Managing Director, Peter Robbins, the person and his journey. A professional innovator, delivering 150% growth to his business and key vendors against a flat IT sector through Best Practice Best Value approaches to commerce.
From an early age, Peter Robbins has seen business as a hobby, a way to meet and bring people together whilst enjoying life and running a business along the way. It is this commitment to life through enjoying business that has spawned a dynamic quality to get the best out of the people around him and build a multi-million pound IT organisation.
Peter broke the mould of IT selling at 19 using his tenacity and drive with Europe's biggest distributor of floppy disks. And having bumped into long time friend and neighbour Chris Griesbach some years later, team player Peter made his first move into employing great people to help grow a new IT business in 1992.
This was Peter's first move into spotting great people and employing his observational talents to see how certain people's skills can compliment as much as positively challenge each other for a more creative business direction. Probrand formed in 1992 with personal equity and little staff.
"IT reselling is tough. Thank yous don't buy pints, but hard work and innovation pay off! Along the way we've had many challenges, but you have to weigh up risk and reward, then learn from your mistakes and do better next time. Challenges are there to better you," he says.
"Faced with a very tough trading environment in 1999, with the Millenium bug and the IT sector on its knees, I recognised a need to cut costs, streamline operations and maximise the bottom line if we were to weather the storm. Big players were getting bigger and there was the threat of direct-to-customer strategies cutting us out. I decided to focus on the fragmented IT supply chain."
In 2000 Probrand began to develop an in-house software package that would assist sales team members in sharing info, sourcing, selling and buying IT goods for resale.
Peter explains. "As a direct result of this more efficient approach, we increased turnover and profitability against a declining market. The technology grew to include a web enabled customer relationship management (CRM) platform. The sales team regularly broke the industry average for sales per head by a factor of two. Fundamentally, this innovation played a critical role in smashing all financial targets then and now."
Peter's strident top down approach to technology innovation and its use have seen him instil a unique ethos. He explains: "It's basic human psychology to feel threatened by change and many people associate technology implementation as a threat to their employment. This has been a huge challenge."
Peter has re-educated people to harness technology as a positive approach to change. "Our technology actually makes jobs easier and this enriches a person's role, confidence and development, increasing their job satisfaction. Employees embrace the solution. I now get daily demands for new coding to help make all sorts of areas even easier. This all comes back to being structured, standardised, efficient, successful and profitable, retaining and getting the most from our investment in staff. It also means every person in the business has vision."
By 2002, Peter had a team of 50 people but acknowledged that a dynamic shift in his business model was required to help Probrand punch above its weight into the future, unlocking strong growth in the process. He then recognised that his own passion to drive efficiency within Probrand and the very in-house system that unlocked it, could help any business to become more sustainable and profitable. He wanted the broader business community to experience the same added value and money savings he was enjoying. Importantly, with the right scalable formula he could unlock huge potential for Probrand in the process.
The IT procurement chain has myriad challenges relating to the different entities involved within it; vendor, distributor, reseller, customer/end user. Peter's methodical commercial acumen saw this issue as a potential sweet spot.
Against a flat IT market in late 2002, declining margins and in the risky context of the post internet boom and bust years, Peter's drive and acute attention to giving customers what they want combined with his belief that streamlining customer business operations could deliver value, theitindex.co.uk was born. Within six months it had topped £100k per month turnover. Probrand closed the year with £10m of sales with profits up 8%.
"I have always believed in carving our own direction away from the mainstream. In the worldwide web marketplace, everyone has focussed on 'shop windows' and customer experience whilst I spotted the future was in substance and investing in the back end technology that drives our solutions. Our system has brought a standardised approach to the marketplace for the first time, taking all different levels and types of product data and turning them into a standardised format for publishing on the net - this is fully automated and happens every night. We have been able to give the market what it has been demanding for years - a globalised IT marketplace and transactional efficiency."
Probrand had cracked the nut that many had failed with during the late 90's bust; the golden fleece of capitalising on internet tools for ROI - bringing people and commerce together in one transparent solution and reducing transactional cost in the process.
The solution launched at least two years ahead of its time and any other comparison engine in any market vertical. Critically Peter's vision had captured the support of key IT vendors like HP, IBM, Sony as the future of reselling IT. This has revolutionised the way organisations buy and supply IT and has been recognised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants as offering a Best Practice Best Value approach after years of thorough evaluation.
This in itself captured Peter's interest as an alternative route to market via Financial Directors. A partnership program is paying dividends.
Peter said: "While the boom years of the internet were characterised by extensive spending, with little regard for cost or return on investment, a slowing economy has meant organisations have become more cautious about expenditure, especially in the area of IT. Our solution gets the best priced IT products to people in the shortest possible time."
Peter's mission to deliver efficiency has seen him apply the model to helping government. He said: "The Gershon efficiency report pointed out the government's wish list and we set about exceeding it." In 2006 the company secured the biggest ever public sector contract of its type, supplying ICT goods and services through OGCbuying.solutions Catalist framework worth £2.5BN across six suppliers. Probrand was the only SME approved to the framework. The business also secured the 'Great Deals' framework and level one partner status with the Cabinet Office's e-Delivery team working on the Government Gateway Alliance Program.
Peter has also achieved a personal goal to better the quality and importance of technology in the classroom dynamically adjusting the speed of technology education in schools.
Woodway Park School Resources Manager Deborah Brown said: "We saved over 35% on one five figure order alone. Result! theitindex.co.uk is saving us in excess of an hour per order." Woodway Park School has been able to buy more for the same budget and smash the DFES PC:pupil ratio of 2:1.
Headmaster, Steve Allen, adds: "This truly is a best practice purchasing tool. Put simply the solution is helping us provide our pupils with a better education."
And having setup Icomm service and support in 2003, Probrand's integrated solution has answered many public sector prayers for joined up approaches to working. Peter's technology model has streamlined Icomm operations and sales to post 31% year-on-year growth and secure a Fast 50 Rising Star accolade from Deloitte's.
Probrand has won the biggest government contracts of their type and now employs over 150 people.
However, Peter's roots in the IT market place and his approach to adding more value to stimulate growth for operators within it, has driven him to encourage more development over the last year. Probrand's IT Index has launched two new applications SCA and Acumen that are driving healthy competition amongst vendors, enabling them to increase market share, get new greener IT product to market faster and ultimately shorten product lifecycle.
The applications gather market demand for products during trading hours, then give vendors a reverse auction opportunity to win sales. This is buoying trade for vendors amidst a slow market. Theitindex.co.uk uniquely gives Probrand a point of difference and added value to manufacturers who have on average increased their sales by 40.6% year-on-year.
Peter has now taken the software behind theitindex.co.uk and launched a Probrand partner supplier in the form of Mercato Solutions. This business is based around Peter's deep rooted customer centric ethos. "No longer is the technology market driven by the vendor or software developer, it is being driven by the customer. A belief I have had from day one. Now we are designing bespoke software matched to customer requirements as well as offering a series of modular products from price policing tools to e-procurement applications that can be applied to any market vertical with a focus on increasing transactional efficiency, saving customers time and money.
"For the future, my vision is to use our aggregation and anglicising technology to join people and any element of global commerce. We want to concentrate on bringing users closer to vendors and then sewing up the global data chain in between. We have a truly scaleable model that offers a globalised IT marketplace, "he says.
"In the age of pressure for greener more sustainable approaches, we know organisations will continue to switch onto more streamlined approaches to working. The web revolution has only just begun, huge opportunities await. Our ongoing success will be achieved by harnessing the creativity of the very best people for more technological innovation. This is perhaps the secret of our success."