Big CEO Interview: Simon Fieldhouse - Hardware Group
PUBLISHED: 16:10 20 February 2015 | UPDATED: 16:10 20 February 2015
Global demand for IT is insatiable, all so we can access information and images almost on a whim. Great for Hardware Group’s CEO Simon Fieldhouse
I don’t often interview a man sitting with a bag of frozen peas on his back to ease a painful niggle before flying to the States. By the end of the interview he must be rather damp. However, it’s a busy time for Simon Fieldhouse, 43, and business gain goes before personal pain as he commutes between his UK office, the USA, the Nordics and South Africa.
Hardware Group, headquartered at Kemble Business Park near Cirencester and which will turn over around £47 million this year, is continuing its aggressive growth delivering technical IT equipment, solutions and services to an expanding customer base supported by services and logistic operations in the UK and the USA. It’s a long way from Simon’s first career selling vodka jellies, first in the nightclubs of Cheltenham and then on the slopes of Chamonix in the French Alps, but more of that later.
We are here to talk about the success of Hardware Group, which began as Hardware.com in 2003 sitting within South Cerney-based IT product distributor Zycko, owned by local entrepreneur, Rory Sweet. Sweet had also been intrinsic in the start up of other phenomenally successful companies: Star Internet, MessageLabs and RBR Networks. He had bought the domain name hardware.com and after meeting up with Simon in Chamonix, suggested that when he got a bit bored of global ski brand marketing and organising big events such as ChamJam (an international winter extreme sports & music festival), Simon might like to help him get the business up and running.
“I’d been away for a decade, working in Chamonix, Italy and the States and was considering moving back to work in the sports and media industry in London,” explains Simon. “But Rory’s suggestion sounded good, it meant I could return to where I’d grown up and anyway, I thought it would just be for a few months.”
So, after a decade of being the boss in France, Simon found himself back as a salesman selling IT equipment. It was the early stages of e-ecommerce and Hardware.com was positioned as an on-line reseller of products direct to customers. With the might of Zycko behind it, Hardware.com was immediately successful and evolved to employ expert account managers who could advise on products. The business developed into what’s known in IT business jargon as a ‘value added reseller’.
“We have the task of making sure people’s businesses remain on line and operational 24/7,” adds Simon.
Since a friendly demerger from Zycko in 2012, the business has developed to support a growing customer base wanting more support than just buying IT equipment. Customers can now speak to engineers, experts in their fields, who advise, not simply resell a prepackaged solution. “We consider ourselves an independent third party to support our customers more strategically.”
Hardware group has recently split into divisions to focus on specific needs of businesses, including its core Solutions business and HardwareCloud to support the growing cloud computing market. Hardware’s Services is the key part of the new structure to provide end-to-end IT services and become a specialist systems integrator to several large UK enterprises and internet service providers. HardwareLifecycle helps customers manage the environmental and lifecycle impact of their IT systems, including re-purposing equipment to prolong its usefulness and reduce costs. While the company maintains a substantial web presence for customer support, on-line sales now constitute a tiny proportion of total sales and the company is primarily focused on mid-market, which can be any company from a legal firm in Cheltenham to substantial high street retailers or manufacturers.
“What we don’t do is buy huge amounts of stock and sell it cut price,” says Simon. “We focus on selling best of breed IT technologies supported by excellent customer service, which is how we strive to grow the business.”
Simon has form in starting up successful businesses, right from leaving college. But until he started working at Hardware.com, he’d never really answered to a boss before, so moving from Chamonix to Cirencester and becomeing a lowly IT sales person was quite an ego hit. “But the benefits of finding myself able to work five miles from where I grew up was a big draw so I stuck at it and the business grew,” he says. “Our team was made up of locals and people who wanted to get out of the cities to work in the Cotswolds and the focus was always to work hard and play hard.
“There was an energy that we all wanted it to succeed because we wanted the luxury of living in the countryside in jobs with real career prospects. At that stage not many of us were married or had children so it was a great environment and we soon became a multi million pound business.”
In four years Hardware.com was turning over around £10-£12 million and by the time the recession bit in 2008 and 2009 it was turning over more, but as many point out, revenue is vanity, profit is sanity and in the IT sector, equipment is highly priced so revenue can seem very impressive, he adds. “While stable year-on-year growth is of course important, our profitability is a key factor in supporting continued re-investment into our engine, our employees, and the enhancement of technical capabilities and facilities”.
One of the things he learned from Rory Sweet, having personally made many of the mistakes that entrepreneurs tend to make over the years, was to focus on building the engine first. “You shouldn’t sell a product or service you can’t over deliver on, so we built the engine first: the business and its people, to be confident that we could support all the solutions we designed. If we had got things wrong, the impact on people’s business and jobs would be significant, so we take what we what we do very seriously indeed,” he says.
Hardware Group has 90 staff members at Kemble, with room for up to 50 more as the business grows. It has 40 or so at its services and operations centre in Swindon, and a total of around 160 across the world, and its ambitions continue. “To double the size of the business, we are continually investing in the engine: our people, and the secret seems to be communication,” says Simon.
The frozen peas are getting squishy, so we crack on through the interview.
“It’s easy to get tied up in the complexities of running a business and remembering that the only people that have any idea what you are doing are those closest to you. So we run quarterly strategic vision sessions for everyone, from the warehouse guys responsible for what goes in and out, the engineers engaging with our customers, to our credit services team, so they know what I’m doing and are aware how important their role is. It’s made an enormous difference to the ethics of the business. You just need time to do it. Equally, it’s empowering our department managers so they have the confidence to think for themselves.”
In ten years Simon has gone from an extreme sports impresario to a man who loves nothing more than spending weekends with his wife Olivia, an opera singer who has performed with the English Touring Opera, their two young sons and friends. But once an entrepreneur, always one and when I ask what he thinks he’ll be doing in ten years’ time, he’s stumped because, like a true entrepreneur who seized initiatives and opportunities where others see stone walls, that far in advance really hasn’t occurred to him. After a few moments, he says: “Running here, if they’ll still have me, there is so much more we can still do.”
Hardware sponsors Cirencester rugby club from where it draws a number of employees. “I love rugby and it is a positive way to engage with young people who, although they go to college or university, invariable come back. We introduce ourselves as a good local employer paying a competitive salary with London but arguably in a much nicer environment. We support the Government’s apprenticeship scheme and run a graduate scheme focused on local graduates. We also support Rock the Cotswolds, the campaign to encourage inward investment and skills into the area, for the same reason. Our chosen charity is Bliss, which supports premature and special care babies.
“When I was growing up I used to complain to my parents that we lived in the middle of nowhere. As a teenager it got better, we got trains to London, Cheltenham or Bath, or a taxi to the Tunnel House at Coates. When I came back to the UK I was really surprised at the number of people I knew who had moved here, many setting up their own businesses. Kemble station is getting busier by the month.”