It's fair to say that David Dicker isn't everybody's cup of tea. His long hair and preference for tracksuits over the pinstriped variety make him about as far from the standard image of a businessman as you can get. He also has a habit of speaking his mind instead of saying what other people think he should. But whether or not you like his style, there's no doubting he's a very smart operator and one of the local IT industry's most colourful figures.
Before flying to the US to buy those microcomputers in 1978, Dicker had been 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 and bought one himself (which he still has today) so he could keep track of what they were doing.
"The paradox was that I was hopeless at mathematics in high school so I had to dig out my old textbooks and relearn all that stuff but I was able to do it and started to write code," he said.
"Before long we were going better than the engineers so we took over that function ourselves. But we soon realised these machines weren't powerful enough for what we wanted to do and started looking at microcomputers in magazines like Byte and Interface Age."
The first four machines Dicker bought on his trip to the US were quickly sold to customers of the roofing truss business and he set lofty ambitions of selling 10 computers a month. That proved to be no problem and Dicker moved from a small office within his father's premises in the Sydney suburb of Caringbah and set up his own site about a kilometre down Captain Cook Drive.
Jumping on the brand wagon
Dicker placed a few ads, did plenty of direct mailing and quickly established a customer base. Although the concept of two-tier IT distribution didn't exist in the early 1980s, he built a dealer base that sold about half the machines he sourced.
He missed the IBM PC boom entirely because his supplier, Vector, decided in 1982 that it was too late to build a clone. That proved to be a bad decision, Vector went bust within a couple of years, so Dicker started importing clones from Taiwan and selling them with Dicker Data badges on.
"I remember having a meeting with IBM in the 1980s about selling their machines," he said. "It was funny because they were asking me what my marketing programs were going to be but to my mind I was a distributor and marketing was up to them. That's where we diverged and we never got involved with IBM at all."
But in 1985 Dicker was approached by Toshiba and entered the branded market as a five-star dealer of its notebooks (another decade would pass before he was officially appointed as a Toshiba distributor). This was clearly a time Dicker has fond memories of as you listen to him describing the "hard-driving high-flyers" that populated the industry then. However it wasn't until Dicker picked up a Compaq contract in about 1990, after three years of asking for it, that his distribution company got itself into a strong position.
"Compaq was a terrific company to deal with because their focus was entirely on getting the outcome," Dicker said. "Our credit limit with Compaq in the 1990s was higher than it is with HP now. They'd let us go out to $25 million, the margins were better and so were the payment terms. You had the stuff sold and the money was in the bank well before you had to pay for it. You had to be mind-numbingly incompetent not to make money."