On July 24, 1978, David Dicker, and his then wife, Fiona, began importing microcomputers from the US. So began Dicker Data, a distribution business that 35 years later stands tall as a market leader.
Before that fateful July day, Dicker was working in his father’s business, which made material and equipment for building timber roof trusses. It was there that he saw consulting engineers using HP-97 programmable calculators, but he wasn’t very good at mathematics so he dug out his old high school text books to relearn it all.
Dicker then flew to the US about a week before he was to marry Fiona, and bought some microcomputers from Vector Graphic.
A year later, that relationship led to exclusive distribution status in Australia.
During the 1980s, Dicker spent years trying to build his own computer, which he may well have succeeded in doing had he listened to his wife’s advice to take it the US. But Dicker was bent on making it work in Australia. He now admits he didn’t manage the project as well as he should have.
Even though the project failed, he didn’t bankrupt the company in the process.
Fast forward to today and the ASX-listed distributor is one of the top three major players in the market. Staying true to his box-pushing ideals David Dicker with his trademark long ponytail is one of the most recognisable people in the industry. He is a member of the ARN Hall of Fame and an industry leader known for his down-to-earth approach to business and a wicked sense of humour.
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Dicker Data, David sat down with JULIA TALEVSKI to talk about his long and successful journey.
Julia Talevski (JT): What was your first day in the office like?
David Dicker (DD): I have no idea, it was 35 years ago. I do remember driving my car chock-a-block full of micro computers and hardware bits. The thing about it was that we didn’t know anything about them. We figured them out up until the circuit board level. A guy up the road in Sutherland did the circuit board work and repairs for us. It was crazy, but it just seemed the right thing to do. We didn’t have marketing support from vendors those days, so we had to do it all ourselves. We had a printing press full time and Fiona did a fair bit of work with it. 35 years is just mind-boggling, it doesn’t seem like that was long ago. I originally wanted to leave school and become a sail maker, but my parents wouldn’t let me.
JT: How old were you when you started the business?
DD: I had just turned 25. Fiona and I got married about July 20, and I went over to the US just before the wedding. It was different back then because all the companies that we dealt with were all start-ups. A lot of the people involved didn’t know that much more about the business side than I did, so you didn’t have too much of an issue there.
The whole thing was a bit of an accident. It was an opportunity that came up and we took it, made something out of it. Those opportunities don’t come around very often.
One thing that still remains the same as today, is that it comes down to numbers and what you can do. If you can get stuff out the door, you’ve got good credibility, but if it’s just talk then it only lasts for so long.
JT: How many of you were in the office compared to now?
DD: It was just Fiona and I. Now there are about 100 staff. The whole success and structure of the company was built on mothers that wanted to return to the workforce. We had these women working 9am-3pm and that worked pretty well.
If you can stay in something long enough, you’re bound to do alright. We haven’t made enough major mistakes to be fatal. We’ve always been competitive and tried the best we can and we’ve be able to do distribution better than the other guys.
JT: Did you ever think the business would last 35 years and get to the point where it is today?
DD: No. I always said 20 years would see me out of the computer industry. I used to tell Fiona that 20 years will be enough. I never had any long range plan. The closest we came to any kind of plan or target was that we wanted to sell about 10 microcomputers a month. That was it. The rest of it was just like going into work and trying to get the best outcome that you could.
JT: After starting to distribute the microcomputers, what happened next?
DD: It was exciting with Vector Graphic, but it only lasted about two or three years. They were a good company, a husband and wife team, but they got divorced. The husband was a really good engineer and that made it pretty easy for the marketing side, but they didn’t last very long. When the IBM PC came out, I remember Lore Harp telling me that she thought it was too late to build a compatible IBM PC, so they weren’t going to bother. Vector went into decline after that and about a year later they were defunct.
We started to sell IBM-type PC machines out of Taiwan. We had dealers for the Vector Graphic side of the business and we also sold direct at the time. We had some OEM contracts for those machines as well. We kept that going for a while before we started up with Toshiba in about 1985. Then we got Compaq in 1992/93.
In the 80s I spent 10 years trying to build my own computer.
JT: Do you have any regrets?
DD: I mismanaged the project. The concept of the machine was really good, and it would still be good now. If we resurrected it now, it would still be successful because we were in a slightly different area to where the machines are now. The real problem was that I tried to do too much. I designed the architecture, hardware, software and also wrote the operating system and it was written in Assembler.
I had about four or five programmers and engineers under me and it was too much work for one person. We had it basically going, but I couldn’t quite get it to the end. It was crazy when you think about it. It was just way too much work for anyone to do. I should have stayed on the architectural side, supervising the project and got enough people to make it succeed.
We built a lot of hardware, completely from scratch and wrote a lot of software. It was a word processing type editor, which I designed and got a graduate to code in Assembler. Compared to anything else that was available at the time, it was the best product in the world. It was in Assembler, so it was incredible fast on an 8-bit micro.
Fiona begged me to try and sell the product in America, but I just wanted to concentrate on the main game and that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made because I’m sure that we could have been very successful.
I do have a hardware project on the backburner, so I may get back into it.
JT: Do you have any remaining bits of hardware or software from the project?
DD: I don’t have anything. We used to be down in my father’s factory and eventually bought a factory on Captain Cook Drive. We had a huge pile of memorabilia sitting in his joint, but he sold the factory without telling me and sent some guy to clear it out and it all went to the tip.
I was really unhappy about it. We still have stuff from the project to build the machine, which we stuck in boxes somewhere, but I’m not one to really look back.
JT: Memorable milestones you’ve achieved with the business?
DD: There have been heaps of memorable moments. One of the best days I ever had was when I opened the letter from Lore Harp when she appointed us as the exclusive Australian distributor. That was a gigantic breakthrough. We had only been in the business for about a year and we’d been struggling against all these other distributors. That said, we were still doing OK, but that was really a major achievement because we effectively burnt off the other competitors.
That was a forerunner for all the other situations. When Compaq bought DEC, everyone thought we were going to be canned, but we fought through that. We’ve been able to maintain ourselves against the big guys all the time, which has been fairly satisfying.
Getting my own factory in the early 80s was also pretty good. It was up the road from my father’s joint in Caringbah and I remember going to this factory when I was about 10 years old with my dad.
Doing the public float on the ASX was also a great achievement. That took about two to three years to achieve and I led the project.
JT: What have been some of the key lessons that you’ve learnt in business?
DD: The main thing that I’ve learnt is that you’re trapped by your own personality. No matter how hard you try, you tend to take the same approach to everything. I see it with myself, even when I try to be more sensible; every project I try to get involved in, it always tends to eventually go down the same basic path. It’s very hard to combat that. I think that’s why you get some people that serially screw up because it’s just difficult to take any other approach than what you’re hardwired into.
JT: How has the distribution landscape shifted and changed throughout the years?
DD: When I started in the computer industry, it was dominated by a handful of huge foreign multinationals and here we are, 35 years later, and again its dominated by huge foreign multinationals. They’re not the same companies, but the basic landscape is the same, just the names have changed. Looking at some companies now, it’s hard to see them lasting another 20 years.
JT: Where do you see Dicker Data heading in the next 10 years?
DD: It’s impossible to know. It’s still working, runs well and it’s still a good business. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t still be there. We won’t stand still either. My guys run the company so well that there’s nothing more for me to do, I don’t have to do all the day-to-day stuff, we have meetings and talk about it, but they don’t need me to tell them what to do. It will be good to get established in the international market, because we’re a bit of an orphan in the Australian market, which makes you a bit vulnerable.
ARN congratulates David Dicker and all at Dicker Data on an outstanding achievement and wish them all the best for next 35 years.