“29, three kids under 5 and no money, but a great haircut”
In honour of Zeta’s 25th Birthday, we spent a delightful Friday afternoon with our CEO, Rob Nicoll, to ask 25 questions in a birthday Q and A.
Q. Favourite quote?
A. Favourite quote? Aristotle. “It’s a mark of an instructed mind to rest easy with the level of precision necessary for the task in hand.”
Q. How did you choose the name “Fineapply”, and then “Zeta”?
A. Now that’s a good question, I didn’t. So, Fineapply was an off the shelf company, which basically means people just make companies all the time and they just give them weird numbers or weird names, and I bought this company off the shelf, I can’t remember how much for, £200 or something, and it was called Fineapply. So, I thought long and hard about what we should call it. Aqua this, Aqua that, Hydro Y, Hydro whatever. By the time I’d actually identified a few possible names, the name had stuck. It was too late, and we gave it a strapline, “The fine application of solutions”, which kind of worked, well it worked in my mind. It didn’t work in other people’s minds, but it worked in my mind. So that was Fineapply. And then, Zeta was the same, we basically needed to create another company to host the data, look after the data, and another off the shelf company was Zeta Studios. And so, we called it Zeta Studios and very quickly changed that to Zetasafe. That was deliberate. So it was Zetasafe, and the whole group ended up becoming Zeta because it made sense to have a common approach to it.
Q. You and Clare go to Bottomless Brunch for the evening, what is your cocktail choice?
Q. What are you most proud of? (Children excluded for obvious reasons)
A. It’s the sheer number of people, the number of individuals that have started their career with the business and really grown into something special in terms of their own career development and things like that. When I look around and might put posts up on LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever, just the sheer number of people that comment on it that used to work here, so that’s great. I left a very large corporation, because it wasn’t a very nice place to work, and I didn’t subscribe to the fact that being a successful place to work wasn’t mutually exclusive with it being a pleasant place to work. So, success doesn’t mean it needs to be a horrible environment in which to work.
Q. Biggest challenge you have faced in the last 25 years?
A. Covid. It has to be covid. Followed closely by the financial meltdown. Followed closely by the fuel strike. Foot and mouth was a challenge when the office was shut down and we were locked in the farm. Swine flu was another one that frightened us a little bit. There’s been a few, like every 2 years. I mean the thing is, if you actually think that you’ll get plain sailing in a business then, you won’t. We don’t seem to have recessions quite like we used to, they used to be long, deep, 3 or 4 year events that brought the whole country to it’s knees, and riots in the street. But we’ve switched that for more exciting things.
Q. Favourite author?
A. Wilbur Smith. Any particular book? No, I can’t remember book titles, at all. I really struggle with anything like that. Records, band names, anything that’s published, I just… I know what it is, I can picture it but I can’t remember the name of it. I’ve just come to the conclusion that I don’t have any filing cabinet space left. In fact I never had any for those sort of things, it was sort like “don’t file here, it’s pointless”. There’s now the Internet, and before the Internet was available, I think my brain knew there would be at some point. Actors’ names, there’s just a few I can remember but, I’m not great. Bill Nye, I can remember Bill Nye, that’s only because I met him. And Bill Murray, met him too. Is that all the famous Bill’s you’ve met? I think that’s the limit of my Bill’s!
Q. What advice would you give to 29-year-old you?
A. Enjoy the ride more. It’s really stressful, running a business, but it’s also incredibly enjoyable and invigorating and all those sorts of things, and you’ve got to enjoy the moment when it happens.
Q. If money was no object, what would you do all day?
A. I would probably live in a wood. “Man about the land?”. Yeah, I’ve got an affinity with woods. Or on a boat, that’s the other thing. I do love the water; I think we’re all creatures of the water. And you don’t have to go back many generations if you live in the UK to actually find that some great-great-something basically lived by the sea and made a living on water. Woods or water. Both very lonely! It’s funny, I’m very, very, comfortable being with people, and I enjoy people’s company, but I’m equally very happy to be on my own. In those early days, you’re on your own a lot. I started off surveying buildings all over the country, factories, and all sorts of facilities, and you spend a lot of time on your own, with your own thoughts, and travelling there and travelling back. They’re long, lonely days. But that’s great, I love the radio.
Q. Most played radio station in the car?
A. Radio 4. Only because I get fed up hearing the same music time and time again. Smooth Radio is now chomping at the bit for contention on a journey. But I’m an avid News listener, which probably doesn’t help with my state of mind. The thing is, I mean we’ve got 90 odd people working for the business, there’s very little you can do about what’s going to happen, what the News tells you is going to happen, you can’t change the events of it. But you can prepare for it. And, I think if you are running an organisation of any size, you owe it to your employees to be aware of what’s going on in the world.
Q. Most excited about in Zeta’s near future?
A. We’re now part of a much bigger group which is always what we were destined to be. So when the company floated back in 2008, with a mission to build and buy, or even buy and build, that was curtailed by the financial situation of 2008 through to around 2012. So, we were always sort of structured to be part of something much bigger. I think since July, that’s really come into play. I was chatting only yesterday to someone and realised that our Electrical division has got the same customer as our Fire division, who has the same customer as our Water division. So suddenly, you start to build that environment with the customer. So, I think that’s what I have most confidence in, if you like, or excitement about the future.
Q. Hidden talent?
A. Blimey, I don’t think I’ve got any that are hidden. I don’t know, umm… Party trick? No party tricks, I’m hopeless at jokes, I can’t drink very much, I can’t run. No, I haven’t got any! None.
Q. Favourite part of your job?
A. Talking to customers. You can’t beat talking to customers. It’s what you’re there for, it’s the purpose of what we do.
Q. Favourite sports team?
A. Wasps (Rugby Union for any non-Rugby fans!), and it’s a torturous event, really, supporting them the last few years.
Q. Most used productivity hack?
A. Lists. You can’t beat a good list. And I set myself a weekly report, and in that weekly report, I split my whole life up into different sections. This is really quite sad. And in each silo, there are medium- and long-term objectives, and tasks, things that need to be done that week. It’s quite tedious in many ways, but I have got hundreds and hundreds of word documents that are of that structure and form.
Q. One thing you’re really bad at?
A. Keeping time.
Q. Favourite subject in school?
Q. Alternate career choice?
Q. Karaoke song choice?
A. Wild Thing by The Troggs. It’s the only one I can remember!
Q. Biggest complaint about your job?
A. Not enough time is the thing that always crops up, but I suppose that’s because I’m not very good at time keeping. But consistency really, the reality is the world is very inconsistent and chops and changes all the time, but it’s really frustrating when you think you’ve got things nailed down. There are very few weeks where you think “I’ve got it all nailed down this week”. By Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning it’s un-nailed.
Q. Does pineapple belong on Pizza?
A. No, never
Q. Best career advice you’ve received?
A. Never move for money.
Q. First job?
A. Landscape gardener. I also worked in a fish and chip shop which was probably the hardest job I’ve ever done. Stand behind some deep fat friers for 7 hours and have people bark extremely long orders of food at you when they’re drunk. It’s a tough gig.
Q. What upcoming technology are you most excited for?
A. Electric car. I think that’s the most exciting thing. If you actually think about the repercussions of most vehicles going electric, it will change so much in the world. The roads will change, petrol stations as they are now will stop, they’ll cease to exist. So, the temptation to buy a chocolate bar from the kiosk will disappear.
Q. If you could learn a new skill instantly, what would it be?
A. Play the guitar
Q. Describe your job to a 5-year-old.
A. I make a lot of people that don’t really want to be there, do a lot of things they don’t really want to do, for a lot of people that don’t want to pay for it.