Wick Hill may be the UK and Germany's best-known specialist security VAD, but the firm owes its existence to a set of coincidences, its chairman Ian Kilpatrick confided as the distributor turned 40.
The year 1976 brought about a number of significant changes to the UK's cultural, political, and business landscape.
The most obvious of these being prime minister Harold Wilson calling time on his second term in office in March, to be replaced by James Callaghan. The new leader inherited a country that, over the course of the rest of the year, was rocked by the final throes of the Cod Wars - a two-decade dispute with Iceland over fishing rights - a heatwave that sparked the worst drought in 250 years, and, perhaps most seriously of all, the Sex Pistols' notoriously foul-mouthed first appearance on live television.
23 March 1976
Date of Wick Hill's incorporation
The future of both Callaghan's premiership and the British fishing industry looked decidedly bleak following the events of this bruising year. And even the most ardent punk would probably accept that the music of Johnny Rotten et al has not aged well.
But 1976 did bring one new beginning that has proved to have a good deal more longevity. Security distributor Wick Hill was incorporated on 26 March of that year and, 40 years down the line, looks in better health than ever.
However, Ian Kilpatrick, who founded the firm and remains its chairman, told CRN sister publication Channelnomics Europe that the company was not started on account of a four-decade masterplan, but rather owing to "a complete series of coincidences".
Computer for which Wick Hill initially manufactured and sold add-ons
"I had a financial and management consultancy, and we were asked by some guys at HP to help them buy a company that made products to sell alongside the HP 3000 - which was HP's first interactive computer system," he explains.
Despite coming from an accounting background, Kilpatrick (pictured top and right, back in the day) threw himself with gusto into life as a salesperson, travelling the globe to sell to the installed base of HP 3000 customers. Such was his success that the company found itself attracting requests from other manufacturers to become a distribution partner. Thus the firm took the decision in the early 1980s to resculpt itself as a distributor of backup and connectivity products - though still serving the same client base.
"We took a decision that we would only sell products to the standard that we would be happy with as a supplier," he said. "[Customers] had spent a lot of money [on the HP 3000], therefore anything they built onto it had to be of the same standard - you do not buy plastic wing mirrors from Halfords to put on a Rolls Royce."
A million reasons
The distributor grew steadily throughout the remainder of the decade, expanding into areas such as the terminal emulators made by WRQ. Kilpatrick claimed that, while there was no ‘eureka' moment when he realised the company was a success, seeing sales pass the seven-figure mark in 1988 brought a sense of validation.
"There was a feeling of satisfaction about passing the first million, which had been pretty challenging and took quite a while. It was a huge milestone," he says.
Year Wick Hill acquired competitor IMX, a deal which helped it triple revenues from £2m to £6m
As the 80s turned to the 90s the new decade brought a transformation for the distributor, as the 1990 acquisition of competitor IMX saw the firm turn from a £2m player into a £6m one. Another acquisitive move two years later took the company into Germany.
But it was another five years before the distributor began to assume its present form, when it took on its first security franchise, in the shape of firewall and UTM vendor WatchGuard. Almost 20 years on, the two companies still work together, and the vendor's northern Europe sales director Jonathan Whitley was quick to pay homage to the new quadragenarian.
"Wick Hill has been absolutely instrumental in the strategy we have taken in the UK and Germany," he says. "They are a true value-add distributor; in addition to sales excellence and great coverage of the market, they offer a great deal of benefits, and the ability to offer professional services."
Wick Hill's first vendor signing after deciding to become a security specialist in 1997. The two firms still work together to this day.
For the last two decades the distributor has remained focused on its core security market, and has grown steadily in both the UK and Germany. FY15 sales came in at £73.2m (€93.24m).
A new dawn
And in Wick Hill's case, there may be some truth in the well-worn idea that life begins at 40, with the recent investment from Rigby Private Equity signalling the start of a new beginning for the firm. The investment vehicle has also put money into storage specialist Zycko, and the new distribution stablemates have already opened their first joint office, in Austria. The goal is to jointly branch into more new countries across EMEA in the coming years, as well as make selective acquisitions.
"We are going to be taking the portfolio across EMEA, looking to where there is significant appetite for what we do," explains Kilpatrick.
When asked if there had ever been a time in the last four decades when he considered selling up, he concedes that reinventing the firm as a security player had been a tough move.
Wick Hill group sales in FY15
"There was a challenging time before we transitioned to security, but by then we had missed the curve where, if I had wanted to sell, I could have done so at a strong premium," he adds. "At the time where I might have thought about selling, it was not worth doing so."
Aside from this, Kilpatrick asserts that he has never been at all tempted to act on one of the many of expressions of interest the firm has received. He claimed that the job remains as enjoyable as ever - something he ascribed to the quality of the team he has built around him.
"It has been a hell of a lot of fun," he concludes. "I have had the pleasure to work with huge numbers of great people - this is a great place to be."
Here's to the next 40 years.
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