In the New Year, Frank Colli will be running a listed integrator with revenues in excess of $300 million. It's a far cry from the days when he launched Leading Solutions with a shower as his warehouse. BRIAN CORRIGAN asks the questions.
What was your first ever job?
I did two degrees - computer science and engineering. At the time they were separate so one went for three years and the other for four. I would have done a third degree given the chance, because I loved school and it was a great place to party, but my parents finally told me I had to go and work. I came out of university and started working as a structural engineer for an engineering firm but was also doing some part-time software development for Hewlett-Packard and other companies. Then I got into selling computers part-time for a reseller called Datakey, which later became Alcatel Datakey. I realised after working as an engineer for four years that you made no money. You did all this university work and designed big buildings but I was earning more money in my part-time computer job so I started full-time in sales with Datakey.
Where did you progress to from there?
I went to work as the sales manager for a company called Co-Cam, which is now owned by Fujitsu Multivendor Systems. We were quite a large Hewlett-Packard and IBM dealer. I was there for a few years and, as a country boy, I learned a lot of lessons about the city and how big companies operate. I was convinced to start my own business after becoming quite good friends with the managing director of HP back then, Malcolm Kerr. Leading Solutions started out in Dandenong 17 years ago sharing a room where we paid half the rent. The house had been converted into offices and our warehouse was the shower. I remember getting a delivery of four LaserJets and we didn't know where to put them because they wouldn't fit in the shower.
You would have had a slightly different customer base then when compared with today.
It was very different but I think the principle was always the same because we went out offering knowledge, skills and ability. It was a very interesting experience personally because I went from managing an organisation that had 120 people [at Co-Cam] with sales, pre-sales and warehousing facilities to suddenly having to do everything myself with Carolynne Austin-Dougherty, who had also come across from Co-Cam and is still a Leading director. You learn a lot from that let me tell you; right down to how you create an invoice.
So you had humble beginnings but how did the business grow?
It grew because we were focused and did a good job. We knew there was room in the market for somebody providing good customer service and understanding. We have always believed from day one that if your staff love what they do and believe in it, they will give great service. It has always been our focus to recruit people who really want to be in IT.
How long did it take you to expand the warehouse out of the shower?
I think we lasted in that building for about three months before getting our own premises. It seemed huge and I wondered what we would do with all the space but within 12 months we outgrew that and moving to larger premises became a continuous process.
What has been the biggest business challenge you faced?
When challenges hit you it is important to stand back, focus on what you do well and promote that in the marketplace. I don't know if there have been any real crisis points but it is always difficult when you are trying to grow a business and, as an individual, you need to learn a lot. At first you need to learn how to do everything for yourself; then as the business grows you need to learn how to trust other people. Each step of the business cycle brings new challenges and eventually it's a matter of knowing how to pick the right people. People will make or destroy your business. Growth gets easier as the business gets bigger because you have learned a lot of the basic skills but it really comes down to the people you have around you and we have an extremely good senior management team. I'm sure if you speak to them they will say I'm very pig-headed but I have managers that will challenge me. If they don't think I'm doing the right thing they will tell me.
How has the industry changed since you started out?
A lot of employers cared about their people when we first started out and there was a lot of effort put into training and development. I think that has changed enormously and most companies don't care about that anymore. People complain about being able to get good staff but nobody has put the effort into developing them. In turn, there used to be a lot of loyalty within organisations but I don't think that is true across the industry anymore. Some of the top sales people and engineers within Leading started out in the warehouse and transitioned up. I don't think that happens anywhere near as much in the broader industry today. There are things we can do as an industry about the skills shortage but people choose not to because they are spending money in other areas. That's sad and maybe it needs to change back.
What do you do away from work?
I'm very much a family man and have four children so that takes up a great deal of my time. I come from a European background so I guess that's one of the reasons that Leading has always had a family feel to it. I enjoy sitting at home with the kids, playing and just doing simple things.
Are you a sports fan?
Not really, to be totally honest, but I do like car racing and a bit of soccer.
Do you like gadgets?
I love gadgets. They call me Mr Gadget Man because if there's a gadget I'll get it. I'm always changing my computer at home and I probably change my mobile phone every three months. I somehow convince my wife that I need to buy anything that has buttons, lights up and looks cool. Most men are like that, aren't they?
What's your biggest ambition?
It changes continuously, which I think makes life exciting.