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McDonalds-card-toting Softcat boss: I couldn't tell you how a computer works

Hellawell on being 'tight' - and his part in Thatcher's downfall

Three jobs, three country ops, living in two countries...

Hellawell carried the Olympic torch through the London Borough of Hillingdon on behalf of Softcat employees on 24 July 2012.

"I thought it would be a six-month project - so [I] commuted from London to Paris for three years and kept the UK job as well. [On top of that] we'd started making acquisitions - we bought a company in Belgium and Germany. So I had [three country operations] reporting to me. It was a busy old time."

Then the first of Hellawell's two daughters arrived, so he returned to the UK to take the COO role at an e-procurement firm that was spun out of CC, called Biomni.

The company built a a rudimentary e-commerce system that allowed customers to ascertain what kit that was in stock, see its price, and then order.

"There was a couple of companies that came to the market back in the days - Ariba and Commerce One - that were worth billions but did exactly what our system had always done," he said.

As a business that was connected to a dotcom biz, Biomni became suddenly more visible to investors, but that high profile didn't survive the dotcom bust.

However Biomni is one of those rare beasts - a dotcom business that is still around today.

By this point Hellawell had spent a dozen years with CC and said he'd thought: "It was time for a change - I wasn't enjoying it as much, it had become a big company by then."

So is it the small business sector that the man found enticing?

"To be honest I think it is - I hate saying it in a way because sooner or later if you are successful you get bigger so it limits my time span in a way.

"But I did struggle at CC when it got big, I found it harder to get things done and I didn't have that same nice family feel about it because I didn't know people in the same way. I think CC coped with the growth as well as any company but you get big and it's harder. It's the bureaucracy."

His exit from the mothership was protracted. He agreed a deal with CC head honcho Norris to stay on board on a short-term contract and was dispatched to seal the acquisition of GE in the UK and France.

Hellawell looks back on his time at CC and Norris with a lot of fondness, "I learned a lot from him and that has continued to help me throughout my career. I was lucky to be part of that business."

New Zealand dreams

By 2002, Hellawell considered following friends that had emigrated to New Zealand but the birth of his son put paid to that idea.

Another friend in Blighty called to say BT was considering a move into the reseller channel and needed to some advice on acquisition targets.

"I didn't take a full-time job but went in as a consultant for a while, the project was [looking at if BT] should become an IT reseller."

BT went on in subsequent years to buy dabs, Basilica and Lynx some years later.

After reaching a professional and personal crossroads Hellawell says he made a "very poor career decision".

"So New Zealand was out of the window and it was 'What should I do'? And that is where I made my career mistake really, driven by a number of things. My boy, who at the time was three, was diagnosed with autism and that was quite a big shock for us."

Hellwawell wanted close interaction with the family - parents and a sibling lived in Birmingham, "so I went and joined SCH Group" - arch rival to CC.

He went on board as European operations director to manage four countries.

"[I] thought I would have more of a family support network up there to help with my son Mathew, and the second driver was that I thought this reselling business is in the blood, it's what I enjoy doing and they've got big European aspirations. My background is in Europe.

"What they were asking for was not competitive with what I'd done at CC, I rationalised that CC had done well by me over the years and I'd done well by them so we were quits and I could go there with a clean conscience. But it wasn't for me, I got there and knew it was a big risk.

"Sir Peter [Rigby, SCH chairman] and I had a deal [that I would] commute for six months from London, [and] if after six months we both felt it was right, then I'd move up to the area."

But the fit wasn't as snug as they'd hoped.

"It just wasn't working for a couple of reasons really - I'd underestimated how much emotion there was in business. I looked at it logically that I'd had a contract with CC and it was finished but when I was at SCH it felt like I was behind enemy lines. It didn't feel comfortable, didn't feel like I should be there, it didn't feel right and I'd probably lost confidence as well at that stage."

The man and SCH parted on mutually good terms. Hellawell says the company looked after him, and it was he who was not able to adjust to life at SCH.

"SCH treated me well but I was a fish out of water and didn't perform there, I was rubbish and unless I'm making a contribution I can't be happy."

Hellawell says he suffers from diffidence which always lurks in the background - quite a contrast to the personable, seemingly confident young man who travelled across France handing out pink slips.

"I've always had a confidence issue, don't know why but I've always had a bit of anxiety. I see it as good and bad really: good that it keeps you on your toes so you never get complacent, and generally I don't come across to people as arrogant. I'm quite shy," he says.

For the first time in his career "I was a bit lost". The BT and SCC experiences had knocked him, and at 39 he was seemingly heading toward a midlife crisis.

"I was a workaholic, but I thought 'I didn't enjoy that, I've checked out from [it] all'. [So I] got into the autism stuff, got involved in different projects and charities, got really involved with my son."

Direct-sale PC business, HP? You don't say....

He started on a consultancy basis at Canalys, to keep the "brain ticking over", advising on vendors' channel strategies - including those of HP when it was mulling over plans to develop a direct-sale PC business in the corporate enterprise, around 2004.

"But consultancy is different to working inside a business and I missed having people around me - [which is when I] got the call from Softcat."

This was more than eight years ago. Softcat had a turnover of £45m, £1m profits and employed 90 staff. Hellawell went to the interview for the MD's role, meeting with eight managers who would report to him.

"When I got a call from the headhunter, I said I'm happy to go along and talk to them but I'm not looking to re-engage, I've checked out of the corporate thing, I'm sort of done."

Softcat is located in Marlow and Hellawell's base was in London - Highgate to be precise, the home and final resting place of socialist icon Karl Marx.

He was offered the job but refused it, so Softcat hatched a plan to get Hellawell on board by other means - a short-term consulting contract.

"It was a bit like the Robert Redford film Brubaker where he goes into the prison as an inmate for three months testing out what it's like and then says 'I'm the new governor'.

"From day one I realised I could definitely work there - there were lots of young guys, it was even younger than now but was a good company, nothing was broken," he adds.

Former chairman Peter Kelly - now non-exec chairman - had stepped back from daily operations and the business "lacked somebody to pull the thing together and give a bit of leadership and direction".

The sales mix was nearly all Microsoft licensing, leaving it incredibly vulnerable to the whims of Redmond and limiting its interaction with customers.

Today Softcat turns over more than £300m and made a £22m profit in its last full fiscal year, employing 500 people.

This is without making a single acquisition, so the firm is rightly envied and admired by rivals. It resells hardware, software and some services.

"It became company strategy that we'd sell everything into our core accounts and then we wanted to win lots and lots of new accounts and that is where the new sales guys came in.

"Last year alone we won 1,440 customers that we had never traded with before, I'm sure we lost some through mergers or had people that bought something from us and didn't like us but its a very small number - between 20 and 40," he claims.

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