Tom Loosemore meets the man who set up a mail-order PC company to keep his little brother out of trouble
Most young doctors would howl in disbelief at the suggestion that they have enough time outside work to set up a small business. Yet that is what Dr Tariq Mohammed did in 1987, when the hours of young members of the medical profession were even l onger than they are now. Since then, he has overseen the growth of Time Computer Systems into a mail-order PC supplier that has 150,000 customers and expects a turnover of £100m in 1995.

The story began in a corner shop in Blackburn run by his parents, immigrants from Pakistan. Having programmed his office Macintosh to calculate feed dosages for his baby patients, Dr Mohammed was comfortable with computers - and thought he saw a gap in the market for mail-order PCs.

But his real reason for starting the company was to keep his 16-year-old brother, who had decided to leave school against his parents' wishes, out of trouble. As the family's sole breadwinner, he decided his only option was to start a business. To see w hether his hunch was right, he placed an advertisement for an Amstrad PC in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.

The response was astounding: inquiries flooded in from all over the county. After arranging to buy more computers from a local distributor and placing ads in the national press, the brothers soon found that the computers they had ordered for customers filled not only the corner shop, but also the family home. "It was getting totally crazy; there were computers in all the bedrooms. We simply had to move.''

Since then, the firm has been obliged to relocate three more times, on each occasion because the business had grown more in three years than the brothers had expected it to in 10. Dr Mohammed's brother, Tahir Mohsan, now 23, may be the youngest managing director of a company of this size in the UK. Yet it is Dr Mohammed who provides the marketing nous.

He reacts with indignation at my suggestion that Time and other mail-order companies are guilty of promoting high-performance systems so as to profit from consumers' fears of being left behind by technology. "Your average home user will spend something like two to three months scouring the specialist press before making his final choice," he says.

"Once he has invested all this time and energy in selecting his desired machine, it is remarkably difficult to persuade him that a different system might be better suited to his requirements. Customers do not take at all well to being told that an SX25 would suffice when they have set their hearts on a DX2-66. Maybe for some it's a question of ego - the compulsion to have the most powerful system on offer - but modern multimedia users really do need the power of a DX2-66."

He is, predictably, wary of speculating how the PC market will develop in the next few years, although he believes the CD-rom is here to stay. "At present, 25 per cent of the machines we ship have a CD-rom drive fitted," says Dr Mohammed, adding that this figure will soon be approaching something like 70 per cent.

While he accepts that demand for Pentium-based machines has dipped since a floating-point bug in the Intel processor came to light, he believes the problem has been hyped out of all proportion. "It would have been better all round if Intel had come cleanearly on as to the nature of the problem."

As for Microsoft's Windows '95 - the successor to Windows 3.1, now promised for August after repeated delays - Dr Mohammed is concerned that the product might be rushed on to the market before teething troubles have been resolved. Time is considering following the lead of Escom, a German PC company, in installing WARP, the impressive latest version of IBM's much-derided OS/2, as the standard operating system in all the machines it ships. Such a suggestion is liable to have Microsoft executives spluttering into their Perrier.

Dr Mohammed has a reputation in the industry for being a canny purchaser of advertising space, often driving a hard bargain to secure last-minute slots at knockdown prices. His firm also uses computer software to gauge the success of individual advertisements.

All callers are asked which advertisement caught their eye, and their response is immediately logged into the system. The firm can measure the relative success of advertisements placed in different publications, and adjust its buying of space accordingly.

While continuing to develop the home-customer base which forms the core of its mail-order market, the group has started selling direct to business users. It also operates a software club, run along similar lines to book clubs. Its most exciting venture to date, however, is a partnership with Ryman - the office equipment chain - in an assault on Dixons' domination of computer retailing in the high street.

The deal, finalised two months ago, will see the installation of display computers in 15 Ryman stores around the country, backed up by a direct phone link between each store and Time's Burnley site. This will enable customers to discuss their needs with trained Time staff - and at a Ryman store in the Strand, to do so by video telephone. Dr Mohammed says: "We see the big weakness of Dixons' approach as being their lack of in-store specialist PC knowledge."

Despite the phenomenal growth of the company, Dr Mohammed continues to work part-time at a children's unit in a Manchester hospital. He cites concerns about his relationship with his patients as the reason behind his polite, yet firm, refusal to be photographed for this article. "The parents of my patients might worry unduly if I was recognised first and foremost as a business whizz-kid rather than a paediatrician."

Asked why he continues to practise as a doctor, he replies: "Well, to start with, I enjoy it! But I also feel quite strongly that the investment made by myself and by the taxpayer in training me to be a doctor is too great for me to ignore."