The secret of my success

Frank Lane has shot from nowhere to running a successful advertising business, on the back of an HND in technology. He talks...

Frank Lane has shot from nowhere to running a successful advertising business, on the back of an HND in technology. He talks about how his IT background prepared him for a management role

Meet Frank Lane - computer programmer and chief executive. Lane runs Image, the Sussex-based company that prints the advertisements you see on the back of bus and train tickets. It also designs the adverts, develops its own print technology, and runs a sideline in Web design.

Lane is someone who learns a new language every month. The key to success, he says, is to "stay constantly in school", and he has retained his technical skills while learning management.

After completing his HND in the early 1980s he landed a job with US company MKD Data Systems, writing software for point-of-sale systems in restaurants.

Fate then intervened twice. First, his entrepreneurial father spotted the chance to buy a paper company at a knock-down price and persuaded Lane to help him run the enterprise. Then, while Lane was still in his 20s, his father suddenly died. Lane inherited the firm, and decided to keep it going
It was tough, not least because the company was then little more than a commodity firm, supplying rolls of paper for cash tills and bus ticket machines. Lane and a colleague, Jeremy Burbidge, set about automating processes and improving quality, but there was little added value and margins were low.

Then they hit upon the idea of printing advertisements on the back of tickets. The idea was that, in the case of travel tickets, here was an empty space on a piece of paper that people had to retain by law. The first adverts included money-off deals at fast food outlets that became so popular that school children used to get on a bus, buy a ticket and hop straight off again.

Image moved to mainstream advertising, persuading big London agencies to switch clients such as Marks & Spencer and Calvin Klein from TV to bus tickets. Image's marketing director Martin Henson developed the design skills of the company to such a degree that he is often commissioned to come up with both the slogan and the layout.

Technology has made it all possible. Printing high-resolution colour in tiny spaces is technically difficult, so Image pioneered its own processes, developing a unique system that did away with the need for film.

Lane finds that, as a techie, he is as well placed as anyone to run a business. He is amazed when he hears of large companies operating without an IT director on the board. "It is like saying 'we do not need a finance director or a company secretary'," he says. Firms are misled into "over-specifying systems or ordering the wrong systems".

Lane hires his own programmers. He knows enough about the systems to be able to project-manage those writing the code. This is a rare luxury for a small or medium-sized company and it gives him tailor-made software. "This enables us to keep the software and its abilities growing with the business all the time," he says.

Six months ago, for example, Image began using Wap mobile Internet technology. Sales people at a meeting can tap into the company's network through their mobiles wherever they are and book advertising space. Prices, availability and so on are updated in real time.

"Wap has had a bad press, but the latest generation of phones is very usable. As long as you keep it efficient and text-based you can make the most of the bandwidth available," says Lane.

Efficient use of computing power is something he learned early. He values one experience that only a few people - mostly from his generation - have had; that of building a PC from components. "I was brought up putting computers together from scratch, for example the Sinclair ZX81. You would solder the components in and get it working with the TV set. You are involved in every aspect; learning what the components do and trying to make it work," he says.

You had to be highly disciplined on what to store when memory was a humble 32Kbytes of Ram. "As we have seen computers increase in power people have abused the power by writing software that is fat, overweight and fancy," says Lane. "The hard drive fills up just as quickly as it did in the 1980s."

His background helps to inform his purchasing decisions today. "As a company we were putting new machines into the artwork department at least every 18 months because there was a new version of Photoshop or Illustrator. Over the past few years that requirement has gone away. As later versions do not require any more power, some machines are three to four years old and no one is complaining."

This technical awareness may inform a company's strategy, but how does the
IT specialist learn management?

"I have learned a lot from reading and a lot from simply making mistakes," Lane says. He devours business journals and books, and values his membership of the Institute of Directors.

In 1998 Lane and his team entered the institute's Strategic Challenge, in which real management teams compete in a simulated business game. Despite being pitted against blue chip firms, Image came second overall.

"IT people have got away with being uncommercial and not having knowledge of the business. That has got to change now," he says.

A perennial danger for the technically aware in business is the risk of being seduced by the most attractive technology, rather than the most attractive revenue earner. Too many dotcoms rushed to get the latest animation on the site, which often just irritated the user.

Wiser firms are studying ergonomics and what the e-customer actually wants, says Lane, who has advised other firms on designing their Web sites.

Despite his busy schedule, Lane still finds time for music. He plays keyboards, joining with marketing director Martin Henson on guitar. Even in his musical career, the winning habit is difficult to shrug off. "We won Sussex pub band of the year once," he confesses.

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