Former refugee and cricket fan faces ultimate test as tech firm takes on the world – Sydney Morning Herald


He started coming to grips with the English language through his new Australian friends, and also began his love affair with cricket.

“I never thought I could love something more than soccer,” he says, referring to Australia’s “awesome” victory in the first Ashes test which had just finished.

The game took pride of place in Mirkazemi’s life as he began the long journey from a teenage refugee who could not speak a word of English to being the chief executive of one of Australia’s multibillion-dollar tech stocks, Altium, and plotting a dominant position for it in the $US2 trillion ($3 trillion) electronics industry.

With cricket you have to deal with every ball on its merit. Business decisions are like that, life is like that, you have to wait until it comes at you and sometimes you go on the front foot sometimes you go on the back foot.

Aram Mirkazemi

The company is now worth $4.9 billion and has an ambitious target of $500 million in revenue by 2025.

Altium’s extraordinary success has made Mirkazemi a $350 million fortune as the company’s share price has soared from 12¢ to more than $37 today.

The company’s software designs the electronic circuitry which is at the heart of a growing range of everyday goods which are being connected to the internet.

The market has rewarded Altium for maintaining what Mirkazemi describes in the annual report as its “line and length strategy”: Increase revenues by 20 per cent a year while expanding its profit margins and investing in strategic growth opportunities.

“I love analogies,” says Mirkazemi, who peppers his speech and business presentations with cricket terms like line and length despite the obvious trouble he has had conveying the term to his US colleagues at Altium’s headquarters in San Diego.

“I went on the web and read everything there is about line and length but unfortunately it does not really convey.”

You sense that it will never diminish his enthusiasm.

“I think cricket is the best analogy for how life is. With most other (sports), you play premeditated shots, you have set pieces and so on. With cricket you have to deal with every ball on its merit. Business decisions are like that, life is like that, you have to wait until it comes at you and sometimes you go on the front foot sometimes you go on the back foot,” he says.

Mirkazemi was definitely on the front foot when he started a bachelor of engineering at the University of Tasmania within weeks of his arrival in Australia despite his lack of English.

It was through his other love, soccer, that he met a teacher at the university, Nick Martin, who had started a company called Protel in frustration at the cost of software design tools for the electronic circuitry.

The company was renamed Altium before its listing on the Australian stock exchange 20 years ago, but Martin’s relationship with the company, and with Mirkazemi, did not survive his ouster by the board in 2012.

Altium chairman Sam Weiss.

Altium chairman Sam Weiss.Credit:Louie Douvis

Altium’s current chairman Sam Weiss said at the time that while Altium’s assets and technical innovation had always been strong “the company has underperformed against the opportunity”.

Martin, who was the biggest shareholder, sold all of his shares for $40 million. The same shares today would be worth about $800 million.

Obscure sector explodes

For Mirkazemi, the real sadness is that his relationship with Martin never mended.

“This is the only sad part about Altium’s journey. I so hope that he could one day share in the success that Altium has had and see the fruits of his work,” he says.

But he did not let the disruption of losing his friend and the driving force behind the firm distract from the massive opportunity that was already evident.

Mirkazemi’s ascension to the top job in 2014 came with this obscure sector of the engineering world about to explode and completely change the game for market players such as Altium.

According to Mirkazemi, to understand the opportunity that lies ahead for Altium, one has to understand the profound transformation underway thanks to the intersecting megatrends of cloud computing, big data, artificial intelligence, and the mobile revolution which is being turbocharged with 5G.

What matters to Altium is that all of these things, at their heart, have electronics.

“In order for anything to connect to that system it needs to have electronics in it, and at the heart of electronics is the printed circuit board (PCB). All things electronic, they need a PCB for them to function and Altium software is about designing the electronics on the PCB,” says Mirkazemi.


Altium is providing the tools that design the electronic heart necessary for every consumer and industrial good that needs to join the digital world, from cars to fridges and mobile phones, plus a bewildering array of industrial applications which are also being made possible by this Internet of Things.

Altium’s financial performance in recent years has defied the critics – and sharemarket gravity – as the market attaches extraordinary valuations to its plan for dominating PCB design.

The company said its sales in China continued to record the strongest revenue growth across its geographic markets as it reported a 41 per cent rise in net profit to $US52.9 million for the year ending June 30, revenue increased 23 per cent to $US171.8 million.

Leap of faith

Even Altium fans concede that investing is a bit of a leap of faith at current price levels.

TMS Capital’s Ben Clark says the argument over its price has been going on as long as he has followed the stock.

“We bought into Altium at $4.90 and we were told by many analysts that it was too expensive back then, and you fast forward to today (and it’s $37),” he says.

Even TMS has sold some of its Altium shares recently to take profits after an extraordinary run. Clark admits that on a one to two year view of the company it does look expensive and it is hard to warrant the price.

“But I think if you buy the stock today and you are still holding it in 2025 with a view that they will hit these targets, I think you will make a very good return,” he says.

Macquarie Equities says that while Altrium’s profitability sets it apart from its tech peers, the investment bank warns that “some caution is warranted in pricing the long-term execution into Altium’s valuation today”.

But Altium’s most audacious plan goes beyond the goal of reaching $500 million revenue by 2025 and dominating the market for software design tools.

The company wants to use this position of market dominance to become the unifying platform for the fragmented $US2 trillion electronics industry.

Altium’s opportunity has come from the fact that electronics was never meant to be the industry giant it has become.

Evolution of electronics

It started life with the widespread use of radio last century, as a sideshow to mainstream engineering disciplines.

It is an attitude that survives today. Companies have regarded electronics as an outsourced component. The problem is, in a world where everything is digitised and increasingly connected, electronics is everywhere.

“Modern cars, not even electric cars, they’ve got nearly 40 per cent to 50 per cent of their costs associated with electronics. For them it is important to be able to trace those components and those parts and have a lot more visibility into them, but the whole engineering world, the whole platform is not really set up for that,” says Mirkazemi.

Altium’s goal is to connect the entire supply chain from the design of the board to the suppliers manufacturers and the end customer using it.

As Mirkazemi puts it, in order to be able to change the way the electronics industry works you need to be able to standardise on one platform, like the graphics industry did with Photoshop or Microsoft’s dominance of the operating system and productivity tools market.

It won’t be easy.

“We would very much like to reach that level of dominance … but then be able to translate that into transformation, which is very critical, you don’t want to lose the trust of customers in that process.”

It will be a delicate juggle between the incremental improvement of existing practices needed to reach market dominance and the disruption necessary to transform archaic practices, which means the designers, suppliers, chip makers and product manufacturers have little visibility of what each participant is doing.

“It’s almost a century of behaviour that needs to be disrupted, and we’ve got to be able to do those two things simultaneously,” says Mirkazemi.

He has other issues to worry about as well.

Altium and the electronics industry as a whole straddle the key geopolitical faultline between the US and China and the volatile trade war. Altium’s grand plan requires dominance of both markets.

The company also needs to build up talent at a time when borders are closing around the globe, and not just to refugees.

And I believe humanity will rise to these challenges like it has done in the past, and these things will pass and humanity will prevail.

Aram Mirkazemi

For Altium, one answer has been to set up offices across 15 countries, including China, Vietnam and Russia.

It means a lot of cultural integration is needed given the company has fewer than 1000 employees so there is no avoiding the need to deal with each other.

“Bringing in talent and getting the culture right, that is the challenge of the 21st century,” Mirkazemi says.

“With all of the advancements in the way that people communicate I feel that migration is less of a problem for us and it is more of being able to bring people with different cultural backgrounds, different professional backgrounds, different ages, different disciplines and getting them to work effectively together,” he says. “And in order to do that you have to inspire them.”

He sees parallels with the world at large for his philosophy: “We have to look at our commonality not differences.”

Mirkazemi also sees parallels between the global problems that have engulfed the world from the financial crisis, to global warming, the humanitarian crisis and the rise of populists such as Donald Trump.

“I think the complexity of the problems that face humanity are at a level that is beyond any one nation, any one group of people to solve,” he says.

And even as a former refugee he can see how the major western nations could be feeling jaded after carrying the load for the humanitarian crisis for so long.

“I understand, it is not easy to be a refugee. I spent six months in Pakistan myself, so in no way am I saying that it is not a tragedy what is happening in the world.

“However the answer won’t come by trying to pinpoint who is to blame, we need to inspire those who can make a difference,” he says.

“And I believe humanity will rise to these challenges like it has done in the past, and these things will pass and humanity will prevail.”

As for the leader of his new homeland, Trump, Mirkazemi says we should not be disheartened.

“These are just things that are natural for a world that is trying to find an answer to try different things,” he says.

“The world has risen to challenges in the past that we would not have imagined to be overcome, and I believe the world and particularly the western world , will rise to these challenges they just need to be inspired.”

On this note, perhaps the final word should go to Baha’u’llah who founded the Bahai faith and its advocacy for universal peace and unity among all races, nations, and religions: “The Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

Perhaps Mirkazemi will have to put peace and harmony on hold until after the Ashes when the “Poms have been put back in their place”.

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