David feels that teamwork and commitment that are essential for success in sport are also applicable to the business world. The key to good management is building a good team, a group of people that you can trust and that work with you: The team is what matters if you want to win: you can’t do it yourself.
Early Life and Education
David Clarke was born in Yorkshire in a working-class community: both his father and grandfather were committed socialists. His father was an engineer and his mother looked after the children but later became a building society manager. David’s perspectives and expectations changed dramatically at secondary school: he excelled at maths and went to grammar school where he found himself mixing on equal terms with people from very different backgrounds which gave him confidence in his own abilities. He was also outstanding at sport, winning the Yorkshire Schools cross-country race (whilst ill with German Measles) and playing football for the East Riding Under Eighteens, usually captaining the team. He was fiercely competitive and driven to succeed.
David also loved performing and playing football in front of a crowd helped his confidence. One of his favourite memories was at the age of eighteen, representing his home town Bridlington against Lytham St Anne in the final of the very first BBC “It’s a knockout!” competition between seaside towns in 1966. The final challenge was knocking down 10 goalkeepers in a skittles type set up with a football. The opposing team got a moderate score of 6 , but David won the competition knocking down all 10 without a miss , and was an instant local and national celebrity: 13 million people had watched the live final on BBC television.
David left school after O levels and chose a career in football. His first trials were at Leeds United but Hull City offered him his first professional contract. There he kept Stuart Pearson, subsequently to play for Manchester United and England, out of the team for a while but unfortunately he suffered a serious injury to his ankle ligaments which never really healed. After a year he had to give up professional football.
Not knowing what to do after his football disappointment, David started working at a bank, attending night school in Scarborough four nights a week to get banking qualifications. From there he went into accounting, spurred by the realisation that accountancy salaries were very attractive. Having passed his first banking exams, Scarborough college allowed him to transfer to accountancy, and he qualified later.
David still had no idea what he really wanted to do. He was intrigued by Olivetti salesmen who kept trying to sell him accountancy systems and decided to try that. Olivetti, like other ICT companies of the time, were prepared to take untrained people and provide top rate training in both the technology and sales. Although he didn’t stay there long, he learned a lot.
While at Olivetti, David was working with a customer, the Holderness Plough Company, a large agricultural machinery firm who had a terrible accounting system, and he felt they would benefit from an Olivetti machine. The company was run by two brothers who were in the process of selling it, so they weren’t interested. However after the sale he was asked back to provide an accounting system and subsequently became the accountant. This led to him becoming Finance Director and eventually Managing Director. So David was an MD by the age of 28. The company was the agent for the East Riding of Yorkshire for International Harvester Tractors and most other farm machinery. Unfortunately after three years , the International Harvester parent company in the United States went bankrupt. Other tractor makes were unsuitable or already had dealerships so there was no obvious future for the business.
However, David had worked hard to make the business more profitable and address the seasonality of the sales cycle, developing a computer based system that ran on HP equipment. HP was interested in supporting the development of this application for use in other markets and approached David. They needed someone who understood computers and accounting to help them develop HP financial accounting products and invited him to their European Headquarters in Germany to discuss it further. Married with two young children, David was hesitant but encouraged by his wife they visited Böblingen, near Stuttgart for a long weekend and liked it so much that he accepted a job offer and they moved to Germany in 1978. David recounts that he had more fun in the business environment during his time in Germany than any other point in his career, made long term friends and received excellent training. In particular he recalls a week-long course in presentation skills. At the end of the week he felt he had enjoyed himself tremendously but learned nothing. Within a month he realised the value of the training – he was using what he’d learned in every presentation he gave. He had to re-do his formal evaluation of the programme from useless to brilliant.
HP’s objective was to complement their HP3000 hardware based manufacturing and processing software with order processing and accounting applications so they could deliver a complete package to their customer. The development would be done in Germany but the UK would be the first test market, so they needed people there too. At this point HP suggested to David that he should move into marketing, which had not occurred to him. HP sent him to Henley Management College for training and he took the equivalent of a Marketing Degree course there. He soon realised that this was a perfect fit. He initially took on the global Product Management role for the new software based in Germany but the UK needed someone to lead that role as the products were introduced there. His eldest son was about to start secondary education so the family had to decide either to stay in Germany until both children had finished their secondary education or head back home, and they opted to return to the UK. David expected to be running the financial accounting business but he was actually tasked with the activity for the whole financial services industry, which in reality meant creating the business pretty much from scratch; both customer and supplier learned on the job.
At this time a minicomputing revolution was happening around them: they were cheaper and more flexible than mainframes and HP started to get left behind. The company decided to merge its traditional technical business, which had 75% of market share, with the much smaller, newer commercial business. The new country manager, coming from the technical business side of things saw no need for marketing and had little interest in the commercial business. He had misread the market. David decided that it was time to leave.
In 1983 David approached DEC who had already moved on to a 32 bit machine, and a job was created for him. During his tenure, which lasted until 1990, the DEC VAX became ubiquitous. He was European Channels Marketing Manager: DEC were selling through multiple channels as well as directly. The result was a mess, with marketing and sales competing against each other. Moreover, their legal Counsel, Peter Bembridge, informed them that selling at different prices was illegal under EEC competition rules. With Peter’s advice, David was tasked with resolving the significant issue, first in the UK and then in Europe. As a result he became very familiar with competition law. He remembers presenting the situation to visiting US staff using a flipchart and a green pen that happened to be available in the hotel at Heathrow where they met. The US team, in turn explaining it back home, thought the green was a well understood UK and European market definition indicating sales sectors rather than simply the fact that there were no other pens available in the hotel that night. David was amused to find a year later at a presentation in Huston that the “green” sectors and “white “ sectors had become a formal part of the market strategy
At this time David was privileged to have the benefit of advice from Sir John Harvey Jones, who acted as an informal non-executive director at DEC UK. Luckily David was running the project Sir John was engaged to look into. David felt that Sir John was a superb strategist and understood the value of minicomputers in giving flexibility to a business portfolio. David found his advice and guidance invaluable and wishes that the senior management had agreed to employ him formally: an omission that he saw then and still sees as a huge missed opportunity for DEC.
He became concerned that the management was committed to doing the same thing year-in-year-out despite the fact that technology and particularly price models were moving on. He tried to persuade the Board that if a hardware company like Compaq teamed up with an operating system like Unix they could massively undercut DEC, where the sale price of systems included operating system, applications and a lot of consultancy. He failed to persuade either the UK or the European management to change their approach. He wryly remembers one observation from the Henley Management course, that P&O would have been the most successful airline in the world if they had realised that their business was not shipping but moving people and foods between the US and Europe. He felt the same applied to DEC. They didn’t realise what their core business was. It wasn’t the hardware they built but the operating systems that enabled them. They had world leading operating systems but their market approach would price them out of the market. He managed to get a meeting one evening with the founder of DEC, Ken Olsen , and went through this whole approach with him. Ken was a world class engineer and said that David’s proposal was to give away DEC’s crown jewels. David decided then to move on, and moved to Compaq within a few months as UK Marketing Director.
David’s prediction had been wrong in only one respect: it was Microsoft’s operating system not Unix that Compaq teamed up with.
Microsoft wanted to preload user applications as well as operating systems onto their PC’s prior to the user purchasing them. They were effectively wanting to compete with Lotus Smartsuite, which was very IBM PC related, but could offer lower costs and integration of the applications into an early version of Office. This hardware-software combination was responsible for much of the company’s early business growth, but David also upgraded the sales channels and generated funding for marketing. Compaq had also produced a good machine(effectively a reverse-engineered IBM), and the timing was right: it was the rise of the PC, people were switching to client server architecture, their resellers were gaining in capability all the time and they were signing up all the biggest and best services providers. David remembers chastising the Houston management coming to the UK and saying their aim was to move the company from fourth to third place in the global PC market. Doing this would mean that third place was the best they were ever going to achive. The real target should be first. If that was the target ,then every goal, target , activity etc would be different. This quickly became the goal, and Compaq became the No 1 PC manufacturer in the UK the next year, global dominance took another two years.
By 1996 David had held senior UK and European roles at Compaq but wanted a CEO position. Although they were almost complete opposites, he got on very well with UK CEO Joe McNally because they could both play to their strengths in different areas. However, after Joe failed to be promoted to the top European job, when it became vacant, David knew that the position of UK CEO was unlikely to be available soon. So he moved on again.
This time he was headhunted to be UK CEO of Netcom, a start up with global headquarters in San Jose, which was the first consumer-based internet provider. They built a product called NetComplete that gave consumers everything they needed to get on the internet (except a computer). However, the US parent had overextended and the finance for the market development of UK subsidiary never materialised. While a smaller-scale activity providing internet capability to businesses was successful, the business they actually won the award for ISP of the year in his first year, the consumer market would never take off without a properly funded marketing campaign.
Just as David was losing confidence in Netcom’s financial standing he was approached by Richard Branson’s team who had been advised that these new “internet” technologies would be important for many Virgin businesses. When David joined the group, he found that Virgin already employed a number of very talented technical staff and Virgin was seeking a consumer friendly search engine they could use. Two senior technical staff visited the Silicon Valley area and “discovered” Google, at the time unheard of in the UK, and by 1998 Virgin had a deal with Google to become the first UK internet provider to use their search engine. At the same time telecoms charging structures changed: the communications (telephone) charges started to be met by the consumers, which allowed the Internet Service Providers to provide other services for free and fundamentally changed the internet business model. David found some aspects of the Virgin culture unsettling, not least that all the businesses seemed to be for sale, all the time: he felt it undermined his efforts to build something more long term for the benefit of the company.
Mirror Group and Trinity Mirror
David’s next move was to the Mirror Newspaper group, where he was encouraged by Cornel Riklin, a Main Board Director who really understood the internet and, together with some ex Virgin staff he took with him, developed some really innovative new media offerings like internet betting, online shopping and a sports channel, all based on existing newspaper content streams. For example they were looking at a betting site branded the Racing Post. However, the group soon merged with (or perhaps more accurately was taken over by) Trinity Plc . Trinity Plc were the UK largest local newspaper group, but whose management at the time did not fully grasp the opportunities that internet could bring. David considers that Trinity Mirror’s biggest mistake was not capitalising on the internet activities his team had already developed . There was scope to raise the necessary investment by selling the ISP he had developed and had already received an indicative offer of about £1m from Deutsche Telekom for what was purely a connection service – no content at all, and David knew content was going to be king in the future. However, the Trinity Mirror Board asked their usual newspaper acquisition consultants to advised them on what to do. The last slide in the consultant’s presentation to the Board on David’s proposaal to sell the ISP and invest the money into content development was “The Market is moving in our direction”. Soon afterwards the ISP market crumbled and the opportunity was lost for good. Trinity Mirror honoured David’s contract so he had time to think about his next move and write his memoirs which he entitled “The Market is moving in our direction”
David was approached by a third recruitment company who were looking for a new CEO for the BCS, the British Computer Society. Although he had been in the IT sector in various forms for many years by this time, he had only come across BCS once before. This was when he was Marketing Director of Compaq computers. He had been asked to make a presentation to the Board of BCS with regards to these new fangled “notebook “ computers. In the end, they said it was all very interesting but of course they would never amount to anything. Just a gimmick really. So he came away thinking they were very academic and out of touch with the real world. He certainly had not thought about working there. However, he was really impressed with the Trustees he met in the recruitment process and eventually agreed to commit to five years, taking over from Judith Scott. He worked closely with Geoff McMullen, the President at the time, on a strategy. He also asked people in the industry for their views. Half said they hadn’t heard of BCS and the other half said that they were aware of BCS but it wasn’t relevant to them, which he found disappointing. There were 37,000 members, including a number of foreign students who got a discount on exam fees if they joined and a lot of academics, whose interests were completely at odds with members from the commercial space. The membership was described to him as “stable” over the last ten years but David observed that the market share had halved in recent times because the number of people in the profession had doubled in the same time period.
Other issues included lack of consistency in the Council as it was then , where the senior positions (all voluntary) rotated too quickly , which meant that the Trustees did not have time to delivery anything meaningful. The membership tended to be clustered in long established cliques, some of which were adding little value to the BCS but incurring significant cost. The financial model was a mess and there was no money to do anything.
During his tenure, and with the help of excellent volunteers like Geoff and David Morriss, significant changes were made. The membership was approximately doubled, which in itself required investment and more resource to manage the additional numbers. A much stronger IT Examinations business was developed to help finance the operation: firstly through the ECDL examination and later through more advanced professional qualifications, along with certification capabilities. They also professionalised the way the organisation responded to requests for information, especially from the media: instead of asking for comment by committee they appointed individual subject matter experts. This was not always popular but it meant that an enquiry would receive an expert answer. The organisation became financially solvent. Moreover, with the leadership of Charles Hughes, they made significant progress in professionalising the industry.
In all David, was the Group CEO of the BCS for thirteen years, using the Chartered Status that the organisation always had to much greater effect, and making the whole organisation much more structured and financially stable. He had a great team of volunteers and staff who made a huge difference. By the time he retired, many senior figures in the industry told him that the BCS, now increasingly known as the Chartered Institute for IT, was indeed leading the IT profession in the UK ,and the profession itself was no longer seen as the cowboy profession so many people told him it was in 2002.
On reflection David feels that together they achieved a lot of their objectives, but that he could have handled the transformation better, especially in terms of how they managed change with some of the members groups. At one point an EGM was called where a number of long term issues were raised, and there was resistance from some of the member Specialist Groups whose freedom to operate entirely independently and spend money as they had in the past had been curtailed. The EGM vote was won by the Trustees and David with over 76% of those voting supporting them, however he would have preferred it had never come to that. In the main, though, David feels he and his team gave the BCS structure, purpose and relevance it desperately needed in 2002. He wishes that more had been made of the opportunities around the Chartered IT Professional and feels that instead of helping to start young people on a career path it was used as a short term recruitment tool, which he thinks is a shame.
Reflections and Advice
On reflection, David wishes he had stood his ground more firmly at Trinity Mirror on the internet service opportunities. They missed a massive opportunity that still haunts him that he let it happen. So he would advise young people to have the courage of their convictions and not let themselves get talked out of things that they know are sound ideas.
David feels that teamwork and commitment that he learnt are so essential for success in sport are as applicable to the business world if not more so. The key to good management is building a good team, a group of people that you can really trust and that work with you: The team is what matters if you want to win: you can’t do it all yourself.
David feels he was extremely lucky in his early years in the profession to have Sir John Harvey Jones as an unofficial mentor. There are many many things John told him that have stayed with him ever since, and none more than “Trust is something you give, and with a little luck you will get some back”
Interviewed by: Tom Abram on the 23rd May 2019 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Emma Fryer