Ian Kilpatrick is group managing director of distributor Wick Hill, and as its majority shareholder, he is understandably proud of the company he has built. He has also been the driving force behind developing it into the highly technical networking and infrastructure distributor that it is today.
An accountant by profession, Kilpatrick first came across Guildford-based Wick Hill in the late 1970s, when it was a very different beast.
Back then, it specialised in drawing up designs for printed circuit boards. But a couple of years after taking it over, Kilpatrick was approached by representatives from Hewlett Packard (HP) and started to develop systems for the emerging HP 3000 commercial applications market.
The big selling point of the HP 3000, he said, was that it could process data interactively when most processing was still done in batches. The nature of the hardware - its equivalent today might be something like an IBM AS/400 - meant that Wick Hill could sell it to Big Blue chip customers such as BP, Glaxo and Shell.
This experience stood the company in good stead. "We were selling complex solutions to business managers and today we still provide tools for people to sell to business managers," said Kilpatrick.
In the early 1980s, the company moved from developing to licensing products, and from a direct sales to a third-party sales model.
Wick Hill's first product was WRQ Reflection, an application that it still sells and which provides customers using PCs, thin clients or web browsers with access to host-based information and packages. By the early 1990s, the firm's turnover was hitting £2m and it acquired its main rival, IMX Systems.
Today, the distributor has a UK headquarters and three offices in Germany, turning over about £22m a year. "We have travelled a long way, but we have always stayed in the same space - above servers and PCs and below applications. We are information plumbers," said Kilpatrick.
Wick Hill now describes itself as an ebusiness infrastructure distributor and represents only six vendors: WRQ, Watchguard, WebTrends, Radware, Holistix and Computer Associates.
The right products
Kilpatrick explained that the rationale behind this was the desire only to sell something that he would need himself, and he obviously cares about what he sells. "I think if I need it, then everyone else is likely to need it," he said. "I'm looking for products which work today and will work as the solution grows and for which the developer has planned a way forward."
"We test everything before we give it to the channel. We test reliability, robustness and ease of use. There are lots of products which may be technically brilliant, but are much too complicated for an end user," he added.
Kilpatrick explained that he gets up to 20 products per week "across his desk" from vendors that want Wick Hill to distribute them. The company deals regularly with about 350 resellers, ranging from big boys such as Computacenter and SCH through to the very small players.
But the common ground between them is services. "Our products are aimed at large to medium-sized companies," he said. "Small companies don't need the connectivity we offer."
The distributor now has about 50 employees at its Guildford base, 13 of which are purely technical staff. Another 18 are technical sales staff.
Kilpatrick characterises the people who work for him as having a certain amount of pride in themselves. "We are people who are proud of what we do and like a challenge. We push people to the edge of their comfort zone," he said, adding that Wick Hill is a fun place to work, as is demonstrated by the crowd of former personnel who still keep in touch.
But his big bugbear is security, particularly internet security, and he thinks there is a real opportunity for the industry over the next couple of years to integrate businesses together using the web. And this does not mean simply integrating their supply chain, but providing them with direct links to product information, scheduling and so on.
"The people who made money out of the [California] gold rush weren't the miners, but the people who made the Levi's, the shovels and the beer, and kept the hotels," he said.
"People haven't focused on what they are really doing. They have got tied up with the complexity of the web. When businesses were developing in-house, security was part of the business process, but when they get on the web, people stop thinking about business processes. There are so many examples. In the US, you can get a different credit rating on the web from what is ostensibly the same application on a legacy machine."
Kilpatrick believes that this state of mind has partly occurred because most websites started life as an adjunct to marketing and were not designed with security in mind. He blames this, in part, on the fact that no one seems to have what he calls "visibility over the issue".
"We only sell a log file analyser in one out of 10 cases with our firewalls, so people aren't monitoring who tries to break in. They are not asking who is visiting their website and where they went when they got there," he explained.
"I know one company which had performance problems with its website. It upgraded its infrastructure, only to find that when monitoring tools were finally installed, it had been a misconfigured router all along. They might one day get the traffic to deal with their infrastructure," he added.
But despite this, Kilpatrick is seeing a slow change in such attitudes as websites move from being online magazines to business tools. "There are so many 24 hours a day, seven days a week sites that are only now looking at load balancing and high availability," he said.
As a result, he thinks there is a business opportunity in web management and monitoring tools and so is keen to take on more of these products.
"We are looking at picking one product every three to four months over the next couple of years, and looking for a 50 per cent compound growth in the next three years. There's an increasing need for professional tools on the web," he said.
All this would indicate that Kilpatrick does not intend to hang up his work boots just yet. "I'll quit when it stops exciting me," he said.
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