Computing: A centre for excellence: Two MBAs put sophistication within reach of small firms

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MANY small businesses would like to buy sophisticated computers, but few can afford them. So Andrew de Rozairo and Lesley Clare, both 29 and engineering graduates, have opened what they hope is the first of many centres to provide computing, communications and copying equipment.

The Declare Business Centre (the name combines their surnames) in Earl's Court, London, is targeting businesses in Kensington and Chelsea. The partners, both of whom obtained MBAs last year, chose Earl's Court after research showed a high concentration of sole traders, start-ups and growing businesses, both home- based and on the high street. The borough of Kensington and Chelsea has 7,500 businesses, 85 per cent with fewer than 20 employees.

They sent out 180 questionnaires, describing the service they were planning. They expected a handful of replies, but received 50 - of which 30 were from people who expected to use the service at least once a month. Before setting up the centre, they invited owners of small businesses to experiment with a computer and printer installed in the spare bedroom of their flat. Two florists came to design their letterheads, the owner of a sandwich shop produced some promotional posters, and job-seekers came to print out CVs.

Ms Clare says clients include designers, who use the scanner and colour printer for work they present to clients; an author who has a printer for home use but needs a more professional finish for manuscripts to send to publishers; and business people planning direct- mail campaigns, who produce colour brochures and personalised letters.

Users also include people in the area on business who need to make or revise presentations, students wanting to print reports and those preparing company newsletters and marketing or business plans.

Ms Clare graduated from Oxford, then worked for a management consultancy and at Apple's marketing and finance HQ. Mr de Rozairo graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped to set up a European sales and service centre in Germany for a US process control company, then moved to Lucas Automotive. The pair met at Insead Business School, near Paris, and decided to put theory into practice.

Mr de Rozairo says devaluation of property has made their premises much cheaper. Technology is also cheaper: the pounds 3,500 colour copier would have cost about pounds 15,000 a few years ago. Computer literacy has increased as programs have become easier to use. And businesses are keen to experiment.

Declare encourages this: it is open 12 hours a day from Monday to Friday, and eight hours on Saturday. Customers pay only for the services they use. A business workstation costs pounds 6 an hour, a design work station pounds 9 an hour (or pounds 30 with colour scanner), plus VAT.

The partners supplied half the start-up capital. The balance, to be repaid in three years, came from National Westminster Bank, backed by the Government's loan-guarantee scheme. Mirror Technologies UK, Gateway 2000 and Pitney Bowes support the venture, by selling them equipment at favourable rates.

The pair hope to be planning their second centre in eight months, financing it from the first one, which they describe as 'informal but professional, a place where people get things done'.