In the kitchen near Group of Gold Line's executive suite, Ata Moeini and his daughter, Anissa, tuck into plates heaped with saffron rice and lamb kebabs. The surroundings, typical of a suburban Toronto office park, may be mundane, but the aroma is exotic—emblematic of a company, called GL for short, that is anything but white-bread.
Ata, the affable, shrewd 69-year-old patriarch of this unique communications company, likes to see his employees eat a decent lunch, and he makes sure GL offers something appealing each day. Indeed, the 250-employee firm, founded by Ata and his wife, Neda, in 1991, has the feel of a large and somewhat eccentric family.
GL started out by selling low-cost calling cards to diaspora communities (the Moenis themselves came to Canada from Iran, via Germany, in 1988). But the company has grown to own half the Canadian calling-card market. And it has expanded into niches that include Internet telephony, web printing, digital signage, cloud hosting, high-definition radio, live-streaming digital TV channels from around the world, apps, WiFi…basically, whatever sticks when it comes to connecting newcomers with home. GL's customers are all over the world. "We don't believe in borders," says Anissa. "Any product we create is scalable." (The privately held firm doesn't disclose its revenues.)
"My dad looks for needs in society," explains Anissa, 30, the face of the company and its vice-president of business development (her brother, Borna, is director, digital advertising). "Dad saw very quickly that [immigrants] missed home." He knew, because he did, too. Ata also recognized that GL's first-generation-Canadian customers—people from all over the Middle East and Asia—often prefer to deal with someone who speaks their own language. In the face of mass outsourcing across the telecommunications world, Ata insisted from the start on operating a 24/7 in-house call centre at head office, staffed with employees conversant in Kurdish, Arabic, Mandarin and so on. "People thought we were crazy for keeping it internal," says Anissa.
The decision was partly grounded in Ata's hunch that the indifferent customer service offered by giant carriers like Rogers and Bell is an opportunity just yelling to be tapped. In the past year, Ata's intuition was borne out as GL has seen a onetime cost centre become a profit centre. Via a contract with an Oakville, Ontario, firm, Carta Worldwide, GL will deliver technical support for Vodafone customers who subscribe to the European telecom giant's so-called digital wallet app—basically, using your smartphone as a tap-and-pay device.
The rollout began last year in Spain and Italy, and will extend to Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands this year, says GL's vice-president of product development, Mana Shafai. "It was interesting that we had a European phone company come to us [via Carta]," she says.
The deal, Shafai says, positions GL for the looming big-bang moment in global mobile payments. "We'll be ahead of everyone else in terms of knowledge."
The Vodafone coup coincides with another European deal: In partnership with a subsidiary of Deutsche Telecom, GL will offer discount prepaid WiFi to intercontinental Lufthansa passengers.
The venture both harks back to GL's earliest business and speaks to its drive—not always successful—to keep apace with technological change. When it became clear that the Internet would present competition to conventional telephony, GL began selling voice over Internet protocol boxes. That's now a declining business, but a decade ago, a GL software developer predicted that streaming would become huge, which inspired the firm to develop its own protocol. It recently relaunched a Skype-like service that allows users to video-chat while watching streaming content.
Streaming is, in itself, a boon; in recent years, Gold Line has snapped up global rights to 800 digital channels from all parts of the world. Users can watch Saudi newscasts and Chinese talk shows on their smartphones. In fact, the company negotiated an exclusive deal with the Chinese government to distribute its channels internationally—an arrangement Anissa describes only as "interesting and different."
Now the cloud beckons. In one corner of GL's building is a chilly space full of servers, with plenty of room to expand. Anissa says the firm has gotten into cloud hosting and has rounded up several large clients, many of them based in the tech zone in northeast Toronto (ironically, proximity counts in the cloud business).
How did they know there was a market? At one point, GL had to go out and lease servers for its own operations. Ata quickly realized that if his company needed the service, others do, too, and so GL Cloud was born.
For now, however, Bell and Rogers needn't worry about a frontal assault from GL. As they have from the start, the Moeinis prefer to focus on under-serviced immigrant communities. As Anissa says, "We don't want to get a piece of pie that is being catered to by other people." They know there's plenty of other fare to go around.
Gold Line's golden hits
Calling-card contender GL has evolved into a content powerhouse, offering 800 live-stream TV channels and 50,000 digital radio stations through the GLWiZ app. Among the most-viewed TV stations:
BBC (Persian and Arabic)
Tolo TV (Afghan)