A chance remark from a recruitment consultant and the promise of earning “big money” sent Greg Harris on the road to joining the fledging IT industry in the 1980s. Fast forward a few decades and today he is sales director of Cloud Distribution, the company he co-founded with business partner, Scott Dobson, in 2009. With a turnover last year of £9.7 million, the company employs 19 people and recently moved to new, larger premises in Green Park, Reading. Earlier this year the business, which specialises in bringing new, innovative and disruptive security and networking solutions to market, was placed fourth in the annual Sunday Times listing of the UK’s 100 fastest growing private technology businesses and has won many of the most prestigious technology awards from its industry peers, including Computer Reseller News, Microscope and IT Europa.
Now 46, Harris grew up in Chalfont St Peter and attended Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, in Amersham, where his grand idea of becoming a doctor was thwarted after he realised it would mean another eight or nine years of study. Instead, armed with A Levels in maths, biology and chemistry, he decided to capitalise on the skills acquired courtesy of the school’s mini “business club” and join the world of work. Already gifted with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit he knew straightaway that sales would be his chosen field and during a successful career went on to work for industry giants including Motorola and Nokia before founding his own business. Married with three daughters aged four, seven and 15, he lives in Wokingham and enjoys football and cricket in his spare time.
Tell us about your first job
When I left school, the teachers said I would be an abject failure because I wasn’t going to university, but I knew I would get a job as a salesperson – I just didn’t know what I would be doing. I knew I needed to dress for the part though, so I went and bought a suit and took a train to London. I knew there were some recruitment agencies in Baker Street, so I knocked on every door until one of them got me a job. This job was working for a creative advertising agency, selling its screenprint services to other agencies and luckily for me, our team was the best in the business, so I really landed on my feet. That job taught me about differentiation, about doing things really well and creating trust and relationships – those lessons have stayed with me throughout my career.
When did you make the move into IT?
I left when the agency was taken over and I went back to the same recruitment agent. I was very naïve, but he said if he was me, he would go into computers because that’s where the “big money” would be. I didn’t know anything about computers, but I knew I could sell and I ended up selling training courses to a B2B audience. It was the ‘school of hard knocks’ type of selling – I was literally given a Yellow Pages and a phone and told to get on with it. The first six months was as hard as it would ever get and it required plenty of determination, a thick skin, energy and persistence. I loved it. It was always a challenge to turn a “no” into a “yes” and even today I’ll still make a cold call if I have to because I’ve been there and done it before. Eventually I was their most successful salesman and became a team leader.
From there, I went out onto the road, working for IT resellers and it was then that the PC market really started to explode. IBM and Compaq were the dominant players and suddenly it was all about mainframes, moving from standalone PCs, networking with LANS and WANS, and IT security started to become an issue.
Funnily enough, with the advent of mobile devices it’s now come full circle because we’re back to having central data centres but this time it’s via the cloud.
What was the prompt for launching Cloud Distribution?
I went on to work for Motorola and Nokia, where I gained experience in all areas of channel reselling and became passionate about that as a route to market. I closed bigger deals, became more focused on what I was selling and while I was working for Nokia, I had greater exposure to the world of IT security and networking.
By 2009, I was at the point where I had had enough of the big corporate world, so I took voluntary redundancy and planned to do nothing for a while except watch Australia, who were over for the summer playing cricket.
I had known Scott for a number of years and when he approached me and said he had sold his business and was thinking of starting a new one, I thought it was worth a conversation in the pub. From there, Cloud Distribution was born. Scott came from a VOIP background and I came from networking and security, so we each brought different skills to the company.
How easy was it to get started?
The tough part was finding the right vendors to go to market with. We wanted to carve out a niche for ourselves as a distributor that was a bit of a ‘talent spotter’ when it came to finding new, disruptive and innovative technologies.
What was the hardest part?
Not telling my wife that we weren’t paying the mortgage. I certainly stared into the abyss and looked at the possibility of having our house repossessed. We were always determined that we would stand on our own two feet and not give away a slab of equity, so that was a big motivator. We didn’t pay ourselves for the first year, Scott was using his earn-out from his business and we divested ourselves of assets like expensive cars. It was certainly tough but we were determined to self-finance the business from day one and today we don’t owe anything to anybody.
What have been some of your milestones?
Probably our biggest “wow” was when we had our first order – something that we had created had been bought by someone else. It validated the fact we weren’t mad.
Having said that, we’re never complacent. We know that whatever the challenges are today, and they are quite different, we have the means of facing up to them. At least I’ve been able to upgrade the car again and I am now paying the mortgage.
I also think that when we were placed fourth in the annual Sunday Times listing of the UK’s 100 fastest growing private technology businesses that was another big wow. To think that we were fourth amongst all those other great technology players – it still hasn’t sunk in.
Do you enjoy what you do?
Absolutely, I love it and I’m still learning. It’s great to recruit younger people with the energy, vitality and enthusiasm that they bring, but I also firmly believe that it’s important to have some grey hair and “seasoned professionals” in the business. Experience helps you understand what the client is looking for and you can use that to advise them and talk their language.
Are you very hands on?
I’m definitely still very hands on, possibly too much. Scott and I have recognised we need to make sure it isn’t just about the two of us; it’s about all the people who work here. I’m still a salesperson at heart, I love being in front of customers, listening to their problems and challenges and then having the opportunity to try and solve them.
How would you describe yourself?
Optimistic and positive, with a healthy degree of cynicism. That allows me to challenge things. I do believe we will get there – it’s just that sometimes I don’t know where there is.
You say relationships are important, hasn’t IT become very impersonal?
Technology comes and goes but relationships are constant and I’m always saying to my team that it’s important not to account manage by email, you have to have a conversation with people. It’s ingrained into the DNA of cloud to make sure our relationships are one of human interaction rather than email or text message.
Relationships are also important personally, I have a close group of friends from our very first day at school and although we’re scattered around the four corners of the world we’re planning a catch-up very soon.
What’s the secret of your success?
We’re very inclusive, anyone can challenge the status quo. I think the key to our success has been recognising that we don’t have all the answers.
Where does the business go from here?
I would like Cloud Distribution to be the defacto distributor in the UK for new, innovative and disruptive vendors to come to market, I want them to look at us as a launch vehicle.
Who are your heroes?
On a business level it would be Richard Branson. I like the things he does and he seems to have the right mix of humanity and business acumen.
On a more personal level, I was a Liverpool fan in the 1970s and 80s and for raw determination I still admire former managers Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. They were unassuming people who did a fantastic job with steely determination and humour.
What do you do on your time off?
I’m always running around as “taxi dad” for my daughters, so they keep my pretty busy but I do play a fair amount of golf.
I also love reading and although I usually read on an iPad a friend bought me an actual “old-fashioned” book, Red or Dead about Shankly and Liverpool’s rise as a football club and I’m really enjoying it for a change.
The final word…
I always say I’m in the business of selling IT. I’m not a brain surgeon and I’m not saving lives, so I always try and keep things in proportion.