By any standards, Sir Terry Matthews ranks as one of the UK's leading technology pioneers and entrepreneurs of recent times. Born in Wales in 1943 with dual British-Canadian nationality, Matthews founded a stream of successful telecommunications companies after moving to Canada over 30 years ago.
But unlike more recent tech entrepreneurs such as the Google's Brin and Page, Matthews' career didn't begin in the hallowed halls of academia but somewhere slightly more mundane — electric lawnmower sales to be exact. His first company in Canada was Mitel, co-founded with friend Mike Cowpland, but the enterprise floundered when the pair found that selling lawnmowers in the snowy Canadian winter was beyond them.
Not that Matthews takes the blame for this fiasco. "That taught me a key lesson — the importance of timing," Matthews told us, insisting that he and Cowpland were blameless. "The shipping company lost the lawnmowers! By the time they showed up no-one wanted them, as you can't cut grass when it's covered with snow."
Matthews and Cowpland bounced back from this disaster, and developed a dual-tone multi-frequency tone receiver, used to signal over a telephone line. A fraction of the size of competing products, it yielded huge profits and turned Mitel into a successful manufacturer in the voice communications market.
The company was later bought by British Telecom, where Matthews was once a teenage apprentice. He then moved from voice networking into data with Newbridge Networks. The move made Matthews a billionaire, on paper at least, when Alcatel paid $7.1bn in stock for Newbridge Networks.
Today, Matthews is chairman of Wesley Clover, which invests in technology companies, and director or chairman of a selection of small IT firms. He has also risen to prominence through his ownership of the Celtic Manor gold resort. The site will host golf's Ryder Cup in 2010 and Matthews is determined to make it the most high-tech golfing tournament ever.
"There'll be seventy or eighty thousand people there every day," he enthuses with evident pride. "Broadband and WiMax will be available right across the course, and we'll install huge video screens so you can see all the action from anywhere on the Resort."
Video screens, Matthews reveals, are firmly on his radar. "You can expect to see Wesley Clover go into very large video walls. You can do them at a very low cost, now, thanks to the drop in LCD prices."
Matthews has founded some 65 different companies throughout his life. He now has an active interest in just 20 of those firms, as many have been been taken over. Few of these 20 are household names — although VoIP networking firm Newport Networks did hit the headlines when it floated in 2004.
With many successful businessmen, the question arises as to why they continue working rather than retiring to a beach hut or indulging in a private passion, such as hot-air ballooning around the world.
Matthews' reply is brief. "It's fun," he insists. This enthusiasm extends to even the smallest companies, such as INUK, which offers broadcast TV over IP networks. INUK runs its service on several university campuses and Matthews revealed...