PCR caught up with Stone Computers' CEO Simon Harbridge at this year’s BETT show to talk about the company’s work in the education sector and what we can expect from the firm over the next year....
Can you tell us about the beginnings of the company?
It was founded in 1991 and began making and selling desktop PCs to further education. The guy who founded the company had been a computer salesman and he found that any company he worked for was letting the customers down regularly. So he started building bespoke PCs to meet people’s requirements. If anybody had problems with the devices, he had one of his technical guys on-site the next day to fix it.
He founded the company on a very high level of service – especially early on when PCs were perhaps a bit unreliable. The basic ethos of Stone is that it’s always about the service, and that hasn’t changed since day one. We’re all about going the extra mile for the customer, solving their problems, and providing solutions.
So the education sector is a big thing for the company?
Yes, sixty five to seventy per cent of the business is education. We’ve gradually grown and spread through the public sector, through further education colleges, schools, universities, police forces, and councils. As it’s grown its services in the public sector, Stone has won new accreditations and developed things like environmental policies. It’s built to really service the public sector and offer what those organisations require.
At the BETT show, Stone Computers was running a Hack-a-Thon for students...
Whenever you go to a show like BETT, you’re trying to say some things about your company. Perhaps a few years ago we would have had a stand that was full of hardware, but today, education is moving on very quickly. It’s now all about creating ideas, giving students opportunities to express themselves, and seeing how they benefit from the curriculum when using IT. So we thought a Hack-a-Thon would be a really interesting concept.
So it was about creating apps for education?
Yes. The students talked about ideas, teachers got involved, and we even had Johnny Ball talking about educational applications. All the apps were judged and those deemed the best got prizes. First prize was a Stone tablet computer and second prize was a Little Printer.
You also launched some new products at the show.
Yes we did. We unveiled the Google Chromebook, which is ideal for students looking to work online and on the internet. It provides a very fast and cost-effective way of learning online. We’ve also got some new Samsung tablets as well, which are quite interesting. We showcased some touchscreen technology, which got quite a lot of attention. People are moving away from interactive whiteboards and onto large touchscreens; it’s all about faster interaction with people and it’s all really exciting to us.
How did BETT 2013 go for you?
It’s been a really busy show. We’ve seen a lot of people who seem interested in the products and services so it’s been really good for us.
So you have been the CEO of Stone for around four months now. How are you finding it?
I’m relishing it, really enjoying it. We just posted our 2012 results and we hit £73.8 million, which is a record for us.
What can we expect to see from Stone Computers over the next year?
Well, we’re in the process of looking forward over the next two or three years at the moment. We’ve just invested in something called Stone Professional Services, where we’re providing a complete IT solution for an academy. We deal with 4,000 schools and we have a lot of demand, but historically we’ve never really provided the whole thing as a package.
So we’ve invested quite heavily in some really good people to act as a unit that takes all our products and provides that solution. We also have our own recycling plant, so from cradle to grave we look after the whole lifecycle of the equipment. The environment is very important to us.
Is recycling something that you’ve always done as a company?
We started it about three or four years ago, but it’s got to a critical mass now. We’re a Microsoft authorised refurbisher so we can actually repair anybody’s equipment, not just our own. Each product is rebadged as a Stone Encore PC, and we have our own Stone Encore website for selling those refurbished devices.
We also have quite a few contracts with companies like BT and TalkTalk. They’re trying to roll out broadband to homes that don’t have it, such as housing association tenants, and we’re providing second hand equipment. So that’s also a form of recycling. We do also sell some of that stuff to schools as well, it’s a really interesting part of the business.
Do you feel that the education sector will keep growing for Stone Computers?
2010 and 2011 were probably the most difficult years for that market. There was a lot of uncertainty about school budgets throughout 2011. The demand for the equipment didn’t slow down – it was only the budget. But there have been spending improvements because of all the great things going on in technology.
We try to provide some solutions for those on a tighter budget. We came up with a concept called Rent-a-PC so people could rent equipment if they couldn’t afford to buy. We also do one- to-one pupil schemes, where a school will invite parents to make a monthly contribution to the school, which will then provide a laptop to the student for the time they are there.
This shows that Stone is best at changing and adapting, and helping customers find the right solution.