David Henderson was taught the importance of channel from an early age. It is a lesson that stayed with him and there are few more vocal advocates of indirect sales strategies around today.
The first job of his career was working in the marketing department of manufacturing giant, 3M, in the 1970s. These were days when a job was for life if you wanted it but he was moved around frequently within the organisation, which gave him a solid grounding in other areas of business including sales, operations and management. Henderson bemoans the fact that this level of investment in staff is not seen today.
“I had to do four internal and four external training experiences every 12 months and employers could map out the career of any individual for the next five years,” he said. “It was a very good apprenticeship that gave you a broad range of experience. In marketing, we couldn’t launch a product without presenting it to the sales team and if they didn’t like your pitch they sent you away to come up with another. You also got to meet a wide range of partners and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them on early sales calls.”
3M products were distributed by Blackwoods, which Henderson remembers as a supplier of “everything from concrete to nuts and bolts that held the industry in the palm of its hand”. He would eventually work in distribution himself and thinks that tier of the industry has a vital role to play in bringing through new talent.
“One of the great ironies of the IT business today is that we say positions are vacant but insist that experience is necessary. Where the hell do you start?” he asked. “The industry is not geared to bring people through and that’s where distribution is fundamental to this industry because it’s the starting point for young people to get in and cut their teeth.
“You might have a 26-year-old product manager running a $50 million portfolio. It can, or should, be a real breeding ground for the industry. We seem to have forgotten that.”
After 15 years at 3M, Henderson woke up one day and decided he needed a new challenge. He joined Toshiba as marketing director in the late 1980s and, after just nine months, was installed as the local general manager. Notebooks might be all the rage today but people still needed convincing back then and it was no easy task.
“You really had to believe in the concept of mobile computing as opposed to desktops. Some people thought it was ridiculous – these notebooks weighed 9kg and had blue screens – but I found a niche within myself because I loved evangelising the idea,” he recalled.
Other familiar faces at Toshiba then included Phil Cameron, Ross Cochrane, Bruce Lakin and Steve Rust. The company’s notebook business went from annual sales of $100 million to $350 million during Henderson’s six years and went toe-to-toe with Compaq at the top of the market. Things started to get more competitive as IBM launched its ThinkPad, the NEC Versa followed and Acer joined the fray. Different market segments also started to expand and Henderson was taught his most important channel lesson when Computelec’s Bruce Dixon came to Toshiba with the idea that there was potential for notebooks in private education. He told them he needed help to build the market because the machines were simply too expensive.
“The financial model wasn’t particularly robust but Tokyo [head office] supported us in building a relatively small business selling hundreds of notebooks into a couple of private schools in Melbourne,” Henderson said. “Over three or four years that business grew to thousands of units and now it is tens of thousands. This again taught me the power of partners and the level of innovation present in the channel.”
After a couple of years as managing director of a US-based PC company called AST, which was eventually sold to Samsung, Henderson joined 3Com in an Asia-Pacific and Japan role. Married with two young children, it isn’t a time he has fond memories of because it meant three weeks of every month were spent out of the country and “after a while, it doesn’t matter how good the hotels are or which end of the plane you’re flying in”.