Grapevine at 30 – Part 1: 1991 – 2001

In the year that Bryan Adams spent a record breaking 16 weeks at number one in the UK singles chart, Nirvana released their seminal album Nevermind and Sega’s iconic blue mascot Sonic the Hedgehog made his video game debut, a small business in the south of England known as Grapevine Communications was formed on 1st November 1991.

Over the next four weeks we will be hearing from those involved throughout the company’s history and continual evolution, in celebration of Grapevine’s 30th anniversary this month.

The first ten years

The story begins with Brian Vockins. Now retired, Brian oversaw pivotal years of the business as Managing Director, building the strong foundation on which Grapevine stands today. Since taking a step back from the day-to-day running of the business, Brian has remained involved, providing a knowledgeable steer as the company navigates the ever-changing landscape of technology and communications.

Brian Vockins exhibiting as ‘B.V. Communications’ before starting Grapevine

 

Brian Vockins: “Prior to Grapevine I spent 12 years as an Electronics Technician in the Royal Navy, followed by 10 years in Industry. I studied part time for 5 years and gained a City and Guilds Full Technological Certificate in Telecommunications via the R.N. Portsmouth and Chichester Colleges in 1978.”

“In 1983/84 whilst working with Mitsubishi Electric I became involved in the supply of infrastructure equipment for the Nordic mobile network (NMT). As a leader in the manufacturer of mobile devices Mitsubishi were keen to gain market share in the new UK network due to be launched in 1985. This led to my involvement in supplying both a Hand Portable and Transportable phone for use on the UK TACS networks (1G connectivity). Licenses having been awarded to BT Cellnet, now O2 and Racal Millicom, now Vodafone.”

“My wife Hilary was a freelance Draughtswoman and produced the artwork for the first Mitsubishi device named Roamer”

In 1987, Brian decided to set out on his own, moving his family back to Weymouth in Dorset and securing contract work within the mobile communications arms of the AA (yes, the same AA) and later Marconi. It was during this time that Brian met Pete Boby. Pete was working for a mobile phone company in Taunton but looking to move on. With 3 months left to run on Brian’s contract with Marconi, the pair had a meeting which led to the formation of Grapevine.

Pete Boby at Grapevine’s Bath location in the 1990’s

 

Pete Boby: “Prior to Grapevine I had two jobs working in sales within the mobile telecoms industry, starting for a company in Avonmouth Bristol in 1989 and then another in 1990. In those days the majority of sales were fully installed car phones.”

“When Grapevine started in 1991, there were only two licensed national cellular operators, namely Vodafone and Cellnet. These two networks had only existed since 1st January 1985 and in the early days you could only make a call within the M25. You couldn’t text, surf the internet or send pictures, all you could do was talk. But to be able to freely communicate when out of the office was breath-taking and exciting. It just totally changed the way you did business.

Brian: “It was clear that this new industry would grow beyond business use, so we invested in a small shop/office premises on Widcombe Parade in Bath, mainly supplying business users initially.”

The networks saw the same potential for growth in the consumer market for mobile telecoms and encouraged small companies like Grapevine to invest in the high street, supported through the licencing of their already recognisable brands. For Grapevine this resulted in four additional retail stores opening in Poole, Bournemouth, Weymouth and Dorchester, branded ‘Vodafone Centre’. The previously opened Bath premises retained the Grapevine name as there was already another business trading as a Vodafone Centre in the area.

With Grapevine’s operation across the South and South-West growing fast, Brian and Pete needed additional hands on deck. In April 1993 Grapevine welcomed a member of staff to its store in Bath who would go on to become the company’s longest serving employee. As of today, account manager Donna Fletcher has racked up an impressive 28 years with the business.

Donna Fletcher and Pete pictured in a Grapevine brochure from this era

 

Donna Fletcher: “My initial joining Grapevine was via a college placement while I gained my NVQ. We had the shop in Widcombe and my employment was as a sales / admin assistant.”

Three years later, current Managing Director, James Spinks joined the business in Poole. James celebrates his 25th anniversary at Grapevine this month.

James Spinks at Grapevine’s Poole High Street ‘Vodafone Centre’ store

 

James Spinks: “I joined Grapevine in November 1996, following a year working for a competitor, Kondor / Cellphone Warehouse in Christchurch. I started as a sales executive working in the Poole retail store selling mobile phones and airtime contracts to consumer clients.”

Later promoted to Store Manager, James recruited a member of staff who, like him, would be in it for the long run, as long as you overlook the 9 month sabbatical taken by this particular colleague (or “traitor” as he would be known for this brief period) to work for phones4u.

Ed Shaw, pictured during his season ‘on loan’ to phones4u

 

Ed Shaw: “I was working as a barman/waiter in the Offshore restaurant at Sunseeker’s Poole complex when I popped into see James to get a car charger for my Nokia 1611. Within a couple of weeks I was working alongside him as a retail assistant. I quickly picked up selling Mitsubishi MT30 flip phones with Vodafone contracts.”

“A year or so later James moved to the Bournemouth store and I became manager at Poole. By this point we had expanded the back of the shop and with the in-house experience of our colleague Colin we began selling more accessories than phones. We specialised in having the largest range of the coloured Nokia 5110 clip-on covers on the high street!”

In today’s ‘gig economy’ world of employment, to work for a company for over 20 years is rare and relatively unheard of. For Donna, James and Ed, the reasons given for staying with Grapevine for so long have a common theme – family.

Donna: “Throughout the good times, bad times, new staff, new buildings, Grapevine have always been supportive, it’s all I know and it’s family. From just being Pete, Brian and I, to all the retail shops, to what we have now. I’ve grown with the company and the ever-evolving industry. Customers who have dealt with us for years recall seeing me when I was pregnant, my daughter is now 25! They love the fact they can call and will still manage to speak to me or Pete after all this time. It’s good to feel trusted as an honest supplier.”

James: “Grapevine has provided us all with opportunities, the chance to strive to do things bigger and better, being given more responsibility, to be able to have a material and measurable effect on the growth of our business. As Managing Director now, one of my most important roles is to pass this empowerment down the line to help our ever-growing staff to be the best they can be too.”

Ed: “Grapevine has a ‘family’ atmosphere and we get a huge enjoyment from working with the same colleagues long term. There’s a real sense of achievement from the progress we have made from retail shops to becoming a renowned local B2B technology and communications supplier. The exciting technological advancements from very simple mobile phones to today’s do-it-all smartphones has kept us all busy and on our toes.”

Ed Shaw and Donna Fletcher both celebrating milestone anniversaries in 2018.

 

For Brian, the family of colleagues and clients that has been built around Grapevine since the early 1990’s has also included members of the family he moved to Weymouth when he started the business.

Brian: “My son Daniel opened and ran our Dorchester shop and my daughter Nicola, who is still with the business now, helped Hilary with the ever-increasing retail administration load.”

Despite characterising much of Grapevine’s first decade in business, the days of the chain of retail stores now feel like a long-closed chapter in the company history. It was another lifetime ago for those who were there to experience it and the stories exist as a reminder of that.

Donna: “There were two networks offering two tariffs. Vodafone and Cellnet, Business and Local. Phone sizes kept reducing, small was seen as beautiful. The smallest one I remember was an Ericsson T28, back before they partnered with Sony and the Motorola Razr.”

James: “At that time the mobile handset manufacturers were battling it out to develop smaller and smaller, yet more powerful devices, in contrast to today’s smartphone trends of larger and larger screened devices that can often replace the requirement for a tablet or laptop.”

Pete: “It was interesting how the obsession went from having the smallest phone possible then back to much bigger devices due to the content you wanted to view on them. Nokia’s phones at the turn of the decade, the 3310, 5110, 6310 were iconic handsets.”

Donna: “Accessories were a huge part of our business also, we had covered the walls in slat board and had hundreds of accessories sold via a separate arm as Colibri.”

The ‘Accessories’ emporium at the back of the Poole High Street store

 

Ed: “I vividly remember people laughing at us for suggesting that things like video calling, colour screens and cameras would become common place on phones, and one day they would have full internet access. “I just want to call and text mate” they would tell us. I bet they all have smartphones now!”

James: “Grapevine were also an early ambassador for all things “mobile data” from Psion Organisers, Apple Newton pocket computers, Possio Mobile Fax machines and our early foray into the world of Internet of Things, now a massive growth area in the industry. Despite our size we have always been ahead of the curve.”

The world closed out the 1990’s in a very different place to the beginning of the decade. The advancement of technology in both the consumer and business markets was ramping up and the high street was becoming a crowded space for retailers. The networks had begun to open their own stores to sell to customers direct. To avoid confusion Grapevine’s Vodafone branded premises became The Word in their final years.

Brian: “Speaking personally, I was never happy in the retail space and much more comfortable in the areas where I felt we could add value and develop long term relationships. For me the most defining memory was the green light from Vodafone to move out of the high street and fully concentrate on the B2B markets.”

Pete: “We were always more focused on B2B Business rather than retail/consumer business, so it was just the natural progression to move to offices on a business park.”

James: “As we scaled up our B2B activity in the late 90’s I was made Corporate Sales Manager and we opened a commercial unit on the Nuffield Industrial Estate not far from where we’re based in Poole today, to service local business clients, complete with vehicle installation facilities.”

Brian: “After selling the retail stores in Dorset we took rented premises in the Winfrith Technology Centre, consolidated our customer base, then later moved to Poole in 2004.”

10 years on from the initial opportunity seen by Brian and Pete to enter the telecoms industry, the future looked just as bright, to borrow a well-known slogan from a network at the time.

Pete: “As the 1990’s closed a 3G auction was conducted by the Government. What 3G did was to introduce the internet onto mobile phones, suddenly you could send and receive emails, surf the internet, get map and satnav directions, download music and videos, Banking and so on. 3G led to 4G and now we’re seeing the dawn of 5G. Your phone became a mini computer. Apps and social media followed, suddenly the world was in your phone!”

Brian: “Even back in the late 1980’s I felt that this industry would outlive my working life, but I did not anticipate the sheer speed of technological advances in the internet, camera and memory capacity that has resulted in the power and integration of the mobile devices that we have today.”

Next time, 2001 – 2011: The new millennium ushers in a new era for Grapevine as the company begins to reshape into the business we know today.

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