"A commitment that’s bordering on obsession..."
From Manly, where David was born, the Dicker family moved to Connells Point where David’s father built a house near his own parents. David recalls he had a fabulous childhood; his primary school was just a walk up the hill, they had a swimming pool and life was carefree.
David’s father did reasonably well in business. He was born in 1921 and, as a young boy enduring the Great Depression, he was grateful for the help of The Smith Family. He went to the war as a navigator and bombardier, flying Lancasters. After many missions he was shot down over Germany, parachuted out, then survived the next three years in a German POW camp. He had studied law but only spent a year or two practising, before giving it up to go into the building business with his father.
David’s father talked about the war if he was asked, but he wouldn’t just bring it up. “I can’t imagine the fear, being that scared,” said David. “He did 23 missions, needing 24 to get a break and go on to the next level. Only he and one other guy made it through, the rest all died. Guys died left, right and centre. People say war was an adventure, but you’d just be mostly scared. He’d picked the Air Force because you’d die quicker, and you wouldn’t see as much blood, as opposed to the Army or Navy. You had to go, you had no choice.”
Within the carefree era in which David grew up, he did well at school, and was near the top of the class. “I didn’t realise I should have been studying, so primary school was quite easy, but I hated high school. I went to Sydney Tech, in Bexley, a selective school, but I never enjoyed it. It felt like prison, except they let you out each night. I’d go to the library most of the time to read books, but I didn’t study very hard.”
The pivotal point in David’s life came when he was 14; his father bought him a sailing boat for Christmas. “He made me take up sailing, which I wasn’t really interested in, but for some reason it captured my imagination and that just took over my whole life. I completely lost interest in school, and just wanted to go out sailing or work on the boat. When I was seventeen, I wanted to leave school in Fifth Form, now Year 11, to be an apprentice in a sail-making business. My parents wouldn’t let me.”
David recalls, “One of the happiest days of my life was when I walked out of school for the last time. There were no issues; it was just a waste of time, to my mind.”
After school, David’s parents asked him to work in a home air-conditioning business they had started. Business never took off and they closed it down. “I did an apprenticeship in refrigeration mechanics, but it was as boring as could be. I didn’t get on with the guy I worked with, and it was really dull, but I tried to get into it, and worked there for four or five years.”
Another offer beckoned at the time. “A friend was skippering a yacht in the Greek Islands, and he asked me to join him. I only went out of boredom, with no other options at the time. That lasted about three months. We were meant to go across the Atlantic, but once I saw the boat I knew it wouldn’t make it, and I got off in Gibraltar. It would have been a suicide mission, and they had to turn back eventually.”
At that time David’s father wrote to him saying “he thought I’d used up all my chances, and berating me about how badly I’d done. I was aged around 23 and Dad said there was a job in a truss plant in Adelaide, whose system he’d set up, so I moved there. After six months they offered me a job to manage the business. Fiona – my first wife – and I got into it, and built it right up. We grew the business by about 50 per cent. “
It was quite a different environment to sport which was a frame of reference David understood. “In sport if you’re not winning, you’re losing, but in business, you can still be successful and doing very well, even if you’re not the market leader.”
David started his current business in 1978 with a target of selling ten computers a month – it’s come a long way from there. “Now daily sales average is nearly $4million. The computer industry was dominated in those days by huge multinationals, and we got in with the microcomputer revolution, so we were a bit lucky. On the other hand, there were plenty of companies doing the same, and not one of them has survived. Yes, there’s luck, and there’s also making the right decisions. We made plenty of mistakes, but we made them without risking going broke.”
David reminisces, “I started on a HP97 programmable calculator and I still have the old machine; I taught myself how to program it. We realised we needed a bigger machine and couldn’t find one here, so we looked overseas.”
Keeping an eye on the US computer industry by reading magazines, David could see micro-computers were becoming popular in America. “I’ve always been a magazine guy, like my Dad. Magazines were good for information; they had both ads and articles. We sent telexes off to about 30 companies in the US. I decided to visit one company we liked, and we ordered some machines and brought them back to Australia. It wasn’t really that complicated.”
One early learning was when “I spent nearly ten years trying to build my own computer. It was a wash out, and it left me very depressed for years. It was my own fault. I wrote all the software and we invested heavily in it, including a team of half a dozen graduates working for me. We spent a lot of money – I should have just done the architecture, and let the designers do the hard work.”
David’s realistic about what underpins a failure, such as that one. “My flaw was that I wasn’t interested in a project unless it was almost impossible. Even going way back with sailing, I took on the risky things no one else could do, and often it failed. We had plenty of failure, but just managed to keep it all going.
“Failure’s debilitating, and very unpleasant. Real failure is really unpleasant; disappointment is ok. I’m not sure how good real failure is for you. We put everything into those machines, and the design was good, but I just ran out of steam mentally. In the end I couldn’t do it anymore, and it was really debilitating,” David recalls.
The business has had two phases. “The part before my wife Fiona left, and then afterwards. We started the company together; I had the ideas and she implemented the work. Fiona could work 16-18 hours a day, take fifty phone calls an hour and get up and do it again. I’ve never been able to do that. She was very good at talking to customers. We got divorced in the 90s, she remarried and tried to push me out of the business, but I managed to stay on.”
Further turmoil was to come. “At one stage Fiona said she was leaving her second husband, and went into hiding indefinitely and, in the end, she never came back. Everyone thought the business would fail without her, including me, but I had to do whatever I could. We got the business going and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. We were weak with the vendors, probably eighty percent Hewlett Packard (HP), and the others were multinationals, so we could have easily gone down in the long term. That break allowed me to do what I wanted.”
The Express Data deal was David’s “deal of the century”, as he calls it. “We were mainly an HP shop. They were our biggest vendor by far, and we didn’t have Cisco, who we needed. Express Data had been on the market for two or three years, and were about twice the size of us, but we thought we could buy it. The numbers added up, so we basically funded it through their balance sheet, which was good. We did it completely on debt, with no equity being diluted, so we managed to get it through, just barely. I did the architecture and there was a tight timetable, which we managed to stick to, although everyone said we couldn’t do it but we did. Even the banks and corporate advisers, who are nice enough guys, are-bound by the conventional way of doing things, and can’t think outside the box.
“We’ll do a billion dollars in sales this year, but it’s taken us thirty-five years to get here”, he says modestly. “It happened over such a long period of time, step by step, so it doesn’t look so big, one step at a time. We have an even bigger deal planned for next year, and I’m confident of getting that up.”
Does David plan far ahead? “I like to have a one year horizon. I don’t like to look too far ahead. We project out for the next year, in terms of monthly sales. By December we’ll have a projection of monthly sales which is the guide we use, and that guarantees we get to our desired outcomes and targets, and we use that to drive the business forward, so that’s our timeframe.
“The Express Data deal took about a year to go through. There’s no point making long term plans, that’s hopeless. The banks all wanted miles of paperwork, but it’s really pointless. You have to fund the business, and you have to be able to move up the funding ladder, especially in this county, and you do it step-by-step. When the Express Data deal came along we were profitable and had built this factory, and we were able to get it across the line, but it was very tight.”
How does David stay motivated? “The motivation comes from within, I can’t say why really. I enjoy business, you get success and you get satisfaction, and that what’s life all about.”
Things have changed since 1978, when David said he used to do all the technical stuff, including programming. “It was a much more technical style of selling to what we have now. In the early days, Fiona did most of the face-to-face stuff, simply because she was better than me at it.
“Today we have day-to-day managers, and I just do the architecture. We have meetings, and talk all the time of course, and I get the figures every day, but I don’t do any of the day-to-day stuff, they do all the work. I go to some of the vendor functions, but all I do is the architecture.
“As you get older, you realise it’s not hard coming up with ideas, it’s harder making them happen. To make them happen, you have to have an infrastructure. Like the ED deal. The corporate advisers, and accountants working full-time on it, and then there’s the lawyers.
“If you can’t maintain the basic culture that the company was built on, we wouldn’t get the metrics we need in order to be successful. It’s up to me to whinge and howl to get it happening. The people doing the work have to be better than our competitors, not in absolute terms, but you simply have to be better than the other guys.”
Cars are David’s passion, but he says the business is more important than anything else. “I love boats, but compared to cars, boats are a lot of hard work. Boats take time to set up, as opposed to a car, you just jump in and go. Dad tried to tell me cars were just transport, and for going from A to B.”
David fell out with his parents in 1980. “I decided to buy a used Corvette, it was only $15k, and I’d also ordered a Ford a few months earlier, so that came along when I had already bought the Corvette. So we fell out because they couldn’t believe I’d bought two cars.”
David’s passion for cars and business happily intersected recently. On a trip to Italy, “we went on a factory tour at Ferrari. Italians have a high level of passion. Ferrari is a business and the people who work there love that business – their passion is exciting. The cars are just absolutely fabulous as a result.”
Dicker Data is an IT distributor. “From the start we sold half our products to our own customers, and the other half to computer wholesalers, or resellers, but as the industry matured over time, we’ve moved away from direct selling. Now all our customers sell to other people, which is perfect, because selling to the public is terribly difficult.”
The business will have a turnover this year of over a billion dollars, and David notes “profit will be $30.9M this year. I own 38 percent, Fiona owns 32 percent the public owns 30 percent. We give out all the profits to the shareholders. I firmly believe that’s how a company should be run.”
What advice does David have for budding entrepreneurs? “It’s almost impossible to give tips for entrepreneurs because there are so many nuances. I’ve been in business over 35 years and we’ve been successful because we’ve been able to stay in the game. It’s very hard to actually stay in, because you do get pushed out. You need lots of ‘stickablity’ and you need to know when to change tack. My business is probably the single most important thing in my life. It’s not work, I’m really interested in it, but it’s not like having a job.”
Commitment is another critical element. “You need to have a commitment that’s bordering on obsession if you want to be successful. You have to keep ahead of ‘those other guys’. Commitment is the number one thing.
Sport again plays a part in the understanding of how to play in the game of business. “When you’re in competition, it’s helpful to severely dislike your competitors – in sport and in business. That way it’s easier to work against them. I have no role models in the computer industry, you have to treat them with disdain; otherwise you don’t develop the killer instinct you need to crush them, if it comes down to that.
“You see people do things which are really impressive, like Jarryd Hayne. There’s a guy at the top of his game, who wanted to try something new, and good on him. That’s so impressive.”
On reflection, David comments, “When Fiona and I got involved in business, it just took over. Fiona and I came to work every day and the business was our life. We decided not to have kids, our whole life was the business. My mother hated us always talking about the business when we visited them every Sunday night to have dinner and watch the football. I have other interests outside of work, but thankfully I don’t have to choose.”
- “I love coming to work.”
- “My business is the single most important thing in my life. It’s not work… it’s not like having a job.”
- “My flaw was that I wasn’t interested in a project unless it was almost impossible.”
- “You need to have a commitment that’s bordering on obsession, if you want to be successful.”
Industry maverick David Dicker is one of a kind. His business has been selling computer hardware to Australian entrepreneurs and corporations for over thirty-five years, and after a recent acquisition, Dicker Data will turn over an amazing one billion dollars this year, but it wasn’t an instant success.