Bryan Mills co-founded CMG in 1964 and led it to become a successful data processing company and software development company. It developed the first packaged software in the UK: to help accountants collect data on the clients they were working for. Bryan designed it. Bryan worked in Burroughs for eight years before CMG. The key idea behind CMG was that you did not have to own a computer, just rent computer time off other users. The company grew without borrowings during Bryan’s tenure with a 30% revenue growth a year.
Bryan was born in Hammersmith, London in 1931. His parents had been childhood sweethearts. When he was born, his father worked for the Post Office as an unskilled worker originally sweeping floors. When he was five they moved from their terraced house to a Victorian terrace in Hammersmith where his parents lived until the 1960s. His father had joined the Post Office because of the pension as he was keen to provide security for his family. Bryan’s grandfather was killed in the First World War, leaving his grandmother a widow with five children. His mother had worked in the Food Halls at Harrods prior to getting married and when Bryan’s youngest sister was 12, returned to work for Lyons on accounts part-time.
Bryan was the eldest of four children, his sister, Vanessa married Alex Bernstein of Granada Television and died of leukemia. His brother owns a family firm at Wrexham where his wife and two sons also work. Prior to that he built a subsidiary of an American company from a start-up of three people to a turnover of £30 million a year. His younger sister was married to the scientific and medical journalist, Ronnie Bedford and worked for the British Medical Association as membership secretary, minutes secretary for the International Air Transport Association and PA to the president of Columbia in New York. Mills describes his family as “an interesting example of Fifties social mobility”.
Bryan and his siblings started at state primary schools and then he and his brother went to Latymer Upper School by way of the Eleven Plus. His sisters attended Burlington. He does not describe himself as ambitious, rather that “We’ve always just done what was put in front of us”. His parents supported them in whatever they decided to do. He was in the A stream and a prefect at school – academic but not sporty with a strong interest in history. He was influenced by his headmaster, Fred Wilkinson who believed that “everyone was much the same, and most people were decent”. At school, and to this day, Bryan’s principal interest was history.
After leaving Latymer in 1950, Bryan did National Service. He had six weeks’ basic training as a Royal Fusilier, where they sorted you into “potential leaders, and the rest”. Bryan joined other officer cadets at Eaton Hall for three months of Infantry training, and was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps. Bryan believes his army experience shaped him mostly for the better and taught him a lot about leadership. He learned that, “mostly it was not a case of can’t, it was a case of won’t.”
At Christ’s College, Cambridge, he read Law and Economics. Bryan was awarded a state scholarship, giving him a grant of £93 per term, and fees paid, which was the same as most of his fellow students were given as an allowance, so although many of his peers came from different circumstances, whilst at university most were on the same level. He describes one of his rowing acquaintance as having parents “in Belgravia with a footman behind every chair.” He found the first two years of studying Law “quite interesting”, gaining a 2:1 but thought the third year looked “a bit duller” so he did the second part of the Economics Tripos – a two year course, in a year gaining a 2:2.
Outside of academia, Bryan rowed for the college, having begun rowing at school because, as he told his games master; “you can do it sitting down sir’. He belonged to a club founded in the 19th Century called the Original Christian Minstrels, singing spirituals and cockney music hall songs, and a smart dining club called the Beaufort. He spent a good deal of his time rowing and socializing, until the third year Economics cram. His main friends at Cambridge had all done National Service. He was part of a group of four, all of whom rowed and all were in the Christian Minstrels. One had been a friend since school. He compares his group with those who had gone straight to university from school, saying that at that stage it was a big gap.
Bryan’s first job after university was Assistant Principal at the Commonwealth Relations Office. He learned that “you can prove anything with verbal logic. It depends on what you want to prove”. The job involved “arriving in a leisurely manner” and leaving at six, reading in the library to research papers for the Commonwealth. He did this for just short of a year before having an interview with a “wonderful brigadier type person, retired, big grey moustache” who thought he would make a good management consultant, but recommended he do some managing first, getting some experience at “one of these new-fangled computer companies?”
He joined Burroughs who had been since 1896 a manufacturer of adding machines, who moved into computers very early. He took his pinstripe suit from Whitehall and a week later was trying to sell mechanical adding machines to sweet shops in Peckham – a bit of a culture change. He was the first non-accountant to be recruited by Burroughs and was well trained in the art of selling. He worked for the company from 1956 to 1964 and says the best part of the experience was his fellow colleagues.
For the first few months at Burroughs he struggled, unsuccessfully. Then he was given the applicants test – which he had not been given when he applied. They discovered from this that he “didn’t know a debit from a credit”, so they told him to do an accountancy correspondence course which took six months. After that he was recruited into the city branch selling to stockbrokers an merchant banks. Then he was moved to deal with Lloyds Bank as part of a group of three. Doug Gorman was the systems engineer, and the team leader handled the computer sales.. When his wife, Elizabeth was dying of cervical cancer, Burroughs were very supportive, saying “Come in when you can”.
In 1963 Burroughs were making the B200 computer. It had three main uses, one was to replace punch cards, the second was mag tape and the third drove their cheque sorter. Bryan describes going to see an installation where there was a punched card B200 in the middle of a vast empty room which had previously been filled with tabulators, sorters and collators and printers. The B200 was doing what had been all their work. The punched card B200 was a serious competitor for the IBM 1401, but Burroughs were hung up on the cheque sorter and the mag tape devices.
It was seeing reading a Burroughs book about running a punched card service bureau that gave Bryan the idea of setting up a computer service bureau. At this early stage in the evolution of computers, many of the machines had spare capacity. So Bryan thought he could buy the spare capacity and use it to run a computer service bureau. He considered what he would need to set it up and says it did not occur to him that you needed to borrow a large amount of money to start it; he thought about the people he would need. He thought he would need somebody who really knew about computers, so he approached Doug Gorman. He also thought he would need a top-notch salesman and he thought of Bob Collins who had been on the first training course with Bryan at Burroughs and was godfather to his eldest child. The name of the company came from the initials of their surnames.
After gaining their wives’ support, they began to think about how to set it up. They realized they needed someone who was prepared to sell them computer time and a legal entity. Bryan approached a lawyer friend from Cambridge, who thought it was a good idea but there was a problem. He had an existing client doing something similar and he wanted to avoid a conflict of interest. The existing client was John Hoskins. Bryan met Hoskins who was not concerned about a conflict of interest. The lawyer (Angus Young) observed they needed an auditor, and introduced them to Richard Brandt, the junior partner at Dearden, Harper and Miller. They agreed to work together and sealed the deal over lunch.
They financed their first piece of office equipment, an electric typewriter, by leasing it. CMG never borrowed any money in Bryan’s time, it had £1500 of actual cash put into it. Later on, Bryan’s sister loaned £2000 for a short period, but everything else was generated cash from the business. In the early days, the company was run from the partners’ homes.
Bryan realized there was spare computer capacity on many companies’ machines that CMG could buy and use to do processing for other people who couldn’t afford a computer. Once they had developed the ACT software package, the business grew as contacts asked them to take on other types of IT service work. A significant breakthrough came when a Liverpool department store (Owen and Owen) asked them to sort out a severe programming problem. This was followed by a consultant to British Relay Wireless approaching them to solve BRW’s programming problems. By this stage, they needed more resources and began recruiting friends who had programming backgrounds. A couple of years after starting out, they had around 10 people working out of offices in Croydon and it had become a real business.
Structure of CMG
CMG had two main activities, Data processing (e.g ACT, payroll etc) and systems development (i.e. systems analysis, design and software programming)
ACT: Richard Brandt was looking for a computer solution for recording the time which Dearden, Harper & Miller’s clerks spent on clients’ work. He believed that if the CMG could solve this “we wouldn’t be the only people who would be interested”. Bryan had recently produced a system for this purpose on Sensimatics accounting machines for Touche Ross, keeping the records on cards. From this they evolved ACT – Accountants’ Computer Time ledger, the first product for CMG. ACT was written by the fourth member of the team, Bob Fawcett. Bryan designed the system, Doug Gorman turned that in to a proper systems analysis, Bob Fawcett wrote the programs and Bob Collins sold it. At this time all four were still working in their day jobs.
Bryan believes ACT was the first complete purpose-written application software package to be sold in the UK. It was a complete solution, with stationery, binders for holding the stationery and bags for delivering the material.
Growth: The company was doubling revenue every year in the early years . As they billed on day 14, by the time it came to pay the staff on day 28, they would have the money to meet their salary. CMG never borrowed money , nor ever needed an overdraft in Bryan’s time. They assumed that they could get the resources they needed and pay for them as they were used. During the time Bryan was there, CMG grew consistently in revenue terms at around 30% per year.
Recruitment: As the company was growing so fast, they were recruiting all the time. All the interviews took place in one day. The rule was “any doubt, out”. The first part of the interview was the “Receptionist Test” if the receptionist did not approve, the interview did not last long. After that, candidates met somebody who was currently doing the job they were applying for. The next stage was the line manager of that part of the company, and then finally one of the local managing directors. The managing director made offers there and then, there was no waiting for a letter. CMG was not engaged in competitive recruitment, they were looking for people who were good enough to perform the job they needed, not “the one ideal person to fill one specific job”.
Shares: The CMG share scheme was real shares – not share options. The founders did not want any prospect of being bought out, so they initially started by only allowing a percentage of their salary or profit share to be used for buying shares. Dearden, Harper and Miller valued the company, but that gave an auditor’s valuation not a market valuation, which resulted in their selling off the shares too cheaply – even if it was to their own staff. So, CMG employed a succession of merchant banks who each approached the pricing of the company from a different angle:- assets, cash flow, multiple of profit. Eventually, after Bryan left, The company was floated at £6 billion.
Management: Bryan and his founder colleagues believed in communication – instructions go through channels, but information flows any which way. It would be in order for a salesman to ring Bryan up to ask him something, and equally for Bryan to call the salesman. But, there was a distinction between managers and non-managers. If you were a manager, you had a budget and staff reporting to you. No part of the organization had single managers, always two managing directors. The founders debated everything, but once they had agreed on the policy, that was it. A former employee said to them, “The trouble with dealing with you three, it’s like dealing with a hydra. It doesn’t matter which head you speak to, you get the same answer”.
Gender Equality: After a female programmer pointed out that she was being paid less than a man doing the same job, the founders discovered the women were at the bottom of the pay scales, which was a surprise to them. Following this they regularly went through their list of staff and checked that they were being remunerated according to their value, regardless of their gender.
International: CMG had operations in Continental Europe, but not the United States – Bryan describes it as too far away. He says the Holland office was “a complete accident”. Reader’s Digest said, “The Dutch operation’s got a problem. Could you do anything about it?” So they sent two guys over, who thought they could expand the software business there. CMG employed 10% of all the IT people in Holland.
Bryan left CMG in 1981. He moved to a “Palladian villa” in Ireland and chose the path that enabled him to enjoy his children’s teenage years and experience the life of “a minor eighteeth-century lordling”. If he had still been a shareholder, he would have made £2 billion when the company was floated.
He became Chairman of F International UK, in the early 1980s. When Bryan came back to England, Bob Fawcett had also left CMG, so they decided to work together again. They teamed up with an investment banker, a small investment banking house, and set out to acquire companies. Bryan described this as “the only way of getting to be a reasonable size reasonably quickly in the current environment”. They bought three companies to begin with; Timegate, Calidus and SIA. The most successful was SIA because they were able to put an ex-CMG guy in charge, and impose the CMG culture. He says that at Timegate, he “backed the wrong horse”. Another company, Craigmore was based on a software company that was “all smoke and mirrors” and eventually the venture capitalists ganged up on him and sacked him over breakfast at the Goring.
Bryan is proudest of the fact that CMG made people rich and behaved honestly by its customers.
Information technology now permeates the whole of modern life, to a degree which could not have been imagined 50 years ago, “You carry this thing in your pocket, everywhere, and what’s more, it works everywhere”.
You need a good idea and to believe in it strongly enough to carry it out. Bryan’s original idea was that you didn’t have to own a computer in order to use it. Everything else followed from that.
Interviewed by: Alan Cane on the 8th January 2016 at the WCIT Hall
Video by: Boardie
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Annabel Graham