'I didn't mean to be a spy'

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Alan Mosley, 53, has built Meltek in to a pounds 7.7m computer parts company, but he started out in business as an ex-soldier, scraping by from job to job

I'd been around Lake Michigan twice with Control Data before they picked me up and frogmarched me down the gangplank to the shore. I didn't mean to engage in corporate espionage; for the first half hour I just thought the company's vice-president liked me.

Control was making 80 per cent of the world's disk drives in the early Eighties, and they didn't like me cutting into their parts business. They even set up a British subsidiary to compete with my company, Meltek. Unfortunately for them, it was run by a man with a similar name to me, Mosely.

It was 1984 and I had arranged to meet one of my French customers at Control's booth at a trade fair in Chicago, but he didn't show up. While I was waiting I got talking to one of Control's vice-presidents and he invited me on to the cruise. There were 700 of Control Data's customers there and he just kept introducing me to them. When we got back he suggested that I go around again with the next batch of clients. I was in heaven, trying to remember everything. It was only at the end of the second cruise that the real Mr Mosely arrived. For some reason they didn't appreciate the joke.

As long as we can have fun like that it's worth carrying on doing business. You can't take yourself too seriously. I dealt with a lot of companies like Control in the early years. They were run by pompous twits and they're all out of business now. One of the silly things Control did was write to all their customers warning them not to use Meltek parts. Most of those customers had never heard of us but immediately became curious. Our business shot up overnight.

I became interested in computers while I was in the army, where I worked mostly with the signals. I left in 1970, as a sergeant, and set up a third- party maintenance company, repairing other people's computers, with another soldier. For the first two years we just scraped by doing odd jobs. Then one day I found myself in a Frankfurt airport bar talking to an American who was looking for someone in my line to help set up the first airline ticketing system.

There were still only the two of us, but when I visited the company, Hazletine, in the US I told them I had a dozen engineers. I thought they'd do some sort of check and rumble me but they didn't. After two days of meetings they gave me a contract. We had three weeks to prepare and I spent it going around British and American barracks poaching technicians. I knew nothing about business then, but I quickly learned what overtrading was.

I lived most of the next three years in aircraft, going from one site to another. It almost killed me. I aged rapidly. Every penny we made had to be pumped back into the business. By 1973 we had 60 technicians and I was so exhausted I was happy to sell out when we were offered pounds 150,000 by a larger maintenance organisation. For the next few years I did a variety of jobs.

One of the main problems with the computer business in those days was getting things fixed. You had to send components back to the manufacturers before they would ship a replacement. The process could take four weeks. In 1981 I set up a warehouse in Staines, with an office in my back bedroom, and started supplying spares on demand. It was the right idea at the right time and it took off from day one. I didn't employ salesmen, just technicians. After 18 months I realised they were spending a lot of time giving free technical advice so I set up one of the first telephone help lines. As a result, maintenance companies were able to employ less skilled labour.

One important lesson I've learned is to do market research. The first time we manufactured computer equipment we got the timing wrong and lost pounds 200,000. Now we're trying again with fibre channel disk arrays, which allow fast data storage over long distances, but this time we have orders all around the world before we launch.