As is the case with most successful entrepreneurs, it is possible to look at the winner of this year’s MicroScope Awards for Channel Excellence lifetime achievement award, Sir Peter Rigby, and gloss over the hard work and visionary career that has got him to where he is now.
Where he is now is sitting at the helm of a business that employs 7,000 people. As chairman of Specialist Computer Holdings, which has operations across Europe, he runs one of the most successful private companies in the channel.
But things might have been different if his American employer back in the late 1970s had not stuck to a policy of flying in US managers to run things, leading a young and ambitious Rigby to go it alone.
He used his knowledge of the labour-intensive and complex world of mainframes to start a computer consultancy business, but the stakes were high from the beginning. He put up £2,000 of his own money, despite having a mortgage and a young family.
“It was a question of what you could afford to do. I didn’t borrow money or get a bank overdraft, and what can you do at that stage? All you have is knowledge. I had been in the mainframe business, which was a capital intensive and highly complex area of computing at that time,” he recalls.
Then Rigby spotted the potential of IBM and Compaq’s entry into the personal computer market and became one of the vendors’ first dealers.
“The mentality of those mainframe people in the early 1980s was that these things [PCs] were a fashion and they would never be adopted in the corporate environment. I thought they would be connected devices, so right from the start we integrated that technology. I was very comfortable because of my background, looking at large deals and dealing with corporate entities and giving them competitive technology,” he says.
A great honour
Few people in the computer industry have been recognised with a knighthood.
But among the select list is Sir Peter Rigby, who was awarded his honour in 2002, the Queen’s Jubilee year, for his services to information technology and to business in the Midlands.
Getting knighted along with Rigby that year were Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones, artist Peter Blake, actor and director Jonathan Miller, and the historian best known for his studies of Hitler, Professor Ian Kershaw.
Those channel veterans who can still remember the golden years of the early channel will have tears in their eyes over Rigby’s description of the PC market landscape in 1983.
“If you were selling technology in 1983 with IBM, you were selling a 10MB hard drive machine with a slow processor retailing at £5,000-£6,000 with a 40% gross margin.
“Today they are sub £400 and you are lucky to see a couple of points of margin on that. Plus it was a rising market, so right through until the late 1990s technology was growing worldwide.”
He says the market developed so quickly that any business involved in technology could not fail to succeed, particularly one that was good at what it did. “I firmly believe you have to be in the right place at the right time and you have to be associated with an idea that has mileage in it. I was fortunate to be there at the start of the PC boom,” he adds.
Despite the strength of the market, some others that started out in the 1980s were unable to adapt their businesses and expectations as things changed, but Rigby managed not only to survive, but to grow through three significant recessions before the current one hit.
“A lot of entrepreneurs start things but do not manage things. Before I started, I had experience as a manager. I have always enjoyed the entrepreneurial aspects, but equally I have been prepared to run the business in an efficient way. The margins now are a fraction of what they were, and this is a very unforgiving business – if you don’t get it right, you pay the price,” he says.
“You have to be prepared for change and must be prepared to make tough decisions. The benefit of being a private company is that you can afford to experiment. SCH has always been able to look at new ideas and new technologies; some have gone wrong, but some have been right. But if I was running a public company, I would be more conservative and have longer lines to manage before making decisions,” he adds.
A growing family
One of the words that comes up in a discussion about how SCH has developed from a small UK-based business to one that straddles the continent is “culture”. Rigby has kept the family-run business feel through employee empowerment, creating small teams and giving local country leaders a degree of autonomy.
As the business grew, so did the opportunity to expand, and SCH took its first steps into Europe not as a buyer but as a partner, before it took the acquisition route.
In the early 1990s, the way to do that was through associations. But to deal with multinational corporations there needed to be a common approach across territories. “That led to a feeling that we had to have our own 100% owned subsidiaries. It was too late to start at square one so we had to make acquisitions.”
In 2001, SCH invested over £100m in a series of continental acquisitions. Rigby describes the move as a major change that took the business into a new era. The level of European business has continued to grow, and provided 65% of revenues this year.
IT must pay its way
Bringing the story of the career that resulted in SCH up to date, thoughts turn to the current recession.
Rigby talks about holding firm and keeping its commitment to plans on track, as well as keeping projects going. “These things are not necessarily related to the bottom line, but they do relate to our future. We are trading in very difficult times, so IT has to be totally cost justified. It is no longer a must-have or fashion – it has to pay its way. IT is an essential ingredient to any company’s future,” he says.
The culture that SCH has developed internally is being spread through its supply chain, and although it is still a test of relationships, supportive decisions are being made that will benefit resellers and customers.
“We are consistently making difficult decisions at our expense to support resellers and customers that we value and have built good relationships with over many years. I have always taken the view that SCH stands by its customers in good times and bad times,” he concludes.