My Biggest Mistake: Judi Gehlcken

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The Independent Online
Judi Gehlcken is managing director of the Computing Group, a specialist company in the area of marketing information systems. Born in Lincolnshire, she completed a two- year nursing course, but then began a career in information technology with her own direct-mail and data-capture firm. She sold the business to a large data-processing company and went on to become a director of DTI Group, which merged with UCC Direct and WWAV Computing in 1988 to form the Computing Group, now involved in large database projects. Ms Gehlcken lives on a barge on the Thames near Kew.

MY BIGGEST mistake was to indulge my early lack of expertise in financial processes by relying on a qualified professional - my ex-financial controller - to be in absolute and unchecked charge of all our financial procedures.

At the time, I was a director of Data Transfer International, a data processing company. I was running the company by default, as in 1986 we had discovered that my husband, who founded the company, had cancer.

I had a strong background in, and a flair for, marketing and people management but no pretensions to financial management. Imagine my relief when our financial controller suggested that my husband totally entrust that side of the business to him.

Things appeared to be all right until mid-1988 when, quite by accident, I discovered something was amiss. The financial controller was away and I took a call from our invoice discounting company. They wanted to discuss an outstanding payment of pounds 250,000 from a big client. I narrowly avoided having to sign a personal guarantee for the amount and being held in their offices until I did.

They let me go because I was as puzzled as they were about the situation and I undertook to go straight back to the office and work with the accounts department until we sorted out the ledgers. At this point I wasn't at all suspicious - why should I be? There was a healthy bank balance and lots of lucrative blue-chip accounts.

As things unfolded, it became abundantly clear that we had severe cash-flow problems, and I took control of all payments.

I discovered an invoice from a sub-contractor that was far too big for the work done. I was told that the financial controller had approved it. I knew then I had been deceived. My trust in my financial controller was shattered and I fired him immediately.

By putting payments due to our invoice discounting company into our account, and then diverting them to his own businesses, like the one he was running with the sub- contractor, he had managed to defraud us of pounds 900,000.

He was proved guilty and jailed for four years. Prior to this, he declared himself personally bankrupt. We never got our money back, and that business never fully recovered.

We battled to pull the company round and succeeded in holding on to our staff and clients, but eventually had to seek a merger. The company I run now, The Computing Group, part of WWAV, is the result.

I have put into practice the lessons I learned. Now I never neglect any area of the business, even if it is not attuned to my natural strengths, and I certainly don't accept solutions from professionals, either individuals or companies, unless I can understand them fully and agree with the plan.

I am not a programmer nor a financier, but I am a good facilitator. At the same time I never take my eye off the ball, and I have the confidence to check over everything.

My lesson was a tough one. It cost us our business. But I have learnt far more than can be gleaned from most career paths or top-flight management courses. I even know how to spot a bailiff from the other side of a crowded car-park.

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