As we started working on the voice synthesis project together Alex had often commented on the close relationship that my dad and I enjoyed. It always seemed to be tinged with a hint of jealously and, from our chats, I gathered that Alex’s father was more devoted to his work than to his family life.
Alex, the twins and their mother had been settled back in the UK for several months, leaving their father rattling around the luxury apartment in Moscow, free to work whatever hours were required, to wine and dine, socialise, and whatever else he pleased himself with during the fragments of spare time he had.
According to Alex, their father had been an important figure in some recent mergers in Moscow, helping to negotiate and close deals worth billions of dollars. It all sounded pretty amazing, like something from a TV box set, but Alex sounded unimpressed by it all. Now, with the family settled back home, he could devote all of his time to his work in the run-up to his own return and eventual semi-retirement. The long running takeover deal between a Russian technology company and his client Anthony Varkanopolis, which was about to conclude, would be demanding his time for sure.
Anthony Varkanopolis had started out in life with very little. His parents arrived in the UK with their young children as immigrants from Greece seeking new opportunities and a better life. His father and mother held down menial jobs while saving enough money to start their own restaurant, serving traditional Greek cuisine to the ever-changing British public’s dining tastes. Following years of hard work, and with the growing trend for dining out, the restaurant business became a success and grew steadily, providing a stable income for the family.
Anthony and his siblings attended local schools and did well considering their late arrival into the UK schooling system. Anthony eventually left school with just a handful of qualifications, but a burning desire to do well, just like his father had. He tried his hand at several jobs, eventually proving to be adept at selling photocopiers to local office managers for a large American company. Hungry for success, he rapidly climbed the corporate ladder before branching out with his own business ventures.
Now in his late fifties, and with a controlling stake in his Varkasoft computer and software company, he was on the verge of realising his dream: wealth beyond his imagination, not quite rubbing shoulders with the billionaires he followed in the media, but a self-made man soon to be worth many millions. The Varkasoft sale was what he’d worked towards for all these years, and he’d arrived in Russia with a desire to seal the biggest deal of his life.
Previously, while establishing the Varkasoft office in Moscow, he had relocated there for almost two years along with his wife and Theodore, their youngest child. Theodore’s older sister was more independent and had decided to stay at home. Recently graduated after a long stint at medical school, she was in the middle of a gap-year trip to South America before committing to full-time employment. Initially, Anthony thought he might commute to Russia on a weekly basis, but it became clear that a move for the family was essential: he didn’t want to be apart from them for an extended period, and the business opportunity dictated he had to be on the ground in Moscow.
Theodore was enrolled in the best international school available, to continue his studies. He was reaching the end of his high school years and needed the focus; university beckoned on their return home to the UK. Despite being present in Russia, Theodore and his mother still didn’t see that much of Anthony, as he threw himself into the new venture. Life for the family was much as it had always been: long days at the office, or travelling, for Anthony. But at least he was there the majority of evenings, rather than just two or three times a month. Business was important to him, but family even more so.
Tony, as he was known to those close to him, had started out by importing computer hardware from the USA in the infancy of home-computing when the size of the monitors and machines occupied most of the desktop. He’d struggled to strike deals with the big players, who shunned his approaches, so instead collaborated with the smaller, disruptive businesses that welcomed his entrepreneurial style and visionary approach. These lucrative partnerships enabled Tony to rapidly exploit markets in the UK and across Europe, reacting quickly as trends evolved but without the requirement for significant investment, this pain usually endured by his American suppliers.
The business had started small, with just Tony, a couple of hard-nosed salesmen and a bookkeeper. No fancy marketing departments, human resource specialists or operations gurus. The original office for the business was a two-roomed studio flat situated above his mother and father’s first restaurant in the suburbs of London. Two desks, each with its own landline and computer screen, and a shared printer were on a ‘hot desk’ rotation system, used by whoever was in the office first.
Tony had married young, to his childhood sweetheart Anna, and they started their family while both in their mid-twenties. The children were a catalyst for his tireless efforts in establishing and growing a business. He wanted to support them, and create a more comfortable lifestyle of the kind he’d not been fortunate enough to enjoy in his own early childhood. Tony’s drive and determination, coupled with a fierce temper, meant that often only one of the desks was in use. The two salesmen made sure they were on the road doing the business whenever possible, closing deals and bringing back orders, in the mould of Tony himself.
He was known for his short fuse, particularly when things didn’t go well and this affected the outcome of his business deals. He often quoted a famous Greek philosopher when addressing his staff as the business grew to be a dominant player: “Anybody can become angry. That is easy, but to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time and for the right purpose. That is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” He would smile broadly at the gathering of devoted employees in front of him. He’d made sure his staff knew who was boss, and enjoyed reminding them from time to time.
Tony saw himself as a benevolent dictator, calling all the shots but for the collective good of his loyal people. Employees worked at Varkasoft for either a very long or a very short period of time; there were very few shades of grey when it came to business loyalty for Tony.
Rich aromas from the restaurant below drifted through their cramped office around noon and early evening each day, a difficult distraction to ignore for the hungry sales effort above. But the business kept growing, through simple and honest hard work, knocking on doors, taking orders and delivering the goods. Businesses at the time were falling over themselves to keep up with the competition, and no one could ignore the demand for the new computer equipment, or for the software that Tony’s business eventually started developing and supplying. As national sales grew and exports increased, Varkasoft became the biggest provider of technology products outside of the USA.
Over the years, Varkasoft had grown into a monolithic multimillion-pound operation, now headquartered in a purpose-built glass-and-stone low-rise building, on a green and leafy five-acre plot with its own lake, free staff parking and a dedicated monorail from the local train station. Sales had gone through the roof ever since Tony’s decision to launch their own software. The profits were becoming ever-more substantial, with most ending up in Tony’s offshore bank accounts, from where they were filtered through to various family trust funds, investments, pensions and business interests, generating even more money in the process.
As Varkasoft grew, it had opened smaller satellite offices on every continent, attracting the most talented employees and dominating traditional industries like oil and gas, manufacturing and transportation. Its aggressive acquisition policy had proved immensely successful; when its software teams couldn’t easily develop their own solutions they simply bought their nearest rival and bolted it on to the main company, stripping out staff and costs and swallowing it up in the beast that had become Varkasoft.
While his company was dominant in the traditional computer and software industries, and growing ever larger as these slowly evolved, Tony had struggled to keep up with new emerging technologies. He feared that to become immersed in them would dilute his main business focus and that, over the long term, investing in unproven technologies could be a massive gamble. At his age, and with his heart and soul invested in Varkasoft, he wasn’t about to do anything other than back winners. However, the emerging tech opportunities had made him inquisitive, so he had hatched a plan to create a separate, special operations company, one which could be used to generate even greater profits, or which could be something he walked away with to work on as a hobby after Varkasoft had been gobbled up by an even bigger corporate animal.
Keen to test the water, he had recently recruited a bright and energetic young manager from a floundering social media start-up that he’d invested in as a sideline. This sort of amateurish investment activity no longer interested him, largely because the first company he ploughed a six-figure sum into had failed to take off. But it had given him the opportunity to meet a different calibre of individual compared to those who were so crucial to the smooth running of Varkasoft. Tony had been impressed with the team at the start-up, investing both his money and his time in the early stages of his interest in the company, and had become particularly impressed with their Head of Technology, Ross Jenson, a young software engineer with a fiery hunger for success and a visionary style that were much like his own.
Ross, who later confessed that he had seen the opportunity to join Tony at Varkasoft as lifeline, grasped the offer of a job with both hands. Tony explained his plans to Ross, encouraging him to think outside of traditional boundaries and explore the impossible. He demanded that Ross create something from nothing to ensure that his newly established V-Works division, as he called it, could become a profitable business in its own right. He made no mention to Ross of his intention to sell Varkasoft, nor the fact that he saw this new project as an interesting diversion. Outwardly, it was a simple investment of his time and money, offering the ability for him to directly influence its progress in a way that had become impossible within the giant machine that was Varkasoft, and in contrast to the way he had had to sit back and watch his investment in the start-up disappear into thin air.
Ultimately, Tony had plans for creating something that his son, Theodore, could eventually become involved with. Something his son could bring his natural talents for coding and software development to, could eventually run, grow and control in the same way he’d done with Varkasoft. Now that would be something that would make him proud.