"I am one of the very strange human beings who will tell you that I don't think there has been much change over the last 35 years."
As Mike Norris says, it may sound strange to hear the boss of the UK's largest reseller claim that not much has changed over the last four decades.
But he claims that the fundamentals are still very much the same as when he took the helm at Computacenter 24 years ago, having joined the business 11 years earlier.
"If I look back over the last 35 years, there hasn't been a year where I haven't been told by the industry that we're in the greatest period of change we've ever been in, and that it's going to get bigger next year," he said.
"There have been a few things, but I think customers still want more for less; that's what they wanted 35 years ago."
Norris is the longest-serving chief executive in the FTSE 350 and certainly plays the long game - or, as he refers to it, "the infinite game".
He sees his role as one of making sure that Computacenter stays ahead as much as it can in this infinite game - or is at least in the race.
"Finite games like sport are easy. Football is finite. It lasts for 90 minutes and there are a set of rules that people usually stick to," he said.
"In an infinite game no-one ever wins. It never stops and you cannot stay ahead of the pack forever. You can be winning and ahead, and you can be behind, but you never win.
"You can stay in the game, or you can drop out. 2e2 ran out of resources and cash; it dropped out of the game. Kelway was sold for a lot of money; it dropped out of the game. But the game goes on, so long as there are at least two players left.
"What I have to have my people believe, and our customers believe, is that we will stay current and we will be the best people to work with, on aggregate, for the fullness of time."
Norris went on to explain why sporting analogies often don't work when it comes to business; specifically playing the infinite game.
"I had someone who ran my UK business. He worked for me for a long time and he was a fantastic leader in some respects. He was brilliant," he recalled. "He could go for two hours and everyone would do exactly what he wanted.
"This is why sporting analogies don't necessarily work in business. Business doesn't last for two hours, it lasts forever. When you lead people forever you can't use short-term tactics to make them feel good for a couple of hours, because you have to meet them again next week, next month and next year.
"When you are asking people to work for you for 10, 20, 30 years you have to motivate them in a very different way."
Who needs targets?
Norris said that, as a CEO, it is his job to make sure that Computacenter is prepared for any possible game-changing technologies, while not putting all its eggs in one basket.
"When I see other resellers saying ‘we're all in with that technology', I usually think ‘they're stuffed'," he said. "When you're a vendor and you go all in, that makes sense to me. When you're a channel partner, I struggle.
"There was an article on the front page of CRN recently about how 5G is going to be a big driver for our business. Maybe it will, maybe it won't.
"But I have two things to worry about. If it is, I have to make sure that Computacenter has a flexible enough playbook to get more of its fair share of the market, while making sure that if it doesn't happen I haven't wasted huge sums of our shareholders' money waiting for it to happen. That's my job."
Norris said that businesses need five qualities if they are to succeed in the infinite game: a purpose; strong leadership; supporting teams; worthy rivals; and a flexible playbook.
"Some of my non-exec directors and some of my investors, one of the things they cannot get their heads around is that one thing you mustn't have in an infinite game is a target," he said.
"‘We want to get to £200m'. What the f*ck do you do when you get there? I don't believe in long-term targets.
"Short-term targets and pay plans for people, yes, but why set long-term targets? People like to have them, and I even do it sometimes because it makes people feel better, but I don't really care about targets. I just want to get better.
"We have been number one in the revenue list [CRN Top VARs], but it's arbitrary. What does it mean? What's a year? It's a time when accountants draw a line and add up, but life goes on. It doesn't stop in December and start again in January; it's perpetual."
Norris said that the channel has been in a "super cycle" of growth over the last five years, pointing out that it is resellers that have experienced the strongest growth, not the large IT services providers.
"If you look at Bechtle, Econocom, Atea, Computacenter and Softcat - any of the listed companies - some have done better than others… but collectively they have done well over the last five years," he said.
"If you put £1,000 into a reseller, you'd have done a lot better than if you invested it in Atos, Capgemini and the service companies. Five years ago no-one would have told you to invest it in resellers, not even me.
"So if you haven't done well over the last five years then you need to look at yourself, because you should have done well. The channel is in a fantastic position."
Norris insisted that there isn't necessarily anything wrong with playing a finite game, but stressed that it requires very different motivators.
Money will often be the main driver for a finite player, he said, recalling a time when he took a short-term financial hit to continue playing the infinite game.
Norris had been called into one of Computacenter's large investment bank clients, to meet a senior executive - more senior than he would typically deal with.
The exec claimed that a Computacenter employee had been caught leaving the premises with around 25 BlackBerry handsets, and that over a period of time the bank had bought 5,000 but only had 3,000.
The investment banker insisted that the Computacenter employee must have stolen the devices and demanded payment of £500,000 (he claimed the value of the theft was £600,000, but knocked off £100,000 in acknowledgement that they'd carelessly ordered more BlackBerrys than they had staff).
"This was about 10 December, and our year end is December. I said I'd give it to him," Norris said.
"So I walked out on the street, I rang my finance director and I said ‘I've just given half a million quid away. That's going to make a bit of a dent in the year-end performance and it's going to ruin a number of people's bonuses, including mine and including yours'. But I thought it was the right thing to do.
"We've made more than a million a year out of that customer in contribution for 25 years in a row. Including the year we gave them half a million back. It was the right thing to do. I didn't have to; I had no legal responsibility to do it and if I was worried about that year's bonus I wouldn't have done it."
As for his future in the infinite game, Norris joked that he will of course have to retire at some stage, but stressed that no announcement is imminent.
"I want Computacenter to go on," he said. "Someone might and buy it, we might drop out of the game, or we might run out of money and go bust. We have a lot of money in the bank at the moment but you never know - nothing lasts forever.
"But our job is to perpetuate it and take it beyond us."
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