If You Can’t Measure it, You Can’t Improve it

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In conversation with Infinitesima
Peter Jenkins, CEO of Infinitesima

Sue Rees in conversation with Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins is the CEO of Infinitesima. Based near Oxford, it’s a privately owned company founded in 2001, as a spin-out of the University of Bristol, by CTO Professor Andrew Humphries. Peter leads a business that includes scientists and engineers who are focused on enabling the next generation of semiconductor devices.

After a long career in senior positions in the semiconductor industry, Infinitesima is Peter’s first chief executive position. I sat down with him to find out more about his background and what he thinks makes a successful CEO in a start-up or scaleup business.

SUE REES: Peter, tell me about Infinitesima?

PETER JENKINS: We are in the business of delivering atomic-scale metrology. We deliver hardware that gives our customers the ability to measure things down to picometres – that’s one trillionth of a metre! So small, in fact, that it’s pretty difficult for non-scientists to get their heads around how small that is. Basically, we’re talking about measuring things smaller than the size of an atom.

SR: That’s remarkable! Have you always followed a science or high-tech engineering path?

PJ: Well, after school I went on to study economics at the University of Bath. But I decided pretty quickly that wasn’t what I wanted to focus on so I got a job with UK firm Plessey Semiconductors as a trainee engineer, and then worked for a large US company.

I was 7 years into my career when they pulled out of the UK, and I found myself moving to Holland to take on a marketing role for another business in the semiconductor sector. I ended up working for the same company for 28 years in various customer-facing roles away from the UK, including 10 years in Asia (South Korea and Hong Kong).

That was a fascinating and exciting journey. When I joined, they were beginning to scale up and I was one of a team of 250. They now have over 25,000 people around the world and an annual revenue of 12 billion Euro.

After 28 years I wanted to move back “home” to the UK, and so I looked for my next challenge. I realised that I wanted to use my knowledge and experience to help a growth business to become successful and to challenge myself by taking on a CEO role.

SR: That’s quite a journey, with a lot of time spent abroad. What did you learn from working overseas about being in business?

PJ: You certainly see what makes or breaks a company that’s trying to grow. You also get a broad perspective on different cultures and different business norms. All that is invaluable if you work for an international business, as I do.

If you are going to deal with clients from these different cultural backgrounds it’s important to understand their decision-making processes, their cultural norms, and be sensitive to the differences. If you can learn to adapt your way of doing business you will stand a far better chance of succeeding.

Look, I’m not saying that all businesses in Japan are the same, or in the US, or Korea – far from it. But there are some common threads when it comes to doing business in different parts of the world. Recognising that and looking to change the way you do things to meet in the middle is key.

SR: What do you think the benefits were for you personally of spending so much time overseas?

PJ: Well, as I say it was a fantastic opportunity to learn about different business cultures and to understand the differences in how individuals make decisions and build relationships. I spent 10 years being directly responsible for Japan as a territory, and now that Infinitesima has Japanese customers that experience has been very useful.

I think some people get hung up on the differences being purely cultural, but it’s more than that. Different parts of the world actually have different ways of doing things in business. You’ll find the answer to the question “who makes the decisions” isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. It’s not always as hierarchical in terms of decision making as it is in many European or North American companies.

One thing I didn’t learn was a lot of languages – I’m a terrible linguist! I can get by in Dutch, just about, but despite being in Korea for 3 years and Hong Kong for 7 I never learned more than the pleasantries. Being fluent would be highly beneficial, but unless you are at that highest level I think you’re much better off learning some simple basics and then apologising for either switching to English or using an interpreter – there’s too much scope to accidentally say the wrong thing if you’re not absolutely fluent.

SR: So after your long career with your previous company, what drew you to the opportunity at Infinitesima?

PJ: Because Infinitesima was in an industry sector that I was very familiar with, and with existing and potential clients and suppliers I had some prior knowledge of, it meant I could clearly see how I could help make a difference. It’s also a ground-breaking place, with a great team, and that’s always highly attractive!

SR: How has returning to the UK and becoming a CEO been for you? What have been the challenges?

PJ: Well it’s been tough, but also really rewarding. It’s been a real challenge to raise funds – hard tech is not very popular with UK investors.

If I’m honest, it’s also been a little bit of a challenge after 28 years away working with Brits again! When you grow up in a culture, you don’t look at yourself culturally like you do when you’re in a foreign country. The indirect nature of the culture here does make it more challenging than the Dutch where I worked, where things are much more direct. But then I’ve also worked in Asia where they are even less direct than here.

I’ve also had to build a UK network from scratch. I’ve had to do that quite quickly so that I can find the best talent for the business to help the business move forward.

SR: You mentioned the challenge of raising funds – is that because of the nature of your business, or is it sector-specific, or has it been the market conditions?

PJ: A bit of everything. We’re in hardware – that’s not the “sexy” part of the investment sector. We deal in big kit and so our lead times to closing business and delivery are quite long, and given the stage that we’re at I think that makes things more challenging for us in attracting investment. We have raised funds, but it’s a little frustrating that we can’t move ahead at the speed we’d like to. That will come, though, it’s just the nature of what we do that means we have to wait a little longer than other sectors.

Another thing is pandemic related, and that’s the inability to spend face-to-face time with potential customers or potential investors. There’s a limit to how much trust you can build over a Zoom call, especially if you’re talking to people who are potentially deciding on career-making or career-breaking decisions themselves.

SR: How has living and working in Oxfordshire treated you?

PJ: It’s a lovely part of the world, and somewhere I didn’t know well before we came here. My daughter goes to university in Oxford, so it was a lovely bonus to end up so close, particularly as I was living in the heart of the city when we initially moved here.

The company is based in Abingdon, which is a great Thameside town where we were very happy to live until our recent move north to the Cotswolds, which was always my wife’s dream destination to have a “forever home”. As I’ve dragged her around the world for almost 30 years living in built-up cities when the opportunity came to live in the countryside, which we both love, I felt it was the very least I could do!

SR: Was it always your ambition to be a CEO?

PJ: I never imagined that I would be when I was a younger, not until I was much further along in my career. When you start out, you look up to those people. I was always ambitious, but never had the expectation that I’d end up in such a role. I do enjoy being chief executive, but with that comes a lot of responsibility. I’ve looked to CEOs I have worked for and admired, and those who perhaps I didn’t enjoy working with, and I try to take some of those experiences and lessons with me when I go to work.

SR: So what makes a good CEO?

PJ: You’ve got to be able to shape the vision and strategy. You must understand and care for your people. You have to manage your cash flow and your investors so that the business has solid fundamentals.

SR: How important is the company and team culture?

PJ: Crucial. If that’s not in place and driven from the top then you manage through challenges that startups always face or even the unexpected like a global pandemic.

SR: So is the position of CEO what you expected it to be?

PJ: I’m sure being a CEO in a startup is rather different from being CEO of a top multinational! You have to be a lot more hands-on in an early stage business, which I am and I enjoy. So I get involved in everything from marketing to picking up the phone if everyone’s too busy to answer it! It’s great to be able to see every part of the business and to be able to actively contribute in lots of ways.

As to negatives? Well, international travel and raising finance are the two biggest challenges right now, not just for me but also for our engineers. Brexit was a small bump in the road for us, but that’s more or less sorted itself out now as far as our business is concerned. I’m hopeful that as travel restrictions ease we can get back out into the marketplace in a much more personal way than via video calls.

SR: Tell me what makes Infinitesima a great place for top talent to work?

PJ: Well, as a tech startup there’s plenty here to challenge you! We’re working on very exciting technology at the cutting edge of science with atomic force microscopy. And we’re in one of the fastest-growing industry sectors – semiconductors. We also have a great team of very talented people who all believe in the same vision and a culture where everyone can contribute, learn and grow with the business.

My thanks to Peter for giving his time so generously to give an insight into his business philosophy and how he is helping to take Infinitesima into its next phase of growth.

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