Since starting life as an HP add-on manufacturer in 1976, Wick Hill has undergone more reincarnations than the Sugababes' line-up.
The distributor celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, but did not sign its first vendor in the security space with which it is now synonymous until 1997.
Today, Wick Hill is an $80m-revenue business, split evenly across the UK and Germany, with 115 staff, vendor franchises including WatchGuard, Check Point, Kaspersky, LogLogic and Barracuda and a database of about 1,500 active UK resellers. It is also one of the UK's longest-serving and last-remaining independent VADs.
In its original guise, Wick Hill knocked out security and performance add-ons for HP's first interactive system, the HP 3000. It swiftly moved into the terminal emulation market and then IBM AS/400 mainframe distribution, quitting manufacturing altogether in the mid-1980s.
Chairman and owner Ian Kilpatrick claims the decision to re-invent the company as a distributor was born out of the inability of Wick Hill's own wholesalers to close sales.
"I got involved in 1978," he says. "There were only 5,000 HP 3000 systems in the whole world and it was very, very expensive. The only people who had them were Fortune 1000 and Times 500 firms such as Shell, ICI and Glaxo.
"Although we had distributors in a variety of territories, they were not doing a very good job. I was having to fly everywhere to do sales calls and close business. At the same time, we had a lot of people in the UK who wanted us
to distribute for them."
Wick Hill still does £1m a year of mainframe business with OpenText. But it now draws 90 per cent of its sales from security, a market it entered in 1997 in partnership with firewall vendor WatchGuard.
"In 1996, I looked at the internet and thought, ‘that's damned insecure - that looks like a big opportunity'," Kilpatrick says.
Despite its numerous reinventions, one theme has run through Wick Hill's business since it began, according to Kilpatrick.
"What we are good at, then and now, is repetitive market entry," he explains.
"We find a niche, increase market awareness, drive business into our channel partners and educate and train them so they understand how to sell the product. We are incredibly good at it."
Wick Hill's lack of scale and limited vendor line-card - it is 200 times smaller than global VADs Avnet and Arrow and works with just 15 core vendors - has led some to dismiss it as a lifestyle business.
Kilpatrick claims to be comfortable with the specialist tag.
"We made a decision in 1982 when we moved into distribution that - because we were so cheesed off with what happened with our distributors - we would only distribute products to the standards we expected," he says.
"We have a very high focus on a small number of vendors. As a consequence, we have continually restricted our size in order to be number one with the manufacturers we represent. We do not want to be a large business that is not able to deliver what our customers want, which is value-add and product knowledge."
The VAD model is notoriously cost-intensive and Kilpatrick reveals the distributor ploughs more than £100,000 into R&D a year in the UK alone.
"Every 18 months we change things as it is the only way to provide the kind of service our partners need," he says. "The money we make is the money they make. Our business model is to invest all the time and it is somewhere in the region of £120,000 for us to take on a product."
And there have been some costly mistakes - most notably a doomed greenfield expansion into France in the 1990s. "We pissed away about $1m in France," says Kilpatrick. "The French way of doing business was different to ours and we shut it down."
Many of Wick Hill's recent vendor signings have been in the convergence space and Kilpatrick sees the distributor playing a growing role in locking down IP comms - his number-one bugbear.
"There is no security in convergence - it is absolutely missing," he fumes. "The world is full of convergence vendors saying their solutions are secure when they're not. Many people are blissfully unaware that the systems they are implementing are dramatically insecure."
Kilpatrick stresses that security will continue to provide the lion's share of Wick Hill's revenue for years to come, with pure convergence revenue continuing to account for just a small minority.
"In two years' time a big slab of my security revenue will be sitting around video, videoconferencing, fixed-mobile convergence and smartphone and tablet consumerisation.
"But a comparably small percentage will come from pure convergence," he says. "Security will not shrink or go away any time soon."
On track for growth
Consolidation has violently reshaped the security distribution landscape in recent years, with Noxs, Sphinx and Arc just a few of the names disappearing from view. Wick Hill is the largest independent security VAD left.
The firm's name is not often linked to the M&A rumour mill, with Kilpatrick himself sometimes painted as the kind of die-hard owner-manager who would never sell up. He admits recent M&A has played into his hands.
"Over the years, many of the big multinationals have taken out our biggest competitors and in so doing, they have not retained their position in the market and the value-add," he says. "I thank them very much for that.
"We have grown strongly in the past three years and will continue to do so. We are sitting in a space where people are willing to pay us and our partners for knowledge and services. Our target position is $100m in the next two years and we are on track."
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