Everyone loves a story of ‘local boy made good’, and they don’t come much more inspiring than that of Geoff Underwood, a Newport-born, ex-Carisbrooke High School pupil who started his working life as a Plessey engineering apprentice and went on to found a multi-million pound tech business right here on the Island. Jackie McCarrick spoke to him and discovered a man with an insatiable thirst for life, business, fundraising, cars and sport – and an absolute passion for the Isle of Wight.
As the CEO of a company that turns over £13m a year supplying cutting-edge products to the world’s big airline operators, Geoff Underwood is well aware that it would probably make far more commercial sense for his Newport-based IFPL operation to re-locate to the West Coast of the US. Not that he’s about to do it.
“I grew up on the Island” he explains, “it’s where I live, it’s a place I love, and I’m proud of the organisation and the team we have here, designing and producing everything in-house and spending around £2.5 million a year with local business and services.”
In fact IFPL – located in smart glass-fronted headquarters at what was formerly a hang glider manufacturing plant – currently employs 70 people, many of them long-servers, and including employees number two, three and four who were in on the enterprise from its small beginnings over 20 years ago.
Since then the company has carved out a global niche in developing technical in-flight products, stemming from its original plug-in headphone socket, which sells 350,000 units a year and currently has 2.5million units in service worldwide. It has twice been recognised with a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, in 2008 and 2014.
So how and why such a highly specialised business? Geoff says he can trace it back to boyhood, and his instinct for ‘problem solving, and fixing things’.
He explains that his grandfather, a refuse collector, would often bring home broken items that people had thrown away, and that he, Geoff, would take delight in mending them.
With the encouragement of his engineer father, John – who had been recruited to the Island from Portsmouth to work on the High Down rocket test site in the 1950s-60s – Geoff skipped university and went straight from school into an apprenticeship with Plessey Radar, who sponsored him to study part-time at Portsmouth Poly and subsequently promoted him to roles in several different departments.
At 26, he left the Island for the adventure of spending two years working on missile systems in Florida, and then came back to work for a number of companies, including one that did inflight entertainment systems.
This was to be something of a fated move, because when that company decided to pull out of the industry, Geoff instantly saw an opening to offer the design service himself.
Growing the business
“I’m basically a problem-solver” says Geoff, “so I’d go into airlines, talk to people, and find out what the issues were”. This was how he came to identify the unreliable on-board headphone sockets, which at that time would last for an average of 5,000 plug-ins, and he designed an alternative that would last 20 times longer – with clear cost-saving implications for the airlines.
His first contract was to supply ‘a few hundred’ units to US company Vid-Air, and to fulfil that order, he had to call on the help of his parents and his young son to help build the units in his garage.
The next contract was for 10,000 units, at which point, in 1998, he realised he had to start taking on staff – and then the orders started flowing in. Things really took off when the product was ordered for the prestigious Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Last year the company turned over £13 million and looks set to grow further, with its in-house research and development team constantly working on new products to help the airlines move towards on-board wi-fi and contactless payment technology in the skies.
Naturally proud of both his company and its Island base, Geoff has been a long-time supporter of the Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce, and IFPL has been a member company for 20 years.
He became involved with the Chamber at Board level six years ago, and is about to step down after serving a three-year term of office as President.
He sees the role as one of “an influencer”, bringing the issues facing business people to the attention of local government and other agencies, and along with others, has been heavily involved in drawing up the “Vision for the Isle of Wight” that aims to plan head for the next 20 years.
The Chamber has also introduced an Island Ambassador scheme, drawing on people with good off- Island contacts who can use their networks and influence to encourage inward investment on the Island.
As he points out, top of the list of issues that still face Island businesses – especially tech companies like his own – is the fundamental difficulty in recruiting the right people.
“It’s a big issue not only for us, but also for the NHS, schools and any type of specialist business” he says.
“When people do come they tend to stay, because obviously they love it here – but we have several barriers to getting them in the first place. There’s that psychological barrier of the Solent and the bad press we’ve had about the cost of getting here, and then for professionals there’s the issue of our school standards which may be improving, but aren’t up to par yet”.
As Geoff says, the ongoing job is to ‘sell’ the Island as a great place to live and work as well as to visit – which will also involve dealing with issues in some of the towns that have become run-down over recent years.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d put a university here” he says. “Not only would it serve our local young people, but would draw other young people here and introduce a bit more vibrancy to the Island, which, as we know, has a largely ageing population.”
He is also keen to build on the Island’s traditional tourist industry by “identifying the new wave in tourism” to attract the higher-value end of the market.
Meanwhile he believes that improved infrastructure such as the Gigabit internet fibre system could prove a powerful attraction for high value individuals who want to work from home.
Heading up an international business means that Geoff gets to visit some pretty exotic locations. “I travel all over the world and people say, ‘Oh, you must see this or that place’ but very often I’ll think OK, it’s all right – but it’s not much better than the Isle of Wight!
“I feel absolutely spoilt to be able to live in such a stunningly beautiful place with its outdoor lifestyle, the beaches, the watersports and the walks”.
And, as something of an action man in his leisure time, Geoff has seen the Island from all angles! A long-time paraglider, he regularly soared over the Island and many other locations, for 15 years – whilst back on terra firma, he was heavily involved with Ice Hockey until the only ice rink closed down (he’s still working in the background to try to get Ice Hockey back on the Island).
He also loves to be on wheels, and as well as being an enthusiastic touring motorcyclist, he also goes in for historic single-seater motor racing and has successfully competed at Silverstone and Brands Hatch in several of his stable of collector cars – at least until last year when, as he puts it, he “had a bit of a bash”.
Now, he says he’s a bit more careful. “I watch the ones in their 20s and realise that I’m never going to be up there at the front end, but I do enjoy it”.
Not surprisingly, Geoff’s garage at home in Carisbrooke is something to behold. As well as his racing cars, which include a 1961 Formula Junior 1100cc, a 1970 Merlyn Formula Ford and a 1961 Cooper Grand Prix 1500, there’s also his collection of classic motors – all 14 of them.
“I’m trying to stop buying them, but if someone’s selling a nice car I feel it would be rude of me not to buy it!” he jokes.
Among the stable of motors is the 1954 Morris Minor that he bought when he was 22.
“I spend a lot of my time polishing and tinkering with cars” he says. “Whilst the racing cars are taken care of by a racing team, the old classics are my therapy. Some are all in bits, but I really enjoy doing them up”
Some of the cars do get to hit the road though – like the Belgian-made 1901 Delin that he took on the London-Brighton run with his son Chris, 36.
During their run, the manifold fell apart – which might have been a disaster for most drivers, but not, of course for this pair. They promptly dismantled a barbecue and used it to re-solder the joint before getting back on their way!
So, with an entire collection of classic cars at his disposal, what does Geoff choose for his everyday trips? Usually, it’s his Mercedes e-class estate – although he’s also the proud owner of a “totally silent” Tesla luxury electric car.
Charity begins at home
As he steps down from the President’s office at Chamber of Commerce, Geoff has a few months to prepare himself for another high profile role, as High Sheriff of the Isle of Wight from April next year.
“It’s an amazing honour to be asked,” he says, “and it will be another great opportunity to engage in community and charitable work”.
He has already founded one charitable organisation on the Island – the Wight Aid Foundation, which raises funds exclusively for local charities and community groups, and makes it easier for companies to donate by handling all the admin side for them, and distributing funds on their behalf.
“We sit every month and make monthly donations of between £10,000-20,000 to local organisations” says Geoff, “and I like the idea of this flow-through from business to the community that can really make a difference”.
Indeed, the difference that the Wight Aid Foundation has made since it was established just two years ago amounts to £200,000 worth of donations that have helped a total of 70 charities.
“From my point of view I am really pleased with that, but it’s not a massive ego thing – I just want more people in business to give more money.
“Ultimately I have a passion for the Island and for making things better – and I’ve always thought that the best way to achieve that is to give a hand-up, not a hand-out.”