Having almost been in a head-on collision - twice - during the five-minute taxi ride from Wokingham train station to networking distributor Azlan's offices, this interview only made it to print thanks to the fast reflexes of the other drivers. Stumbling out of the cab from hell, I was greeted by Azlan's tennis-mad managing director, Richard Pryor-Jones, who proceeded to try to crush my outstretched hand into dust. At this stage, it was touch and go whether or not the sky would fall on my head before we even got started.
While the sky luckily stayed in place at Wokingham, Pryor-Jones' father dropped out of it on a regular basis during his youth, being an RAF pilot. Pryor-Jones came from a military family where numerous uncles and grandparents were in someway involved with the armed forces, and planes were the talk of the dinner table. However, the bug to fly, yomp or sail was completely lacking in Pryor-Jones Jnr. 'I had no interest in joining up,' he says. 'I rebelled, I guess, against the whole environment.'
So, after turning down a flash job flying devastating aircraft, what exactly was this son of an RAF pilot to turn his hand to? 'Life insurance.' While it may come as a shock that a young man just out of college would hanker after a job selling something that most people deem a necessary evil, it is even more surprising to find out this was a door-to-door job selling life insurance.
'I had a real hankering to be a sales rep,' he says. 'I spent many an evening traipsing around housing estates selling life insurance door-to-door while my friends were going to the pub and generally having a good time. It was a very sobering experience.' Quite.
Asked if was he ever threatened for turning up on someone's doorstep at a bad time, Pryor-Jones claims: 'Most people were polite, but firm.
A lot of time you'd get asked in for a chat but they didn't want to buy anything - they just wanted someone to talk to.
'Actually, some of the selling techniques were a little shady,' he adds, making a reference to the film featuring con men Glengarry Glen Ross.
'The emphasis was on getting people to sign the policy there and then, with no concern for lead generation for future sells.'
Following this, most people would have headed straight for the recruitment office, but Pryor-Jones, who admits insurance wasn't his thing and that he still didn't really know what he wanted to do beyond selling, fell into that popular IT salesman training ground: selling forklifts.
But selling is probably an understatement. 'It was a gopher job. It involved going round to all these trading parks and business complexes, collecting leaflets and information on all the companies before handing it over to a salesman back in the office, who would use it to try to make a sale,' Pryor-Jones explains. 'It was good experience in terms of knocking on doors and asking questions, but it soon became very much a routine.
'I stayed on and took over a territory selling forklift trucks, which was a good learning process. In fact, when I was at Digital I used the same scenario - I dumped all the sales staff in the middle of an industrial estate and told them to go off and collect information on all the companies there, just to illustrate that there are lots of different ways to sell.'
When the time came to move on, the computer industry offered the best way out. 'I really didn't think selling forklifts was a long-term career.
I responded to an ad for sales trainees in a local paper for a company called Digital. I had no idea what Digital was. It was just setting up in Aberdeen at the time and I got the job with other trainees. After a six-month intensive training programme, I ended up as an installed base salesperson with a patch of my own in the north of Scotland - OK, the Highlands, including the Shetlands.'
It was in Scotland that Pryor-Jones first encountered the channel, and in those days there was no love lost. 'We competed against the channel for sales. The user sales force was very used to doing business direct.
There was no really good channel strategy in those days - the goalposts moved quite a lot.'
After a number of internal job changes, including running the Shell Exploration account and the Aberdeen office, Pryor-Jones was called south. 'I was relocated to Warrington - it was a bolt out of the blue, with just 48 hours notice.
'It was a stressful move and a hectic first birthday for my little boy.
I managed workstation sales for northern UK. This space was particularly aggressive - Sun Microsystems had entered the market and we were fighting tooth and nail. I eventually moved to Reading to run the UK channel for Digital across all products for about a year, and then the worldwide reorganisation happened with the creation of separate business units. Digital Networks Business unit was created and I was appointed general manager for the UK.'
However, his new role at Digital was never going to be an easy one. The company was going through huge changes and was in financial trouble. After two years of running the unit, Digital decided to sell its networking business to Cabletron and Pryor-Jones figured it was time to leave the manufacturer he had grown up in for the past 13 years.
'I knew Azlan before I arrived as it had been a distribution partner for Digital. I knew the people and moving outside of the vendor arena seemed the right thing to do. I'd been with Digital for a long time, so I'd done pretty much all I could have done there without having to move out of the UK. There weren't many opportunities around in those days because Digital was going through a lot of turmoil and change,' he says.
Pryor-Jones is now sitting at the helm of a rejuvenated Azlan, a distributor that could so easily have disappeared following shock financial losses at the end of the 1997 financial year, prompting a run-in with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) last year. The investigation was dropped in January due to insufficient evidence, and the company is still trying to find a way back to the days when it was turning over more than double its current revenue.
The trouble started when Azlan's shares were suspended in June 1997 following rumours that its forecast revenue of £15 million for the end of that year was inaccurate. As it turned out, the predicted profit turned out to be a massive £14 million loss - the company's woes were just beginning.
Later in 1998, the SFO became involved and Azlan found itself at the centre of growing speculation about what exactly had happened and about the company's future. Timing is everything in moving jobs and Pryor-Jones couldn't have picked a worse time.
'I joined as sales director in January 1997. This was just over four months before the shares were suspended in June, before the results were out. Rumours had begun to circulate in the market and the shares started to go into free-fall. A decision was taken by Azlan's then board to suspend the shares. The accounts didn't actually come in for some time after that.
'The reaction within the company was one of complete shock and surprise. There was no appreciation before this of the problems involved.
In fact, until the shares were suspended there was no view that anything was actually wrong. It was the first time that most managers - those at country-level - knew there was problem. It wasn't actually until after the numbers were released that many of the managers saw the significance of how disappointing the numbers actually were.'
Asked about the atmosphere in the distributor, Pryor-Jones recalls: 'People went through a number of emotions. They were worried about having to talk to the police, which for most people is a scary prospect, and in an environment where all the talk was about fraud. This was a serious investigation - not quite the same as a ticket for speeding. People wanted to know what the process would be. Would the SFO be in for a few days or a few years?'
Amid this, Azlan had a business to run. Pryor-Jones admits that the early days were rough. 'There was a lot of talking to people to reassure them, although we weren't actually able to say a lot because of banking requirements and also in terms of legal requirements. For some time we were unable to tell people what we would have liked to under normal circumstances.
'With the vendors there was a lot of work to be done, especially at a European level in terms of giving them as much reassurance as we could, considering the restraints on what we could say. Many of them showed a lot of faith. We didn't lose any vendors directly because of the investigation but some potential new vendors didn't talk to us. In reality though, we would have struggled to take on any new vendors at that time anyway.
'From a customer perspective, especially in 1997, the main problem was trying to get stock,' he says. 'Most of the vendors had made some changes to our credit lines so getting stock was quite challenging for a period of time. Customers found it difficult to continue to do the level of business they wanted to do with us. The customer relationships we had were long term, but we lost some run-rate business in that time.
'One of the difficulties we had was that the SFO investigation, in terms of communication with our staff, was telling them this was not an Azlan issue - it was to do with a number of individuals that had worked for Azlan. That's why when the SFO decided to drop the investigation it was more a case of "I told you so", rather than being overly elated. We were just very relieved it was all over.'
Azlan started its financial recovery at the end of last year with results that helped shore up the gaping hole left by the financial irregularities of 1997. With redundancies in Germany and the UK, and a refocusing across all European business units, the company's recovery has continued with year-end profit, released last month, that exceeded the £5 million forecast. Pre-tax profit came in at £5.5 million on revenue up 17 per cent to £343 million. Product sales revenue jumped 20 per cent to £293 million, while revenue from training grew eight per cent to £40.8 million.
Services jumped from just £200,000 last year to £1 million.
You would expect Pryor-Jones to be happy with such positive figures from a company that is putting the past behind it. 'It would be callous of us not to say we were happy,' he says. 'It's good to reach our expectations but in some ways there's a professional frustration that says we did actually lose a couple of years out of the company's history.
We've had to spend a lot of time and effort catching up.'
He's not the only one that feels this way. I bumped into Peter Bertrams, chief executive of Azlan, while Pryor-Jones was having his photographs taken, and he was of the same opinion: 'We've lost a lot of time.'
Azlan has made radical changes to its business structure in less than a year. The company's decision to reduce the number of vendors it deals with was taken on a European level. 'The number across Europe went from 60 to about 30, whereas Azlan in the UK deals with 20, from more than 35 last year,' Pryor-Jones explains. 'When our troubles hit, we moved to a broad-based approach within the networking sector - thin clients, storage, low-end PC stuff. We have refocused now.
'It's not so much an issue of the commercial conflicts of interest when dealing with competing vendors, it's more about whether or not you can give them enough physical and emotional time to take their products to market successfully,' he adds. 'By reducing the number of vendors you work with, you can do this.'
Not everything is so altruistic though. 'Certainly, there are financial considerations, but we didn't just dump the smaller players - it had a lot to do with how they fitted with us.'
Azlan's refocusing means everything from now will centre on networking and little else. 'Over the past 12 months we moved out of the storage sector,' says Pryor-Jones. 'We couldn't focus and as a business we needed to focus.'
Areas where the company will expand include a much larger investment in services and the internet, with plans to launch a £3 million online operation during the autumn.
Services are vital for Azlan's future. 'Our biggest challenge and opportunity is becoming a services-led organisation,' Pryor-Jones says. 'We recently announced a distribution deal with Cabletron for its Spectrum enterprise management software. It's in areas such as this that we can move into a systems-style business that will bring in vendors, as opposed to just selling pure product. We're still shifting a lot of product, and proud to do so, but it's increasingly harder to make lots of money out of it.'
He adds: 'On the services front, we've invested more in the sales and marketing side and brought in more skills to do our own installations.
In the past, we used Pheonix for the installation side but now, with their agreement, we are pulling most of that back in-house. There are about 40 people in services now, up 20 per cent on last year.'
The Web is seen by distributors and resellers as an opportunity of sorts, but with many vendors launching operations to sell products directly online, it can pose more problems than it solves. For example, 3Com recently announced a Web initiative to sell networking systems, not merely products, online. Optimistic, to say the least.
Pryor-Jones agrees that the Web is not suitable for selling a package.
'The internet is fine for commodity products. But those looking for genuine systems are not willing to buy it off the Web without first speaking to someone,' he believes. 'Our Net launch will be in the autumn, but it has challenged our core processes trying to put together an e-commerce package for our customers. That takes time. From the data we put on it to the product lines we take to market on it, it is a massive task.
'Our perception of what other distributors' Websites are offering is product availability and price and some degree of online transaction.
Our strategy is to emulate dealing with Azlan at the moment and we'd like it to be as close to dealing with us over the phone as possible. Live chat facilities may not be in the first release, but we are looking at technologies for inclusion in the second and third versions of the site.'
Pryor-Jones refused to detail what the site might have to make it different from many of the other distributors' sites, but whatever Azlan does, it better happen before the end of the year as many of the other distributors are already online, no matter how poor some of their offerings are.
'The reason the site has taken so long is that we have spent a lot of time talking to resellers about what they are looking for,' Pryor-Jones explains. 'Some of the feedback we've had shows a reluctance to deal across the Web. Whether it's because they want to negotiate a better price or whether they just want the human interaction, people want to talk to people.
We are not looking at our site as a price reduction programme.'
Neither is Azlan looking for significant returns, which is practical. 'Our business projections in terms of what we expect to see from the Website are very conservative because of what we have seen in the market.'
PC Dealer has spoken to some distributors about this subject and the common answer seems to be that less than five per cent of business goes via the Website. Much of this has to do with the general reluctance of resellers to deal with a computer screen instead of a person, but it's also because distributors are guilty of not making it very appealing for resellers to switch to the Web for certain purchases. Pryor-Jones recognises the scenario: 'We hope to make it commercially attractive for resellers to do business over the site.'
For a man who used to bug people on doorsteps with life insurance policies, Pryor-Jones has fallen on his feet, but he's the first to admit that it certainly didn't feel that way in 1997 when the financial surprises began.
Still, from sales director in January 1997 to managing director before the end of that year, and now also in charge of Scandinavian operations, he can't complain.
The watchword at the moment for Azlan is caution. The recession, widely predicted towards the latter half of last year, that everyone was supposed to be wallowing in about now, may have failed to materialise but Azlan was ready all the same.
'We were conscious of all the hype regarding the recession, but we were already conservative, having come from the position we have,' Pryor-Jones says. 'We will continue to be prudent, especially with margins continuing to fall.'
But opportunities will not be ignored for the sake of safety. Convergence, for example, is an area of the networking market for which the sky is the limit. The future for voice and data integration - and, later, video - will be massive, but the technical problems, scarcity of fully integrated systems, and the need for more market education have helped delay the convergence gravy train. Delays aside, Azlan is just one of many in the channel that has jumped into the sector early, knowing that when convergence hits, it will be big.
'I think convergence is a reality now,' Pryor-Jones says. 'We are seeing mainstream vendors with products and others with products in the pipeline.
In 12 to 18 months time, there will be players in the industry and the channel that are suffering because they did not get into convergence early enough. We conducted a survey recently of a large number of voice resellers and found that more than half of them already had plans to enter the convergence sector.
'There needs to be continued customer education of the migration issues and also of the value in terms of money. We sell Cisco/
Nortel convergence systems and are getting a lot of support. This is very different from what it was like about six months ago,' he adds.
Azlan may be lagging behind its performance of some years earlier, but it's turning a profit and is still one of the biggest specialist networking distributors in the UK. Pryor-Jones is sitting pretty - until, that is, he decides to dump Azlan's sales team on an industrial estate for sales training.
THE PICK OF THE CROP
Managing director, Azlan
Born - 1963 in Bradford Upon Avon.
Married - Yes, with two children.
What was your first job?
I had a part-time job while at school working in a chocolate gateaux factory, greasing the tins.
What was your worst job?
Potato picking. My cousin and I went potato picking in the sticks in Scotland. We didn't realise we couldn't go home for lunch, so we starved. No one would share their lunch with us, either.
What was your favourite job?
Digital, in the early days when the company was flying.
Which football team do you support?
Aberdeen - we taught Alex Ferguson everything he knows.
Do you play any sports?
I play a lot of tennis when I can.
What is your favourite band?
U2, for consistency.
And your worst band?
Oasis, for massive inconsistency.
Kids; a good night out with friends.
Who do you admire the most?
Sir John Harvey Jones. He has no real airs and graces about him and he always puts people first. I always liked it when he said that businesses go out of business not because of people but because of managers.
Where are you going on holiday this year?
For a quiet break in Corsica with the kids. I'll leave my wife relaxing at the pool and head off with the children.
What has been your most embarrassing moment?
I once got really drunk and walked into the ladies toilet by mistake. According to my mates, it wasn't going in the wrong door that was funny, it was how long it took me to come back out.
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