Interview: TCA

PCR speaks to TCA president Keith Warburton
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The TCA, and formerly the PCA, has a long history in the PC IT trade. How did it come into being?

The forerunner of the TCA was the Personal Computer Direct Marketer’s Association, which was set up in 1993. At that time I was a sales and marketing consultant and had worked with quite a few of the notable individuals and businesses of the period, including Alan Sugar and Clive Sinclair.

But it was when I was working for a motherboard company (ECS) and doing business with some of the leading off-the-page system builders that it was driven home to me there was something missing in the market. I would do business with these people and after our commercial discussions the talk would inevitably turn to ‘issues’. I could see that they were all facing some common challenges, but they had no means of sharing the work needed to meet them – at that time they really didn’t communicate with each other, seeing themselves as simply competitors.

Ever since I had come into the computer business ten years earlier I had been struck by the awful lack of sales professionalism I was seeing in all parts of the market. In my opinion this is responsible for many otherwise avoidable customer support and satisfaction issues. These two threads started to come together and I invited some of my contacts to come for a cup of coffee and a chat.

So were all the founders completely integrated in to the PC industry, or was it new ground for some?

The leading system builders of the day turned up to our meetings and were the original founder members of the PCDMA. They included Centerprise, Evesham Micros, Kamco, Dan Technology, Granville Technology (Time), Mesh, Viglen and Hi-Grade. We also had Dabs Direct and Simply Computers, the leading off-the-page resellers. The majority have now gone without a trace, but that is the nature of emerging markets.

All these businesses were run by entrepreneurs. I think only one of them had a notable background in computers and that was Rafi Razzak of Centerprise who had been with IBM. The rest had simply seen an opportunity and filled the need. Evesham’s Richard Austin originally set up his business to sell BBC Micro addons and peripherals. Time started out selling specialist paediatric solutions based, again, on the BBC Micro.

What was the original mission statement of the organisation?

We didn’t have a mission statement as such. However we did use, and still use, a strapline that defined things pretty well: “Keeping the industry as strong as possible for as long as possible”. It encapsulates many things.

One thing the original founders wanted to do was to try to find some way of highlighting the companies they knew to be very risky – that were dangerously over-trading. This was at a time when once you’d had a fiveminute record in business you could get incredible amounts of supplier credit.

Coming together as a trade association with membership rules and a structure that would allow us to refuse membership to the most at-risk companies, whilst stating that our members conformed to a Code of Practice, was one way for members to differentiate themselves. We also set up a pre-payment protection scheme; a system of bank guarantees.

Was the climate in the industry very different then?

Perhaps the biggest difference was the margin that could be made. The market was growing at a phenomenal rate and the rule that ‘all boats float on a rising tide’ applied. You didn’t have to be particularly good in order to make money. However as time went on and margins started to drop, so we saw lots of companies fall by the wayside.

UK direct-selling system builders dominated the market, selling from the pages of the computer magazines such as PCW, PC Direct and Computer Shopper. These ended up as massively thick publications, so large that it was difficult to find the editorial!

How did the organisation’s role change over the years?

We soon identified that the meetings between members were of major benefit. Then we found that the vendors, distributors and publishers wanted to be in among this group of key people. So we changed our rules and our name to the Personal Computer Association.

We also found that there were other things to be done. We needed to have a voice in certain items of legislation, so we started to lobby on behalf of our members and brief them on the issues. We also acted to challenge some supplier activities, resulting in Microsoft having to answer to the European Commission regarding its pricing policy on MS Office.

We later introduced our Confidence Assured membership, specifically to serve the needs of the independent resellers. Our role hasn’t changed massively, but our membership has.

What were the reasons for the merger with the MTA, and the name change?

There isn’t really much future for any organisation that looks to be solely concentrating on PCs, we are a lot more than that; we are a channel trade association. Add to that the fact that it had been difficult for the Mac Technology Association to gain critical mass and it seemed obvious that we should move decisively into the 21st Century and formally recognise that we are the Technology Channels Association.

Do you think retailers and resellers have it harder or better now than when you started?

I believe we are seeing an increasing gap between the amateur ‘lifestyle’ businesses and the professional enterprises, and indeed the TCA is helping to underline the differences by promoting professionalism. However the well-organised companies who keep their fingers on the pulse of the market are, in many ways, finding things easier. The current economic climate is impacting most businesses, but sometimes it is in a positive way!

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