Spencer Ogden chairman Sir Peter Ogden proves the will to succeed trumps all
Most people who have worked their way up to a senior position with a top-rank investment bank feel they have made it. They have the material rewards, a certain status, and – all being well – can start thinking about early retirement and the finer things in life.
Sir Peter Ogden, though, saw things a little differently. After an MBA at Harvard, and stints with Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, he could easily have kept climbing the corporate ladder, playing the part of the Wall Street banker and pulling in deal after deal for his employers.
But where, he asked himself, was the challenge in that? So, instead of following the well-trodden path, Ogden did what everyone told him not to. He quit, set up a computer business, and sank his own money into making it work. It was a risk, but it was the early 1980s and his entrepreneurial instinct told him computers were the future. The world was going to change and a revolution was coming. Anyone in on the ground level could help to create a new industry and cash in at some point if their sixth sense proved correct and they managed to get things right.
Inevitably, it involved quite a change. One month, Ogden was sitting in bank boardrooms and flying first class to client meetings. The next, he was on the road again, this time driving a beaten-up old van around London, knocking on doors, trying to explain the potential benefits of prototype computer systems to sceptical business managers or the junior man in purchasing.
“My family thought I was crazy and I still can’t really identify what made me jump off the cliff,” says Ogden, who had previously earned a PhD and done advanced research in particle physics before making the switch to business. “I’d had a fantastic job with Morgan Stanley but, with a partner I met in business school, was now out there trying to be a computer salesman. We had no idea then that PCs would become a standalone business tool, but we thought we could be part of the growth curve and, in any industry, that is the best place to be.”
Early on, with funds running low and customers few and far between, the realties of being an entrepreneur hit home. No glamour, no free lunches and no loans on easy credit terms. What it took was long days, hard work, dogged determination, and a willingness to do anything and everything.
“For every entrepreneur there is the fear factor that comes with doing it all yourself,” Ogden says. “But there is also the element of not allowing someone else to be in charge of your destiny, and having control of your own future.”
An initial breakthrough came with the writing of a basic application which allowed bond traders to calculate yields by pushing three buttons on the computer rather than, as before, using a written reference manual. It improved speed and efficiencies in one small area but, importantly, could also be used as an example of the kind of change possible.
“In those early days, Harvard Business School lessons didn’t count for a lot,” Ogden says. “It was all new to us, but by going round to banks, writing a few apps for floating rate notes, invoicing and collecting the money, we were able to build sales and were learning how to run a business. Later, it was a question of hiring the right people and putting in the right culture.”
Soon, the company – Computacenter – was going from strength to strength, selling directly to business users, eschewing retail, and always concentrating on doing the basics well. It grew to become Europe’s largest computer service company, with around 12,000 employees. A successful listing later gave Ogden the finances and comparative freedom to turn his attention to new enterprises and other interests. These have included Dealogic, a financial software and data company; FlyBlink, a private jet company; and Spencer Ogden, a recruitment firm which specialises in the oil and energy sectors that has recently opened an office in Hong Kong.
As important, though, from his personal point of view, has been the chance to direct investment into initiatives which support learning and can genuinely change lives. Born into a family which was far from wealthy, Ogden has seen and experienced the benefits a good education can bring. Therefore, through a trust which supports research and offers scholarships and assisted places, he is looking to give similar advantages to as many other people as possible.
“I realised I could make a difference to individuals, but thought these efforts would have more impact if they were not spread too thinly and not done through ‘the system’,” says Ogden, who received a knighthood in 2005 for services to education. “We focus on science and physics, providing sixth-form and university scholarships, as well as funding facilities and regional partnerships. We have seen a big uptick in people taking physics, as well as improvements in the curriculum.”
PETER’S PRO TIPS
Sir Peter Ogden gives some advice on being successful in business
STAY ALERT “Opportunity and luck are major factors in building a business. Theory, strategy and the right model only get you so far.”
STAY CLOSE “Even if a business partnership doesn’t work, it is important to try to stay friends.”
STAY IN SCHOOL “If those from less privileged backgrounds get a good education and the right start, nothing can stand in their way.”