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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

Accreditation, products, ISO? All irrelevant. It's about customer service

He reckons customer service is what sets the resellers apart - "what we, Kelway, BT Engage IT and everyone else does is sell the same products to the same people, we can all argue a toss about who has the better accreditation, building, ISO - it's irrelevant - it's about how passionate you are, what do you do, how much you care.

"When a customer asks for a quote in half an hour, do you get it to them before they want it? Once you've delivered, are you on the phone asking if its all OK, is the customer happy? Anything else we can do? Most businesses not just in IT are appalling at that.

"We think that if you appoint more salespeople you'll sell more stuff, so we employed a lot more people."

Half of the current workers are salespeople and it is has a flourishing graduate recruitment model that many other resellers including mid-market giant Kelway are trying to mimic.

"That is the thing we've done differently, others were trying to stick to the traditional model of nicking someone from a competitor, try to get them to bring their book of accounts over to milk those relationships. But a lot of those guys are transient, and surprise, surprise - 18 months later they are going to the next place, taking some of the accounts with them, are a bit jaded, and don't have the same level of energy anymore."

This grad programme was already up and running when Hellawell joined but he aggressively pushed it, in fact half of the firm's current directors joined this way.

"We accelerated the graduate training programme, increased the volume and ambitions at a time when most of our competitors were battening down the hatches, they got spooked by the recession [in 2008]. We saw it as an opportunity to take market share."

He says momentum is a great thing but it also helps if the boss is insanely competitive, which could be a consequence of lacking confidence - going the extra mile to prove oneself.

"I've always been ridiculously competitive, once I'm in something I want to win and do really well, push myself as far as I can. I've fallen out with mates over the rules of monopoly because I get so intense about it. I am pretty intense. So once I'm in something I want to do the best I can."

Hellawell insists: "You make you own luck, but Sofcat hasn't done anything clever. [We have] managed to keep the momentum going ... we've been riding that wave and at some point something will go wrong and we'll get into that difficult bit where you have to manage expectations going the wrong way. It hasn't happened yet."

Perhaps steering clear of time-consuming complex acquisitions has helped?

"We could have done acquisitions - there are benefits to that in terms of turnover but you make your business a lot more complicated because you've got systems and cultures to integrate and in doing that it's very difficult to focus on core business and keep going. We've tried to resist any temptation of stuff like acquisitions.

"In the seven years I've been here we've put in one indicative offer, early stage offer for one company - can't say who it is but they weren't a big company."

Staff retention is one of the keys, he says, there are high churn rates among the graduates with roughly 65 per cent of them making it past the 12 months. He adds: "But once they get through year one they stay forever."

The scheme is not easy money; grads are at their desks at 8.30am each morning, working into the early evening, before going home to revise in preparation for the next day's examinations.

"It is pressure, real pressure - 80 cold calls a day," he says, "If you are leaving university and you want a job for a few quid before you go travelling don't join Softcat because there are a lot of easier ways."

He says the company tries to make people feel like they are part of the culture, scheduling weekly meetings in the canteen, sharing financial date, handing out sales records and er... providing an ironing service.

"It's a company, not a kibbutz, but there is a lot of employee engagement in the whole thing."

It is testament to Hellawell and Softcat management that they continue to recruit graduates to work in a sector - the channel - which is no longer seen as a growth market and is one that has matured.

Indeed reselling has a bad rep, even the term rankles business owners, as it connotes a middleman not adding anything to the sale but taking a financial cut for passing on a box or a licence.

"It has become less fashionable but I think we do give it a good name," he says, "I am very comfortable with the word reseller and we call ourselves an IT reseller even though many people are trying to move away from that term. There will always be a growing requirement to sell stuff to businesses and public sector and that is what we do.

Cloud? Off-premise IT kit by any name is gold...

In an industry renowned for marketing bluster that always talks up the next big thing, the cloud has been hyped to death. But Hellawell believes it will change the shape of on-premise tech delivery.

"It might be meaningless as a word," he says, "but we are seeing a definite upturn in the amount of customers that want to take IT kit off their premises into a data centre and then connect to it through that data centre. Whether that is 'cloud' or just 'data centre' in a different package I don't know, but that is the shift we are seeing.

"Do I think 35 per cent of what we're selling today will probably be up there in that cloud somewhere? Probably, but I'll be selling it so I don't really care. We are ultimately a salesforce.

"Whether it's on-premise, off-premise, I don't know - I'm not that clever. [I] don't need to be because we'll let the market work that out."

Clearly the man has a passion for the channel.

"I'm very competitive in spirit but I love seeing other companies do well - there are certain people that I know from the past who think it is odd that you talk to your competitors, because they are the enemy - and you are supposed hate them. I've never felt that.

"I'm fascinated to watch companies like Bechtle, Computacenter, Kelway and Trustmarque and how they are developing, and I'm very happy to share notes. I'll take and give mentoring and coaching."

So what's in store for the man and the company?

The plan for Softcat is to hit £365m in fiscal 2013 ending this July and the next milestone is £500m with a business plan to get there within three years.

Today Softcat's business mix is 35 per cent software, the same again on hardware infrastructure and then roughly 15 per cent each on security and services.

It is a top performing partner for most of the vendors it works with, just look at the almost embarrassing haul of trophies in its foyer. So has Hellawell got one eye on the door?

The trophy cupboard at Softcat

"There isn't an exit strategy, you can never say never and ultimately it's a board decision, but personally I'd rather not have any exit," he says.

Hellawell moved upstairs to the CEO's office last autumn, with former CC colleague Colin Brown vacating his services director post at Microsoft to become Softcat's MD.

But hanging up his boots entirely is not something Hellawell considers.

"I have learned in last few years that I need activity and human beings around me, I get a lot of energy off other people and I've seen too many company directors check out too early or do a lifestyle business and and get disenchanted.

"I'm one of those people that dreams about not having stress, I massively suffer from stress, [but] then I'll go and find some [more]. It's almost like a drug to me, I need that energy and activity. It keeps me going." ®

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