The City of London was an extraordinary place in the 1990s, filled with thrusting young men (and they were almost all men) vying for a position on the career ladder, the pursuit of money their main goal.
In a world before technology began to impact our lives, there was no internet, few mobile phones and only a small number of computers in business use. The time was right for change.
On to this scene came a young man straight out of university, bursting to show off his knowledge and make his name in the competitive world of financial trading. Tom Higgins had arrived!
Tom, who founded the Guildford-headquartered Gold-i, which is now a global market leader in technology for financial trading systems, looks back on those days with fondness and a certain amount of astonishment.
He recalls how his Kings College, London, degree in electronic engineering, specialising in computers, brought him kudos with his first employer, a financial tech company and he quickly made a name for his technical know-how. In his next job he was set the task of developing an automated trading system. Tom explains: “It was quite difficult in those days. There was no internet and we had to create our own internal messaging system. Later we got those giant mobile phones – the sort you had to carry round with a battery pack – and we really thought we had made it. In my next job, as head of IT, I began to develop the use of technology to speed up trading processes.
“The company I worked for still used a bank of secretaries to type up thousands of trading messages and it could take up to three weeks for them to be available. Even then, there could be hundreds of errors. I showed the management how I could automate the system so that everything could be processed in one-and-a-half seconds. That was the first shock for the bosses!”
Tom says working in the City in the 1990s was “extraordinary”, with high expectations. Money was everyone’s motivation.
“We got used to a 25% pay rise every year, the pressure to succeed was unbelievable,” he recalls. “It was clear it couldn’t continue and there was going to be a crash.”
The inevitable happened and Tom says despite the trauma and lost jobs, it was a good thing, returning the financial world to some sense of normality.
His next job as the head of business strategy for a firm of financial brokers was his first experience of the world of foreign exchange – and he immediately knew he had found his niche.
“I loved it and knew we were at the forefront of a very exciting time. There were 25 employees when I joined and 250 when I left just six years later.”
By now it was 2008 and Tom decided to try going his own way. He set up a consultancy to fund the development of his first product idea for Gold-i. He used his excellent network of contacts from previous jobs to find freelance work and to discuss his product idea with potential clients. This was his route to securing Gold-i’s first customer.
Within a couple of years, Tom had taken on five people and the business was growing steadily. They operated out of Surrey Technology Centre in Guildford and began to expand their reach, setting up operations in China and moving into their current offices on Surrey Research Park. He now employs 35 people and hopes to see that number rise in the next year.
Gold-i also has a presence in Japan and Turkey and at the end of May took on its first employees in Australia, ready to open an office there shortly. In answer to my question why there is no business interest in the US, Tom tells me the regulations governing the financial tech businesses there are incredibly stringent and employment costs are exorbitant.
With an expected 20 to 50 per cent growth in his business year on year, Tom is confident Gold-i will continue to hold its place at the forefront of financial trading systems. The company website highlights that Gold-i’s technology “enables brokers worldwide to make more money, cut costs, reduce risk and differentiate from competitors.”
Gold-i is clearly a fun place to work. There is a very small turnover of staff and as the website illustrates, regular social activities are held to encourage a feeling of belonging. There is also a focus on helping others, via the Gold-i Foundation which raises money for projects to help young people. All employees can take two paid days a year off to do charity work.
So as Tom remains at the forefront of technological advancement, where he has always been, how does he unwind from the excitement of his day?
There’s no doubt he’s a flamboyant character – even a quick glance at the photographs on the company website shows him wearing vibrantly coloured suits (personally made by a man in Hong Kong) and his trademark blue-rimmed glasses.
Home life is busy, too, with his wife Katherine Higgins – an expert in design and fashion who has appeared on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow – and their four children aged from five to 17. Then there are the two cats, one dog, four chickens and two horses and his beloved 1964 Herald convertible.
“It’s called James and I love tinkering under the bonnet,” Tom says proudly.