can build something better than anyone else, succeed and go on to create a multimillion-pound business.
Ivor Tiefenbrun is living the dream of many an engineer: decide that you can build something better than anyone else, succeed and go on to create a multimillion-pound business.
It helps if the product in question is related to something you care passionately about. Tiefenbrun can become passionate on a range of subjects – of which more later – but one of his first loves is music. This prompted him to found Linn Products, the designer and manufacturer of audio equipment that is widely acclaimed as the finest hi-fi in the world.
It is not unusual for one of Linn’s customers to spend £100,000 on a system. At these prices, the company unsurprisingly boasts its fair share of celebrity fans including David Bowie, Sharon Stone and Prince Charles. Last year the company was selected to provide the audio system for the Aston Martin V12 Vanquish, James Bond’s car in Die Another Day.
The roots of Linn lie in the late 1960s when Tiefenbrun, who was working as an engineer for his father’s business, became frustrated with the quality of audio turntables – they were, he believed, bedevilled by ‘incompetent design’. So he decided that the creation of a very high-quality turntable was a worthy precision engineering challenge.
Tiefenbrun began working on the project in his spare time and eventually produced a turntable that met his own rigorous standards. Linn’s first product, the Sondek – which now enjoys legendary status – was the result. ‘Other people heard it and said if you make them, we’ll sell them,’ said Tiefenbrun. ‘I made them, they sold them, but they never paid me – which was my first lesson in business.’
John Borwick, an analyst and writer on audio technology who has known Tiefenbrun and Linn since its foundation in 1972, said the future hi-fi tycoon learnt those lessons quickly. ‘There were other people looking at doing what he did but they fell by the wayside,’ said Borwick.
‘There’s no doubt that the access he had to the facilities at his father’s engineering workshop helped him, but mainly he held the whole thing together by being a hard taskmaster. The turntable he came up with outperformed pretty much everything on the market,’ said Borwick. ‘Linn’s product range is still fantastic.’
Since the early 1970s Linn has successfully navigated huge changes in audio technology, and the company now builds a whole range of home-entertainment products including speakers, tuners, CD players and amplifiers. Design, testing and manufacturing take place at the firm’s headquarters in Waterfoot, south of Glasgow, which Tiefenbrun had designed by architect Richard Rogers. Linn, which turns over about £30m a year, even runs its own record label featuring big names from the worlds of jazz and classical music.
According to Tiefenbrun, his company’s continuing pre-eminence in high-end hi-fi stems, at least in part, from the design and quality control ethos he brought to the first Sondek. ‘We’ve gone from one product to a range of products, but the heart of the company remains innovative precision engineering,’ he said. ‘We don’t just implement other people’s technology, everything we do is based on original design.’
He is also still very much a devotee of music for its own sake, with a bias towards ‘mainstream classical’, and a believer in the power of high-quality audio to bring it alive. ‘Hi-fi is more than a music player. It’s about total entertainment, singing, dancing, educating the kids. The customers I admire most are the lorry drivers and the junior bank workers who have saved hard to buy one of our systems,’ said Tiefenbrun. ‘They do that because they want the best.’
This, then, is Ivor Tiefenbrun – engineer, perfectionist, passionate music lover and hi-fi visionary. What about the other Ivor Tiefenbrun – entrepreneur, significant local employer and noted Scottish business leader?
Figures from the business community are sometimes described as ‘outspoken’ if they suggest that the government really isn’t playing fair, and that if it doesn’t buck up its ideas things could get jolly rough.
There is that sort of outspoken, and then there is Ivor Tiefenbrun. A few minutes’ discussion with him about the UK’s economy, its government and its regulatory regime and it is clear that this is a man to whom fence-sitting does not come naturally.
Tiefenbrun on the Scottish Parliament: ‘A total catastrophe. Scotland has now become a kind of communistic backwater. They have unwound hundreds of years of progress in a few years, and we are heading for oblivion as a country.’
On the EU: ‘An act of collective insanity. We don’t belong in Europe and the French and the Germans occasionally reveal their hatred of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. They hate Britain and America.’
On the euro: ‘They are rebuilding the Soviet Union. Even though we in the UK are now developing the bureaucracy, the black economy and the corruption essential for participation in the new European superstate, I don’t think it is something the British people will want or welcome.’
On the taxman and other regulators: ‘We are now suffering from four simultaneous investigations by separate tax and regulation authorities. We are constantly harassed and abused by these people. Usually they end up owing us money. I can’t find anybody who runs a foreign-owned subsidiary who has anything like the aggro we have.’
And last, but by no means least, on New Labour: ‘The worst government we’ve had to date, with a total lack of understanding of every area of expertise we have in this country, of the unique skills that should be nurtured and protected. They don’t give a stuff about manufacturing because they believe it is redundant in the new world of services. I’d like them to commit mass suicide.’
Given Tiefenbrun’s slightly downbeat view of doing business in Scotland, and the UK in general, has he ever been tempted to follow other companies to the lower-cost, less regulated economies of eastern Europe? ‘No, we are Scots people up here. We are not going to be driven out of our own country. The notion that if you become more prosperous and your people command a higher salary it makes you less competitive is one I find deeply offensive,’ he said.
It is unwise to suggest to Tiefenbrun that the success of his own company belies the idea that it is impossible to prosper in the current climate. ‘This is something that I find particularly galling,’ he fumed.
‘People equate survival in Britain with success. If you are still around you must be doing OK. Nobody sees the lost opportunities. We are the world leaders in creating lost opportunities. If Linn had been in America it would be 100 times bigger.’
It is not hard to deduce that Tiefenbrun is a natural, unashamed free-marketeer. Margaret Thatcher was called upon to ‘save the country’ before and he has not yet abandoned hope that a similar figure will emerge again.
You can agree or disagree with Tiefenbrun on any of the above. If he were the boss of a mediocre, failing business it would be possible for an object of his outpourings – a New Labour minister, for example – to dismiss them as the last roarings of a dinosaur.
Ironically, however, it is possible to imagine a mirror-image Tiefenbrun – pro-Labour, pro-euro – being feted by the Blair government. In many ways Linn represents everything that New Labour claims to aspire to for the modern UK.
A growing company, a leader in its field working at the cutting edge of technology in one of the world’s most glamorous markets.
Given Tiefenbrun’s stance, the chances of him being invited for tea at Number 10 are remote, and he would almost certainly regard the very prospect with horror.
But his forthright style has struck a chord with fellow Scots running hi-tech industries. Jane Richardson, chief executive of industry group Electronics Scotland, said Tiefenbrun was ‘by far and away’ the most popular speaker when he addressed the body’s conference. ‘He says what he thinks in a unique way, but underneath it he’s reflecting what a lot of business leaders feel,’ said Richardson. ‘There are worries about red tape and so on.’
There are reasons to believe Tiefenbrun enjoys his status as an outspoken maverick in Scotland and beyond. ‘Not every young man was designed by Mother Nature to sit behind a desk working for the tax people or one of these other bull***t organisations,’ he said. ‘Some of us were designed to go out and fight people, capture animals, to have an outlet for these energies.’
With so much to be angry about, thank goodness for the power of music to soothe the savage breast – no doubt extra soothing through a Linn hi-fi.
FOR THE RECORD
Ivor Tiefenbrun was born in Glasgow in 1946, the son of a Polish father and Scottish mother. Before setting up Linn Products he worked as an engineer in his father’s company, Castle Precision Engineering, which is now run by his younger brother.
In 1992 Tiefenbrun was awarded an MBE for services to the electronics industry and was a member of the Design Council for four years from 1995.
In 2001 Tiefenbrun was named Scotland’s entrepreneur of the year, and a year later Linn was awarded Royal Warrant status as official provider of entertainment systems to the royal family.