He gave up his position at floundering distributor, Digiland, to head up the components division of Singaporean distributor eSys’ newly-launched Australian operation. He was dealt a lawsuit by his former employer, Digiland, for allegedly stealing its customer records. He works in one of the most challenging and fiercely competitive IT sectors, which faced one of its toughest years in 2003. Distribution veteran, George Skaf, has had a rollercoaster 12 months yet his passion for the distribution business has anything but waned.
Skaf became a well-known figure in the distribution channel when he joined Digiland three-and-a-half years ago to manage its components business.
Starting out at Digiland was the most challenging time in his career, he said.
“There was quite a bad perception of Digiland in the market at that time," he said. "When I went to my first Digiland Group conference, Digiland Australia was at the bottom of the ladder. About a year and half later, Digiland Australia was announced the country most aligned with the overall Digiland policy as well as the best achiever. I was exceptionally proud of that.”
The past 18 months have been difficult for Digiland.Its managing director, CN Low, resigned, and his successor, Paul Kruss, restructured the company resulting in Digiland halving its Australian workforce. Then there was the public controversy over Digiland’s merger with eXeed.
Digiland was also axed by HP’s networking group ProCurve in March, HP in September, and Epson, Linksys and Maxtor in November.
But Skaf insists his decision to leave Digiland was based on career advancement rather than jumping from a sinking ship. Skaf left in April to take up the position of general manager of components for eSys’ newly-launched Australian office.
“I saw an opportunity at eSys that was in line with my long-term career goals,” Skaf said. “The company was relatively new. They needed somebody to help establish them in the Australian components distribution market and gave me the opportunity to take complete responsibility for how the company was run.”
Shortly after Skaf’s appointment, eSys was appointed Australian distributor of hard drive vendor, Maxtor, joining the ranks of Digiland and Ingram Micro. Less than six months later, Maxtor terminated its three–year partnership with Digiland.
“My appointment at eSys had nothing to do with the relationship between eSys and Maxtor," he said. "eSys is a very large global partner of Maxtor.”
Soon after his appointment at eSys, Skaf became embroiled in a legal stoush over customer records between rivals Digiland and eSys. The dispute spilled into the public domain in September, when Digiland sent letters to about 1000 of its system builder customers, and placed a full page advertisement in ARN, quoting an order from the Supreme Court of NSW that instructed Esys "to remove all Digiland customer databases in their possession".
Digiland also filed a lawsuit personally against Skaf for allegedly stealing the distributor’s database and using the information to win customers for eSys.
The Esys employees consented to the order without admitting they had used Digiland’s confidential information.
Skaf said Digiland’s accusations against himself and eSys were unfounded and a waste of time and money.
“Customers are not exclusive to anybody," he said. "Customer information is available to everybody, you just have to log on to the Yellow Pages Web site and extract information on every reseller in the country.”
Skaf cited Digiland International CEO Ong Seow Yong’s comments that were reported in the October 29 issue of ARN:
“I think everybody thinks customers are exclusive, but anyone in the business – Ingram Micro, Tech Pacific, ourselves – are dealing with the same customers,” Ong said.
“Customers are not exclusive to anybody,” Skaf said. “Ong agrees with me on that basis. We have a responsibility to our vendors to go out and promote, sell and capture market share on their behalf, and the customers that are available to us are the same customers that are available to everybody else.”
On a personal note, Skaf said Digiland's accusations were hard to swallow.
“I was extremely upset by the lawsuit against myself because I believe my work ethics are above standard and are not to be questioned," he said. "I would never put any of my employers in a position of exposing them, and if they feel I have done that, then I strongly disagree with them. I have nothing to regret.”
Skaf does not Digiland’s decision to file a lawsuit against him as a case of sour grapes.
“I think they got the wrong impression and felt like I was letting them down,” he said.
The lawsuit against George Skaf has been dropped but the lawsuit against eSys is still before the court. However, Skaf said his attentions were focussed elsewhere.
He said one of the most valuable lessons he has learnt about the role of distributors in the channel is to treat resellers as business partners not customers. “Resellers are putting their trust in you as a supplier and trust that you will provide them with the service that will help them grow their businesses. That’s the most important part of distribution when you’re a player the size of eSys.”
It has been a turbulent year for Skaf, yet he still harbours a passion for the channel that is increasingly rare.
In the immediate future, Skaf is looking forward to spending time with his wife and three daughters over the holidays.
“All I want for Christmas is more time,” he said.