Reluctant boffin well-organised for commerce - Business - News - The Independent

Reluctant boffin well-organised for commerce

It would be hard to think of a more unlikely pair of corporate bedfellows than David Potter and Alan Sugar. In manner, personality and background, the founders of Psion and Amstrad could not be more different.

While brash, acerbic Sugar became a household name in the 1980s by bringing computers to the masses, and more recently through his often stormy relationship with Tottenham Hotspur, the more urbane, intellectual Potter is a great deal less familiar than his best-known product, Psion's best- selling personal electronic organiser.

He hates the tag but it is hard to avoid calling Potter a boffin. Having won a scholarship to read natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, Potter took a first and went on to complete a doctorate in mathematical physics at Imperial College in London.

Potter, however, is no anorak. A tall, charming and fearsomely intelligent South African, he couples enormous technical expertise with a determined commercial awareness.

Sit down with Potter and he will take you through the possibilities represented by the fusion of computing and telecommunications. But there is also a firm understanding that the cleverest gizmo is worthless if it fails to make money. He is the technology shareholder's dream chief executive.

Born 53 years ago to relative poverty in East London, a charming port on the South African coast, Potter has always been driven by a desire to make money. An early business venture was a photographic studio run during his school holidays.

But in 1974, when the London market crashed to a post-war low, he called his London bank manager from California and told him to spend the pounds 3,000 he had on deposit on a handful of technology shares including Xerox and the then fledgling Racal.

By 1979, Potter was worth pounds 100,000, a successful analyser of small companies but ultimately bored by the second-hand business experience investment provided. Getting together with friends to write programs for Sir Clive Sinclair's, he started Psion - the name stands for Potter Scientific Instruments with an Exxon-style flourish to add gravitas.

Potter carries his pounds 60m net worth with ease, but he is a harsh critic of the City. When short-term difficulties sent the company into the red in 1991, investors all but abandoned him.

He also has little time for the UK's academic system which he believes fails to provide scientists and engineers with enough basic business training. As a result, he argues, UK companies are renowned for technical innovation but few have translated that into commercial success.

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