Mike Norris, CEO of Computacenter
Computacenter is pretty much the only job Mike Norris has ever had. He’s been the CEO for 20 years now, after joining the company forever ago, in 1984 to be exact. So does Norris know where Computacenter begins and he ends?
“Oh it’s shaped me, certainly, without a doubt. Whether I shaped it as well, that’s the question!” Norris thinks for a moment. We’re sitting in the London offices of the European infrastructure services group, where Norris is in an eye-catching purple tie contrasting a sparse office; the CEO spends most of his time in Hatfield. “I’ve had some influence over the company, yes. You can’t run it for over 20 years and not influence it. If I haven’t, they pay me too much!” Norris laughs. He does that a lot, somehow managing to come across as very cheerful but also quite serious at the same time. I suppose that’s a brand of confidence that comes after three decades in the same organisation: there’s no question about the company you can’t handle.
And Norris seems to like the questions too: “I quite enjoy being a public company. I like the fact I have a share price out there every day. I like that I get my homework marked in public.” Of course, Norris knows that just over 40% of the shareholders sit around his boardroom table, providing some protection. “Unless I fall out with those directors, then I’d have no protection at all!” He laughs. “But there’s protection to think a little bit more long term.”
On that note, the Computacenter story over the past few years has been dominated by solid performance in the UK, offset by weakness in Germany and France. The company’s efforts to remedy the problems have been more successful in the former territory, but Norris won’t blame the market: “The situation in France has more to do with us than the market. To an extent, the German and UK businesses are very similar, but our French business looks different from the outside.” He explains how a British customer would identify Computacenter as a provider of server virtualisation, a company that runs infrastructure, or helps you look after your users: “In the UK and Germany, they put us in this infrastructure support box. But ask a French person and they would say: ‘They’re a reseller’. And that would be truthful.”
That’s not a bad space, says Norris: “But it’s not the place I want to be. We have to reposition our French business to be more akin to the UK. And that’s really easy to say and much harder to do, because you have to change a lot. You have to change attitudes, take a more consultative approach, think more long-term. You then have to get customers to believe that you’ve done it. It takes a long time.” Computacenter has done it in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and the UK, says Norris, “but we’ve found it much harder to make that transition in France than we have anywhere else”.
Despite speculation that it might be better to sell up and be done with it, Norris is sticking it out in France. Because this is most certainly an European business: “‘Computacenter enabling users throughout Europe – open bracket – excluding France – closed bracket.’ That doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it!” Although Europe is the focus these days, a few times Norris goes to cite “the world” as the goal, suggesting a bigger target down the line: “But I try not to be pretentious. Just like my building.” He waves a hand around; the somewhat tired-looking building in increasingly trendy Southwark is due for a sprucing up. But nothing too excessive, adds the CEO – being too spendy doesn’t look good.
Still the salesman
Norris started at Computacenter as a salesman, an attitude that seems to have stuck: “Oh you have to read people. I’m a salesman, yes absolutely. I’m a B2B sales guy though, which is slightly different. If people don’t buy it from me, they’re going to buy it from somebody else. I’m not developing a need. But I’m a salesman. I love it – it’s the best part of the job.”
Computacenter has a “customer-led, sales-driven” tactic, says Norris, as I bring up how the company literature promises “More cloud, less fluff”. This description is either defensive or no-nonsense, depending on your outlook, and Norris is definitely in the latter camp. “Look, we need to have a view, we need to have innovative solutions. But equally, I see so many people get disconnected from their customers, trying to push something they just aren’t interested in, at least not at this moment. […] You have to have a view, but you don’t need much more than that.”
Computacenter was less than three years old when Norris joined in 1984, a year after getting his degree in Computer Science and Mathematics from the University of East Anglia. He tells the story of going on a company boat party the weekend before he was due to start, recalling the details vividly. “This guy came up to me and said, ‘Oh Computacenter’s great, you’ll love it! [Founder] Phil Hulme is great!’ Then he added: ‘But it’s probably not quite as good as it used to be.’” Norris sighs, exasperated. “People are always like, ‘Well, it’s not as much fun as it used to be.’ That’s such a stupid statement!” There were times in the 80s, says Norris, when the company was “pretty under-financed” and they had to get on the phones to collect debts at the end of the month, or they wouldn’t make payroll. “That gets you focused! But we haven’t had that problem for 25 years. If that’s ‘not as good as it used to be’ – then I’ll take that, thank you very much! But we were a young company then. Young in age of the company, and young in age of ourselves.”
Norris never expected to be at Computacenter all this time later, he’s quick to add. “Did I ever expect to run a company of this size? No. Did I ever expect to earn the money I’ve earned? No. What we’ve done with the organisation has afforded me an amazing career and an amazing life. So yes, this company has shaped me, absolutely.”
A patient approach
Getting from the bottom to the top was a lot easier back when Computacenter had 300 people though, compared to today’s 14,000. “I massively believe in promoting from within,” says Norris. “I really believe, when I walk away one day, it will carry on and it will do better. As long as you pick the right people. It’s not an organisation where I do everything, far from it. I think this is an incredibly empowered organisation. I just do the flair bits and the top side.” Norris takes a moment to list people running other companies who’s had a stint at his company. “The alumni around the industry is probably better from Computacenter than any other UK company. I’m quite – am I proud of that?” He does that a lot: asks himself questions and answers them. The answer here is that they can’t all rise to the top at Computacenter, so fair enough.
“The thing about Computacenter is that we’re trying to build a corporation, and not just make a buck. I don’t spend time thinking about… “ He pauses. “I’ve made enough money, for now. I don’t spend time thinking how to hike the share price and flog this and spin it back and buy this and leverage that, and all that short-term corporate finance stuff. I don’t care about that. We’re trying to deliver a great service for our customers, improve our margins, make more money and invest it back in the business – typically, organically.” Norris is on a roll. “It’s a billion market cap, just shy, and I want it to be 2 billion, or 3 billion! I want it to be a world leader. I want it to push on and grow and be big and successful! That, I get a kick out of.”
That last sentence aside, most of what Norris says comes across as practical and pretty down to earth, so it’s no surprise to hear him cite patience as the biggest lesson of his career: “In my experience, most people screw up more through reacting too quickly than too slowly.” Good news is never quite as good as it seems, nor is bad news as bad as you think. “Give it a bit of time, a bit of thought, and you’re in a much better situation than if you overreacted.” Like the German acquisition in 2002: the initial indication was £325 million, but two years later, Computacenter got the asset for £36 million. Some of that was the market, Norris adds: “But it would have been easy to chase it. You asked how closely linked I am to this company. I think you treat the money like it’s your own when you’ve been here as long as I have.”
A spirit for competition
Norris admits he’s far from cavalier in his approach, but will defend against critics accusing the company of being too conservative. Because the best part of the job is to compete: “When you’re bidding, when you’re plotting, when you’re scheming, when you’re designing something new – whether that’s financing, selling to a customer, creating a proposition. Anything that makes us more competitive and helps us to win is fun. But the real fun is the winning! That’s the only thing.” The UK operations must make for good fun for Norris then, but outspoken as he is, he won’t get too excited about the outlook of the IT services sector: “It’s okay. It’s a tough industry. It’s a slog!”
Norris is not one for buzzwords either: “I get a bit, ‘Have you learned nothing?’ We’ve been doing this all these years. This is evolution, not revolution. The cloud is not a revolution, it’s just a logical step along the road. This industry over-hypes, and that’s boring. But if you don’t go along with the hype, you’re seen as a luddite. And you go, “No, I’m just sensible!” I’m saying, it’s not as as dramatic an effect on the industry as some people would have you believe.”
Norris (53) lives in Totteridge in North London, which is handy for getting to Hatfield. He’s married to Jacqui and they have three daughters, two living nearby and one still at home. “We’re all very close.” The whole family likes spending time at the holiday house in Spain. “I’m a bit boyish in my hobbies though, even though I have three daughters. I play golf now. When I was younger I played rugby and cricket. I love all ball sports.” The two eldest daughters both work in IT: “Did I encourage them? I didn’t encourage it, but I helped one, and the other one just went and got a job. They have a good work ethic. I’m quite pleased with that.”
We chat for a bit about the pros and cons about staying in the same company for so long. Norris points to how Thatcher said she wanted to ‘go on and on and on’: “And you just think, ‘ugh!’” He laughs. “There are pros and cons to it. I think there are more pros than cons, but I would do, wouldn’t I? You have to keep fresh, keep doing things a bit different. […] It’s a great organisation to run. It’s incredibly humbling to have so much support from so many people. I’m a lucky guy. I am the luckiest person I know.”