It's such a tough question - three years is a lifetime in IT," says Frank Colli of Leading Solutions. I have asked him to pick the next Jodee Rich in the industry (figuratively speaking and in the most honourable sense). "Nobody sets out with the intention of being a Tech Pacific - or perhaps it's the reverse, everyone says the same thing when they start up. 12 years ago there were at least another thousand of us who thought we could all rule the world."
A decade later, only a handful of truly successful businesses dominate the channel scene. Colli reckons that if they'd been placing bets "back in the beginning", his winnings to date would be dubious at best.
As an industry, IT is probably more challenging than most because it changes so quickly and so often. Where legal firms' models can work for 10 years with only minor alterations, IT's only inevitability is that its business models, technologies, needs and delivery mechanisms are going to change. Another aspect is its enormous breadth; the IT channel touches every type of business, from consumable wholesalers such as Daisytek and Corporate Express, to retailers, solutions builders and software tinkerers.
In selecting the channel's future leaders, individuals in business for themselves form only part of the pool. HP/Compaq, IBM, Toshiba and Acer are the biggest money earners for the channel (according to Inform, with networking excluded) and the men and women who mould these vendors' strategies will have a profound impact on the reseller community.
Undaunted by the amplitude of the task, Channel X canvassed the scene (phoned, e-mailed, broke bread and shouted beer) to compile a list of the up-and-comers who are shaping the channel's future. And the nominees are . . .
The CrÈme de la crÈme
Tony Bill, general manager, personal systems group, and Rebekah O’Flaherty, director of imaging and presentation, Hewlett-Packard
They are part of the crÈme de la crÈme to survive the merger of the old HP and Compaq organisations. Rumour has it they were selected along with the rest of their team by an executive council, chaired by chief executive Carly Fiorina and president Michael Capellas, and the Australian channel has high hopes for them.
In eight years at Compaq, Bill filtered 95 per cent of the vendor's PC and server sales into the channel. Resellers are hoping he can do the same for HP, which currently sells about 50 per cent of its stock direct. "What comes from his group will have enormous bearing on how the channel operates," says one of Bill's peers. Among colleagues and customers, the Queenslander has a reputation as a straight talker. He tells it like it is without omitting unpleasant realities. Many argue that honesty is a primary element of Bill's success - the absence of political motives builds widespread trust and support for his proposals.
O'Flaherty is also a channel advocate from way back. She came on board with HP in 1997 as channel marketing manager and has recently been repatriated to Australia from a position in the company's Singapore office.
Needless to say, both O'Flaherty and Bill have done more 16-hour days over the past month than either would care to dwell upon. Facing them is a huge task passed down from Palo Alto with a whopper of a deadline: keep HP's printer group, move to Compaq's Intel-based servers, and merge the two companies' PC divisions. Australian HP boss Paul Brandling has decreed that the transition will be completed by October.
The country boy
Joshua Velling, PC and server category manager, Tech Pacific
In 1995 Velling's retail team at Tech Pacific ousted Dataflow as Harvey Norman's incumbent supplier and closed one of its biggest single orders ever - worth $2 million. The product was Microsoft Office 95, one of the best-selling pieces of software in history.
"The hype of it all was just unreal," says Velling, his voice still laced with awe seven years later. The win was a defining moment for him. "I was standing in the [Harvey Norman] store at midnight for the [Office 95] opening. The excitement and the sense of being part of such a big thing - to be successful in that space, that was the pinnacle."
When Channel X caught up with Velling, he was whiling away a week's leave on the simple pleasures of life, such as chasing his dog around the backyard. "I'm on holidays and I'm still answering my mobile. Does that tell you anything?" he says in good humour.
At 32, the father-to-be is responsible for managing 50 per cent of Tech Pacific's $1 billion turnover from a marketing perspective. "Operating in the channel is a constant role; it's fast and exciting and pulses with dynamism," he says.
Recruited by Bull Information Systems midway through a marketing degree, Velling went for the Ã©lan that he says only exists in the channel. He lasted four months at Tech Pacific before being poached by Wang. Then shortly afterwards, Wang (later to become Getronics) bought out his old employer Bull IS and Velling found himself back at square one. Once again he set off in search of adventure and landed back at Tech Pacific. There, he revels in the hub of IT - spotting trends as they emerge, experiencing frustration when models don't pan out to his advantage and exerting enormous influence in other areas. "I've always liked the channel because you're involved in everything," he says.
Is Velling surprised to be pegged as a rising star? "How do answer that modestly?" he squawks. A plain-spoken country boy, he is insanely uncomfortable discussing life achievements and specified at the beginning of the interview that gushy nonsense would not be tolerated. "I'm not extraordinary," Velling says with conviction. "I've just put in the hours; a thousand other people do that too."
Tim Edwards, national manager, computers and communications, Harvey Norman
The two policies have carried Edwards through life: "no bullshit" and "transparency". As the right-hand man to Harvey Norman's PC division boss, John Slack-Smith, both attributes have proved useful. While Slack-Smith is busy with international expansion, 33-year-old Edwards is handling business on the home front. On any day he wakes up with the knowledge that his decisions will affect the $700 million-odd worth of turnover that is generated yearly by the retailer's computing and communications division. This burden, he admits, is heavy but the practical advice of Gerry Harvey has prepared him well. "Gerry says that out of the decisions you make, if more are right than wrong you're doing OK."
Of course, the freedom to make choices makes its own demands on Edwards. His mobile phone stays on 24x7, but he assures me that he can say "no" to work-related emergencies when he has to pick up his daughter from school. However, it has taken him 10 years to master this balance.
As a youngster working for the Commonwealth Bank, Edwards' manager told him to escape the doldrums of finance and find an industry coloured by change. What he found is one that is impossible to keep up with. "It doesn't matter how switched on you are, you can't be on top of everything in this business," he says.
After spending 14 years up to his elbows in various facets of the industry, Edwards has seen the business from all angles. At 19 years of age he was managing the wholesale division of Computer Trader, one of the first wholesale setups in Australia. He spent a "very brief period" wrestling the ex-pat Koreans at Samsung Electronics before building his own PC business, called Hartland. The operation was successful in its own right and was eventually purchased by Edge Technology, but Edwards won't divulge how much Edge proprietor Johnson Wang paid for the business.
Of all his lessons learned, Edwards says the ability to be flexible rates highly as a survival technique. "You might think black is black but if someone can convince you it's grey, then it's grey," he says. "You go in a certain direction that you truly believe in, but in the end you've got to be prepared to admit that you don't have all the answers."