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Monday, 27 February 2017

Growing Up Dickens: Tim Dickens Profiled

As the youngest of the three Dickens boys, young Timothy (“Dog” to his family, although no-one is certain of the exact origins of this nickname; its genesis seems to be lost in complex Dickens family lore) offers a unique perspective on what it was like growing up in a house headed by two dynamic captains of industry as they grew their fledgling business from humble grassroots beginnings into a global access automation empire.

Born in the same year that CENTURION was founded, Tim had a twin far more demanding and mercurial than most who have shared womb and zygote and, while not necessarily having had to compete with the business – for nothing is ever that clear cut – Tim must have felt the company’s every success and stumbling block quite keenly. I teamed up once more with CENTURION market researcher Ruane Bester, with whom I penned a lengthy piece of editorial for the company’s 30th anniversary newsletter last year, to talk to Tim about the highs and the lows, the apex and the nadir, of growing up Dickens and what that celebrated name so steeped in literary history means to him.
Above: Tim is the youngest of the three Dickens boys

While his features are undeniably Dickensian – from the playful, pale blue eyes that belie a Nordic ancestry to the intense, artistic lips – when Tim speaks, it’s with a voice all his own. 


Following in the footsteps of father Pat and brother Rob, Tim holds degrees in electrical engineering as well as information technology, both of which he obtained from the University of Johannesburg.

While he professes a lifelong love for tinkering with electronics and, as he put it, “taking things apart”, it was the dynamic and fast-paced world of IT that ultimately stole his heart.

“I always wanted to be an engineer,” says Tim of his choice in tertiary education, citing his dad – an electrical engineer by trade - as a major influence. “I grew up with tools around me [this statement harks back to Dickens matriarch Anne’s declaration that Tim didn’t have many conventional toys growing up] and, you know, pulling things apart, and it just felt like it opened up a lot of doors”.

While Tim only joined CENTURION as a full time employee in 2011, the fact that he was born into an expanding family business, and given his considerable technical abilities, means that there wasn’t ever really a “time before CENTURION”. He had always been involved in one way or another and, by the time that he officially joined the ranks of South Africa’s foremost access automation manufacturer, young Master Dickens was intimately acquainted with the company’s network infrastructure.

“I’ve always worked at Centurion Systems [laughs]. So, when I was probably, like, seven or eight, I would be there doing stocktaking. Being, I guess, a family business I was always involved. It’s where Mom and Dad worked and, if you wanted to see Mom and Dad, you know, you’d go to work with them and if you went to work [with them], you’d have to make yourself useful”.

Tim recalls his introduction to the world of work being rather labour-intensive and, by certain standards, less than glamorous but nevertheless instilled in him the incredible work ethic that has, along with his characteristic razor sharp wit and often seemingly extemporaneous quips, become Tim Dickens trademarks.

“I can remember packing screws. We [CENTURION] used to, you know, send it [the gate motors] out with a mounting plate and you’d have, like, five bolts, three washers, two lock washers…and I was one of the guys who got to pack some of those”.

With a foundation laid by a childhood spent in the midst of industry and infused with the entrepreneurial spirit of his parents, Tim entered the labour force and spent a number of years working part-time for a well-known manufacturer of consumer electronics.

Of course, the same entrepreneurial spirit that had compelled the elder Dickens to start his own business was also present in young Tim and, while still attending high school, he added “DJ for hire” to his résumé.

“I started my own DJ-ing business with a friend whose dad used to be a musician, so we were able to use [my friend’s dad’s] equipment – you know, speakers and stuff - when we just started out. We eventually made enough to buy our own stuff”.

Tim has long since hung up his headphones, however, and nowadays he turns to music purely for recreational purposes and no longer to lure limber bodies onto the dancefloor. These days, the only decks he comes into contact with are the ones aboard yachts when he goes sailing with his uncle Richard.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Tim of the fine art of bringing beats to the masses. “It takes up a lot of time, a lot of practice…you always have to be up to date with the latest music”.

During the famous techno-boom of the 1980s – a subject about which much has already been written – many a start-up failed due to lack of funding or simply because mounting internecine pressures led the founders to abandon their ventures in favour of job security and a more stable income. We wanted to know from Tim whether CENTURION ever faced any of these struggles during those early days, and how the demands of a business still in its infancy affected him and his family.

“Mom and Dad were always very careful and I always remember, you know, there wasn’t like, excessive money. I used to run around in these raggy [sic] old clothes most of the time at home, so it wasn’t like fancy clothes or anything like that. We didn’t go out often. But there was always food on the table and we went to private schools and when there was, you know, a school camp, Mom and Dad were able to say: ‘you’ll go on this school camp’. We only really went out on special occasions, and then it was one drink. It became sort of a running joke. All the excess money Mom and Dad used to just sort of push back into the company. We didn’t have M-Net, we didn’t have DSTV or any of these fancy things”.


Like his parents and brothers Rob and Nick (and not forgetting the always-entertaining and erudite Uncle Richard Rohman), Tim Dickens is witty, well-spoken and always willing to lend a helping hand. He has carved an impressive path for himself through both his academic and professional accomplishments, and we expect great things from the young man known as Dog in the future. Watch this space.