, Beijing and Calgary. The aim is to more than double a £5.1m turnover this year. At the same time, Lowdon, thanks partly to his wife Wendy’s shared enthusiasm, has taken up the post of director of racing for the new Virgin Racing team entering Formula 1; a 45-strong team of newcomers about to thrill the sport’s billion-strong global following.

To Nomad first, though. Lowdon and Nigel Wallbridge, having synergised in other business activities, co-founded this firm in 2002.

Lowdon recalls: “We’d worked together here. Then Nigel, on moving to Canada and buying a house there, found that internet access came there through a wireless system.

“We thought that was interesting - high performance technology at low cost. But as houses don’t move, it was a fixed wireless technology there. We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a similar service for moving things?’ “We wondered what market there would be, and thought trains would be fantastic, if we could provide a missing piece of the jigsaw. We weren’t aware of competition, but as ever, as soon as someone spots an opportunity, someone else is looking at it - so competition did appear.

“Some of those companies have come and gone. And where there’s competition, we do like to think our mousetrap’s better than the next.” On Scandinavian buses, their technology now allows real-time monitoring of tyre pressures in snow. Tyres can also be checked and changed at the right time. And vehicles’ carbon footprint can be measured in real time; an increasingly important environmental factor.

The company has recently attracted millions in investment to build its own wireless networks, giving it ownership of infrastructure from which capacity can be sold to customers. Some of the venture capital is also going into research and development.

“We have just launched a new technology, Network Aggregation, which is a boring title for an exciting technology. And we’re getting more people on board.” Lowdon likens the development to water down a pipe. Think of the pipe as a wireless connection, then it becomes a bit like being at home with your internet connection, and a pipeful of data flowing down instead. Now Network Aggregation has multiple pipes used simultaneously, stepping up bandwidth available to a moving vehicle.

“Our technology has always allowed multiple pipes to be used to maintain a connection down one pipe or another. Now though, we can combine those pipes and send data down multiple pipes at the same time. This allows significantly higher bandwith to the end user.” The market is developing fast, serving needs in CCTV monitoring, for example.

“Once customers see the possibilities, they find more and more uses, raising demand for the product. We think the market can be as big as markets in other technologies.

“In railways, for example, the market for signalling technology is big. We think the market for IP applications on trains ultimately will be multi-billion and global. We are currently the self-professed market leader. In an emerging market, it’s pretty easy to be a market leader, since you only need to sell one more project than the next guy and you’re it.

“But we do feel ahead of the curve so far. Competition is good, though. If there are no other kids in the playground, there’s something wrong with the playground. We treat any competition with healthy respect.”

Born in Corbridge in the Tyne Valley, Lowdon grew up in Stocksfield, went to school in Prudhoe and entered a career with a masters degree in mechanical engineering from Sheffield University and an MBA from Newcastle University.

But his talent for business, along with a passion for cars, came via his late father. Joining the power industry in 1984, he worked for Parsons – a “fantastic, brilliant engineering business” – sadly gone now.

“An absolute crying shame,” Lowdon says. “When I worked for them, I didn’t have that wide a view of business. I‘ve often thought about tracking back through to find out what happened to that great company.

“My assumption is, as ever, a story of serial acquisitions, buying and being bought, and ultimately decisions being made in far-off lands not particularly good for employment on Tyneside.”

Lowdon worked in Singapore and Malaysia, living in Singapore for a year, then from 1989 to 1993 was a systems engineer with NEI ABB Gas Turbines Ltd. He moved to ABB Power Generation in Switzerland, where he lived for three years and managed South East Asian power station sales. Enjoyable though the multinational experience was, he wanted to be his own boss, so he returned to the North East where, with Wendy, he set up an IT business, Industry On-Line Ltd, in 1996, plus a Formula 3 motor racing team, which they ran together.

The team was run from Team Valley, with business support from the likes of Chris Thompson and Peter Bernard (Express Engineering) and Peter Simpson (Simpson Brothers).

Support came also from Diffusion Textiles of Northumberland and Waters and Robson (Abbey Well).

“That was a North East race team,” Lowdon says. “Much of what we learned from that has taken us along a very long road to Formula 1.” He met Wallbridge in IT, and his business in Kent was Wide Area Markets.

“We ran our businesses together and exchanged lots of information well.” Since then, Wallbridge, he says, has been “pretty central” to all he does.

“We’re partners in lots of businesses together and work well together.” Early in 2000, at the height of the tech boom, they sold their own businesses into a company called J2C, Industry On-Line fetching £21.9m.

A stock market takeover of J2C was completed in 2002 and the business was subsequently sold a year later. J2C, as Lowdon puts it, bore the rigours of the tech era, getting a rocky ride on the >>markets and eventually he bought J2C back. It was 2002, and Wallbridge was into developing the highband mobile technology. Right up to the tail end of the ‘90s the Lowdons had continued motor racing.

A Sheffield-based team called Manor was their great rival. Then in 2000 John Booth, who ran it, asked Lowdon to become Manor’s non-executive director. Its drivers have included Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton.

“I’ve been advising Manor since. Formula 3 is fantastic - very difficult and a real challenge, but with little room for growth.

“When recently it became clear that the FIA was introducing cost controls to make Formula 1 budgets more realistic, we saw exactly the same principle as Nomad – a market change, a golden opportunity.

“We put an entry in and, on June 12 2009, were awarded one of the entry slots for the Formula 1 World Championship in 2010. Our commercial package has now seen us able to bring in Virgin as a commercial partner.” Lowdon is the team’s director of racing. Just before this interview, the team was officially rebranded Virgin Racing, and Lowdon, though describing Sir Richard Branson’s entry with characteristic restraint, is delighted, and appreciative of Wendy’s support, too.

“I’m absolutely blessed with an understanding wife. No, that’s the wrong terminology. Wendy has worked in all the businesses, so she understands motor sport. She’s sat at Croft on wet weekends eating crisps. She knows the people involved. Wendy and I built Industry On-line together. She understands what we’re doing.” She’s taking time out now to be with their children more - Dan, three, and Abbie, seven. But, he says: “Wendy understands the mechanics of what goes on.

She knows if I’m travelling, there’s a purpose. So my view is, she’s as much a partner in the business as any investor, customer or anyone. There’s no way we could do any of this without her support.” Director of racing is a non-executive role which he expects will dovetail well with his responsibilities at Nomad.

He will co-ordinate and oversee the design and build of the car and running of the driver programme – bringing about Formula 1’s first all digitally prepared car, designed, built and tested in computer simulation, and avoiding the expense of wind tunnel testing.

“All elements are managed by world-class people. I don’t need to tell them how to build a car or run a team. My role is in blending everything to ensure the team operates to the best of its abilities and resources. I have to ensure they have everything they need. Nomad is about things that move, and Formula 1 is certainly about things that do exactly that.” So Bahrain on March 14 marks Virgin’s debut on Formula 1’s extended 13-team grid, with Timo Glock and the Brazilian Lucas di Grassi driving. Glock formerly drove for Toyota, Di Grassi has been Renault’s test driver for some years.

“Our target is to be best of the four new teams. Anything beyond that is a bonus. Realistically, in the first year we can only compare ourselves with the other newcomers starting with the same scenario.”

Sir Richard foresees a respectable performance, built on over time. The team must commit to at least three years. A spending cap there may be, but only at £40m, and Lowdon is reassured by support from a “fantastic” investment partner, Lloyds Development Capital.

“The spend is restricted, but revenue is not,” says Lowdon. “So you can still look for a multi-million pound revenue stream and profit. LDC is backing it for a financial return. It’s the management team’s objective to give it.” n