Big Interview

A day in the life of Charles Upchurch, chief executive, Global Message Services

Charles-Upchurch.jpg

While coming to terms with the culture shock remote working inflicted when it was forced on him in 2020, Charles Upchurch had beautiful Swiss scenery to gaze upon during his daily eight-kilometre walks.

“It took some getting used to, but one thing that I did do during that time was take a break at lunch and walk around the lake where we live,” the chief executive of Global Message Services (GMS) says. That, he says, was vital for his mental and physical wellbeing and is a practice that he continues today.

Upchurch is a Swiss citizen, but despite living in Europe for 30 years he is yet to shake off his noticeable American accent.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, which he describes as a “wonderful place”, Upchurch happily discusses his upbringing, and how a boy from the America’s South end up living by a Swiss lake.

“When I got out of university in the US in 1977, I took off travelling around the world,” he says. “I found the oil industry and saw that it could pay for my travelling. So I worked around the world and was living in the Caribbean.”

Little did Upchurch know what was in store for him in the exotic paradise he called home. It was there that he met a “wonderful Swiss lady” who was to become his wife. He followed her to Switzerland in 1983, and they were married three years later.

For more than 30 years, Upchurch held CEO roles for service and technology companies in Asia, Europe and North America. But now he is happily settled down.

“Switzerland is my home,” he says. Before joining GMS, which was founded in Ukraine, Upchurch ran several software companies and spearheaded an internet-of-things company for eight years.

“All of that has set me up nicely to lead GMS, because it needed to globalise and moved to Switzerland in 2014,” Upchurch says.

Since becoming the company’s CEO in 2020, he has worked tirelessly to expand the company’s business in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. “And our growth has been outstanding for the last three years,” he says.

Upchurch achieved this despite being recruited when Covid-19 outbreaks were about to become a global pandemic.

“That was a real shock, because everyone was going into the office. And the first thing that this [the pandemic] has done is redefine the purpose of the office,” he says. “Today we work with a hybrid policy, so that we only come to the office to be able to meet people, and to work together as teams and collaborate, and we do two days remote work.”

As many people struggled to adjust to the new working conditions, Upchurch found himself sitting in a chair for around 11 to 12 hours a day. He describes that transition from in-person meetings to video calls as “rude” – a sentiment certainly echoed by the rest of the industry.

Upchurch notes that while many businesses suffered during that testing period, GMS grew 60% per year. He describes GMS as a “trusted partner” between the largest global enterprises that sent SMS messages and OTT messages to their end-users.

During the pandemic, he says the number of messaging and applications that were activated increased as more people began to work from home.

“Another aspect of our business is that we’re trusted by mobile operators to protect their networks and help ensure that all of the SMS message that they’re receiving internationally are coming in the right channel and at the right tariff,” he says.

During this time, he adds, operators realised that this was an opportunity to optimise revenue at a time when it was declining and their subscriber base was taking hits.

“So operators turned to us quite a bit during the pandemic, and still are to protect their networks,” Upchurch says.

This meant Upchurch’s typical workday consists of dealing with several direct reports. With the rate that GMS is growing, this takes up the majority of

his time.

“We’ll come close to reaching US$400 million in revenue this year,” he says. With that growth and revenue comes several opportunities to scale. Upchurch says the nature of the business means he is sometimes involved with very large deals, some worth around US$100 million a year.

Upchurch adds that he is tasked with looking at whether those deals pose risks for the company.

“We have 400 employees, and the sheer volume of opportunities and issues that come up fills my day,” he says.

“Some of them planned, some not planned.”

Moving forward, Upchurch says it will be key for GMS to become a customer engagement partner for enterprises in all types of communications with end-users.

“That’s what we’re focused on,” he says.

“So our strategy now is to grow our enterprise-facing business, both organically and inorganically through acquisitions, in the next six to 12 months.”