With an upturn in sight for the IT sector, the aim is to join the FTSE 100

Business Profile: Mike Norris has the accessories of an Essex boy made good, and he still has ambitions for Computacenter
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The Independent Online

After nearly 20 years working for the IT business Computacenter, including almost 10 years as chief executive, you'd be forgiven for thinking Mike Norris might be ready for a change.

At the age of just 42, he's already got the Ferrari (a blue 550 Maranello), a nice place in north London and has, he says, more money than he ever dreamt of making.

And the business hasn't done badly either. Computacenter is expected to produce sales of around £2.5bn this year - far more than the £4.5m it turned over when Mr Norris joined in 1984.

Now, with an upturn in the IT sector firmly in sight after a couple of truly difficult years for the industry as a whole, surely Mr Norris might consider bowing out on a high note?

Not a bit of it. While he is not one of the original founders, joining the company three years after it was formed, he clearly feels a high degree of loyalty and responsibility. "Do I get up every single morning and think this is the most wonderful thing in the world? No, but I do enjoy what I do. It's a great challenge," he says.

It is clear that this is a business he loves and one that he still has great ambitions for. He wants to get Computacenter to a point where it is making £100m profits a year and he would also love to see it in the FTSE 100 index.

Such is his devotion to Computacenter, valued at around £845m, that he has no interest in taking up any of the other directorships he is offered.

"This [Computacenter] is what I do. I couldn't give it [another directorship] the attention it deserved and I couldn't do something by halves," he says.

You get the feeling that Mr Norris, a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" type who talks quickly and animatedly with no airs or graces, cannot quite believe his luck.

Brought up in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, an only child, his father was a builder and his mother had "various office jobs". While he is severely dyslexic - something he does not like to talk about - it has never stopped him from doing the things he wanted to do.

It was, however, a factor in his decision to study maths and computer science at the University of East Anglia, although unusually, he claims he was never a computer geek.

"I'm a bit odd," he says, "I'm a big sportsman. I wasn't massively good at any of it but I played rugby, football, cricket, golf, anything ... and I never owned a PC. I was never a computer, nerdy kind of guy - I don't think."

After a brief spell at an IT consultancy in Norwich after he graduated, he went for an interview at Computacenter and signed up. "They [the founders, Philip Hulme and Peter Ogden] just made it sound so exciting," he says.

Ten years later, and after holding a number of positions, including national sales director, Mr Norris was made chief executive, although he points out it was a job he had been doing in practice for some time. "When it was announced, people's reaction was, 'Isn't that what you do anyway?'" he says. "The way Phil brought people on was that he let you do the job for a while before he gave it to you and so it was very much bit by bit by bit."

If Mr Norris got lucky in ending up at Computacenter, the company was equally lucky in its timing. When it listed on the stockmarket in 1998, investor appetite for all things technology was already strong and improved further when the Techmark index was launched a year later.

The company then benefited from computer fears associated with the advent of the millennium, something that forced a lot of companies to upgrade their IT systems, as well as the dot.com boom, which also fuelled demand for computing kit, and the stock soared.

By February 2000, Computacenter's share price had jumped to a high of more than 1,500p, against the 670p it had floated at two years previously.

Mr Norris made £1m by selling about 100,000 shares in the business fairly near the top of the market. He still owns about 1 per cent of the company, a stake worth £8.45m. "I've got more money than I ever dreamed of," he says.

By his own admission, his success has come as something of a shock. "I got a degree in computing and maths and thought I could be a salesman," he says.

"You don't plan this do you? You can't plan this."

Putting his career success to one side, he has enjoyed the money, having owned a string of Porsches and the ultimate Essex-boy-made-good accessories - the Docklands flat and the Ferrari.

He now lives with his second wife, Jackie, and their four-year-old daughter in north London, although he is still on good terms with his first wife, Lorraine, with whom he has two daughters, aged 16 and 14.

But it has not all been plain sailing. Computacenter has, for the past couple of years, been dealing with a severe drop in demand, not to mention the collapse in its share price. At 448p, the stock is now well below the point at which it listed five years ago.

Interestingly, though, this is not the worst time for Mr Norris. That came when Caroline Olds, a former sales executive, brought a case of unfair dismissal, breach of contract and sexual discrimination.

At this stage in the interview, his head sinks to the desk. "That was the lowest point. I was really upset," he says. "I genuinely felt as if someone was conning this company. I genuinely think it was wrong."

Ms Olds won only the claim for unfair dismissal and, Mr Norris says, ended up with less money than the company had originally offered.

As for the tough period of trading the company endured, which started to impact in the second quarter of 2001, he says he has enjoyed the challenge. Besides which, he now thinks the industry is coming out of the doldrums and he predicts better times are ahead. He reckons trading bottomed out in the second half of last year. "I think we're now on a steady growth curve," he says.

Falling hardware prices will continue to be a pressure, he says, but he notes that other factors - such as the increasing demand for the Microsoft XP operating system - should work in its favour.

It is also "just starting to see" signs of recovery in spending from investment banks. "It's raining at the source of the river - so you kind of know it's going to get to you," he says.

He has his frustrations, of course. Journalists are apparently one. Goldman Sachs, one of the company's brokers, is another. But Mr Norris seems in no hurry to move on.

"I love earning money, I'm not going to be too principled about that," he says, "but I don't come to work for the money. I want to do a great job."

MIKE NORRIS RISING TO A CHALLENGE

Position: Chief executive.

Age: 42.

Income: He received a salary of £395,000 last year, plus a £148,125 bonus. Other benefits took his total pay to £549,405. He also owns about 1 per cent of the business, worth £8.45m.

Career: Studied computer science and mathematics at UEA before working for a small Norwich-based IT business. Started working at Computacenter as a salesman a year after graduating and became chief executive 10 years later.

Interests: Playing golf and watching sports, particularly cricket and rugby. Likes a "nice" car but says he is not a fanatic. Owns a Ferrari.

Family: Married, with one daughter, and has two daughters from a previous marriage.

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