Graham Milne

You Make Your Own Luck

Graham Milne has led a life of self-discovery and adventure, which has lent itself well to his position as President and CEO of VIP Communications, an international telephone service provider.

Founded in 1996, VIP Communications is now one of the leading suppliers of international calling in many major markets including the United States, England, Africa, Australia, and over forty other countries, worldwide.

Milne, born in Reading, England, 40 miles west of London, the third of three children to successful physician parents, grew up in a uniquely free and independent atmosphere.

“My parents never said, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’, they just said, ‘If you do this, then this is how it is going to affect you and this is how it will affect other people’. As I made each decision, they wouldn’t step in, but would allow me to deal with the repercussions of those decisions, whether good or bad, which allowed me to learn from my mistakes.”

One of those “mistakes” helped to position Milne for the decision that would change his life forever.

In England there are two major exams, one which you take when you are sixteen-years-old called the Ordinary Levels or ‘O-Levels’, and one which you take at the age of eighteen which are called the Advanced Levels or ‘A-Levels’.

Milne recalls, “I wasn’t really interested in school, I was really into sports and was very athletic and played rugby, soccer and cricket. When I went to take my ‘A-Levels’, I didn’t study until the night before and I failed miserably. I sort of set myself up for failure and that hit me.”

Until failing the ‘A-Levels’, Milne had been taking a very relaxed stance towards his future goals including when he might enroll at University.

“It never really hit me until I failed my ‘A-Levels’. I watched many of my friends going off to University, and I felt like I was going to get left behind, stuck in a manual job for the rest of my time.”

Milne spent a year in the equivalent of a community college and applied himself to his studies. After the year, he re-took his ‘A-Levels’ and passed.

“After I passed the ‘A-Levels’, I still didn’t feel ready to go to University, so I took time off and traveled. I don’t think I thought about my career very much, I knew I would go to university, but I was young and I wanted to go see some places.”

Milne traveled extensively around Europe and parts of Northern Africa for six months. When he returned to England, he realized that he wanted to do more traveling but that he needed to get his degree first, so he enrolled at Staffordshire University, just south of Manchester, England and studied Business Studies with a minor in International Marketing.

After graduating, Milne worked for a year and saved money so that he could travel the world. He spent two years traveling, circumnavigating the world by plane.

“I saw some unbelievable places and did some unbelievable things. I experienced an incredible array of cultures and met a lot of fantastic people. That really changed me because it gave me worldliness and it helped me to understand much better about people and issues. It is difficult to describe and put your finger on what it is, but traveling changes you in a way unlike anything else. As a life lesson, it is as valuable as any formal education I have experienced.”

Milne returned to England at the height of the economic down-turn and found a lack of job opportunities.

“It was time for me to start my career but there were no opportunities in the areas where my education had taken me.”

After working at a few temporary jobs, Milne was referred to the man who would eventually become his partner, mentor and friend, Tom McCabe.

“I remember I met him in his office and he asked me all of five questions and then stood up, put his hat on, and said, ‘Okay, you’re starting tomorrow,’ that was my first experience with him.”

Swiftcall, the company that McCabe had hired Milne to work at was a telecommunications service provider focused on calls being made out of the United Kingdom to the United States.

“McCabe’s company was really the first company to challenge the monopoly of British Telecom and Mercury, in the residential market, for telephone calls to international locations. McCabe had found a way to lease a fiber-optic circuit from London to New York and he had made a deal with a US carrier to take all of his calls and to send them to wherever they were going. At the time, the cost of calling in the US was significantly lower than in the UK (because the US was a more open market).”

This concept was basically illegal though, and OFTEL, which is the United Kingdom’s version of the FCC, tried to prevent it.

“The irony was that the UK portion of all the UK to US circuits at that time were owned by British Telecom. So, on the one hand British Telecom was leasing us the circuit, knowing what we would be using it for, because they wanted to make the money on the lease. On the other hand, they were complaining to OFTEL about what we were doing on the circuit they were leasing to us.”

“Swiftcall quickly amassed a large customer base and the business grew rapidly because we were able to undercut the two large UK telecommunications companies by almost 70%. We became well-known, very quickly.”

“This created a big problem for OFTEL because it showed that BT and Mercury were drastically overcharging for their services and OFTEL, whose job it was to protect the consumer, was clearly acting in the interest of these big companies. Because of public opinion, OFTEL was unable to close us down, and this created a huge push towards changing the regulations. Eventually these changes happened and now the UK is one of the most open telecom regulatory environments in the world.”

Shortly after Milne was hired, the Managing Director of Swiftcall resigned and McCabe promoted Milne to fill the role, heading up business operations.

“I hadn’t even managed people before and within a few months I was managing the entire company. I was basically thrown into it. The only way you make it in a situation like that is to rely on people with more knowledge than you to help you succeed.”

While working at Swiftcall, Milne traveled frequently to the United States and it was on one of these trips that he met his future wife. After sustaining a three thousand mile long-distance relationship, they decided to marry and Milne spoke with McCabe about leaving Swiftcall to relocate in the US.

As always, McCabe’s reaction was surprising. He immediately saw it as an opportunity to start a company in the US, and suggested that Milne go and do this. “I had nothing else planned, and McCabe was going to keep paying me so I thought, ‘why not?’’

Milne and McCabe took the model that they created in the United Kingdom and setup VIP Communications in the United States, utilizing many carriers to reach different countries. Initially, the company primarily handled calls originating out of the United Kingdom. Then Milne had the idea to reach out to their existing UK customers and ask them to tell their US contacts about VIP Communications. Within a year, and without any additional advertising or marketing, the company was able to realize an increase in annual revenue of $1 million.

Prior to 2000, VIP was primarily focused on the United Kingdom and Ireland but after 2000, as these destinations became more competitive, VIP began to expand into other markets like South Africa and Australia.

“We began to grow quite rapidly because we were advertising on television around sporting events such as soccer and rugby. We continued in this way until 2004 when we hit a plateau. We continued to grow and had a large threshold of customers, but most of our new business was coming from referrals. TV advertising was just not showing the same results as it had previously.”

So Milne stopped the TV advertising campaign to save the money and to build up cash reserves for the business.

“We continued this way until 2006, when we got bored of sitting around and really started looking at ways that we could expand.”

Their first big breakthrough came quickly, when they focused their attention on mobile calling.

“We realized that mobile was rapidly becoming the preferred way for many people to make calls, but the cost of calling internationally through the mobile service providers was prohibitive. We found a way to offer our international service from any mobile phone by utilizing our customers free domestic minutes within their mobile calling plans” Milne explains, “We were the first company in our field to utilize the advertising phrase, ‘international calls, even from your mobile’.”

VIP began to offer a way to make international calls from an individual’s mobile phone at a lower cost and not contingent upon the cell phone service provider. With this new service, the company grew significantly.

By 2007, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) was starting to make serious progress towards providing higher quality, and in many cases free calling services. Skype was a relatively new, but very fast growing provider and was threatening many of the traditional international calling markets.

Knowing that the paid international calling business was becoming seriously threatened by  free calling options, Milne decided to focus his business in the African market.

“Many of the African countries are almost entirely mobile. When you travel to these areas, they have virtually no fixed lines because it is so expensive to install them. So instead of putting in fixed lines, when the demand for phones came about, it was much easier and cheaper to put in mobile networks. This is a big benefit to us, because when we terminate a call to a mobile phone instead of a fixed line, it is typically a lot more expensive leading to higher revenue for us. Also, the mobile operators, who own the mobile networks, control the calls and how they terminate to the far end. That is very important because when you’re a mobile operator and you’ve invested several billion dollars putting in the network, the last thing that you want to do is let Skype terminate calls over your network for free. It’s in their interest to keep Skype out, and this gives us more stability.”

When VIP Communications moved into the African markets in 2006 they had one African country in their top ten destinations. In 2008, their top country in revenue was Ghana, and in 2010, their top twenty destinations in revenue production were African countries.

“We now have over fifty employees serving over eighty thousand customers and our 2010 revenues were $21 million. Projections for 2011 are $27 million.”

When speaking about the recent economic downturn, Milne describes his company as continuing to grow, though they have seen a contraction in the rate of growth.

“People are naturally finding new ways to communicate, not only to save money but also for convenience.  Skype and other free internet calling options, along with text, video, IM and social media are creating a very tough competitive environment, especially to the more developed countries.”

Though these new communication options have created a competitive market, they have also produced new opportunities for the telecommunications industry as a whole.

“The development and improvement of these new technologies have also opened new opportunities for us.  There have been massive strides forward in developing the quality of VoIP which has created a tremendous ability for companies in our sector to interconnect across the globe without any expense whatsoever.”

Milne explains these opportunities in detail when describing the changes in the way his company transmits calls to Ghana, “For example, we have a gateway in Ghana (which is a piece of equipment that changes voice from analog to digital and back), and we have another gateway here in the United States. For our calls to and from Ghana, we use the gateway in the US to convert the calls to IP. We then send the IP packets over the public internet and then convert them back to voice at the gateway in Ghana. The recurring cost of the international transport is nothing and the cost of the call is reduced to the in-country termination charges. To do the same thing 5 years ago, you would have had to rent or lease circuit space on a Trans-Atlantic cable to Europe and then continue on a Trans-African cable, which would probably have cost about twenty thousand dollars or more per month to carry 30 simultaneous calls. So, now, a small company like us can directly communicate and work with any carrier worldwide.”

VIP Communications is looking forward to the future and some newly developed services that they have implemented including an application (app) for mobile smart phones called VIPConnect, which allows a user to choose to have their international calls handled seamlessly by VIP instead of the user’s mobile phone provider.

Milne is also prepared for the future of the telecommunications industry and the inevitable decrease in demand for paid services with the prevalence of free calling service options. The next steps for the company include developing Mobile VoIP Peering Services.

“We want to create a service similar to Skype but which works from mobile to mobile using VoIP. If you use it from a Wi-Fi network to a Wi-Fi network or across 4G it will be free. We are also looking to create a business telephone system that is entirely supported on mobile devices, with the operations supported entirely in the cloud.”

Milne’s successes aren’t limited to the business arena; he has a wonderful family with his wife, two stepsons and their youngest daughter.

”My wife is incredibly supportive. She has given me the stability I needed to be successful.  She also gave me a beautiful daughter and two incredible sons.” Milne also believes in the importance of giving back. He has volunteered as a soccer coach for over 15 years and donates to several charities that help those in developing countries. Milne also believes very strongly in society’s responsibility to provide and maintain social services (such as healthcare and education) for all within its community.

Milne’s message to new graduates and those venturing out into the world for the first time as adults is not to worry about getting into a career in the beginning, but to go out and try things; and to travel. He also shares, “I believe that very often you make your own luck.  I have been both lucky and unlucky at times in my life, but when I’ve analyzed it, the outcome is usually determined by my actions, and often I have turned unlucky things into lucky things by not giving in.  There have been many occasions where something that seemed bad at the time actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise when I looked back.  Not because it wasn’t bad, but because I created other opportunities from the event.”

Graham Milne’s life has been full of choice, risk, success and failure, and a great deal of self-created luck. That mixture has yielded a successful, driven, thorough leader who knows how to get things done, how to fall and get back up again, and how to work hard to create his own luck. Fortunately, he has never had to fall very far and, in fact, his future looks full of the promise for continued growth and success.

Graham Milne

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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