We're going to make an awful lot of money: Business and IT success meet in the form of Philip Swinstead. Now the original yuppie has a spare pounds 2m and a master plan. Lynne Curry reports

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The Independent Online
Last year he bought into a contract agency; last November the agency took over the biggest of its kind in the country; last month he bought an information technology consultancy; this month he bought a training body. The IT cabal awaits with interest to see what Philip Swinstead will do next.

The next move he plans is to acquire a classic, and classy software house to complete the envisaged 'full set' for the umbrella group, Parity, of which he is chief executive. It will join the three companies (trainer, consultancy and the CSS Trident agency) already in the fold.

Mr Swinstead was a self-confessed yuppie before the term was even invented - he was driving a company E-type Jag at the age of 27. Now, at 50, he is an elder in the brief history of computing, has a spare pounds 2m, a master plan and the same drive that made him a board member of his first company before he was 30.

Two weeks ago he announced six- month interim results for Parity showing a pounds 2m pre-tax profit, compared with pounds 60,000 over the same period last year (as the Comac Group) and a pre-tax loss of pounds 228,000 at the end of 1993.

While some of his peers are content to enjoy their riches and restrict their activities to non-executive directorships and office in the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, he has allocated himself five years to build up another blinder. His passion is not money - he has millions - nor even the technology that launched his career, but business.

In aligning CSS Trident with a training body, a consultancy and a software house, he hopes to have an all-remedies services quartet to answer the demand of managed projects - ever more specialised projects calling for specific skills. This, he believes, will lead to the fulfilment of an American prediction that, by the end of the century, one in two computer personnel will be freelance.

'It makes sense. Instead of having 2,000 people sitting in very expensive offices and trying to schedule them to match changing technology that needs changing skills, it is much more efficient to just have senior staff. So we are trying to create a software house that looks like an engineering contracting company. We think we can beat the others on price, flexibility and value for money.'

Philip Swinstead's experience in the contracting market is comparatively brief. His first step was to buy 19.5 per cent of the Comac agency for pounds 750,000 in 1993. But his business pedigree is sound; he increased the turnover of his first company from pounds 10m to pounds 300m in six years and when he finally and reluctantly severed that connection, he had made his three shareholders eight times their money. Shares in Comac soared from 44p to 78p on the news that he was to become its chief executive.

'People who are good in business are those who are good at structuring unstructured problems,' he says. 'I don't find it difficult to run a business, but that's luck - it's not always successful.'

Mr Swinstead can afford a touch of self-deprecation. If he loses the pounds 2m he has risked in this venture it might ruin his week, but not his life. He and his second wife live on a Scottish estate north of Perth where they have all the trappings they want, having discarded some they do not. 'I went through a nouveau-riche stage in the Eighties then I thought it was a bit daft, so I don't have the boats and planes any more,' he says.

Rich for only the second half of his life, Mr Swinstead started out in a prefab in south London and flunked his A-levels at Portsmouth Tech. He is uncomfortable with the idea that his roots might be interesting: 'I don't behave any differently. I still have the same friends and still play cricket every minute I can, still with the same guys, and I still stand my round. It's only a business. It may be the business that's trendiest at the time, but it's only a business and we're lucky enough to be successful.'

Luck/success came soon after college, when he joined Easams and quickly rose to board level. Easams did the software for the Nimrod aircraft and there is a flight analysis computer at Hatfield, he says, that still uses his software.

When software moved on to work on 'real time' projects to maximise profit, he was there with it. Soon afterwards, with a pounds 1,000 overdraft, he set up Systems Designers and roped in three friends to fulfil the first contract. 'It was a crazy time. You could double your salary virtually every time you wanted to.'

Systems Designers - forerunner of SD-Scicon - hit a burgeoning market early. Between 1969 and 1987, revenues and profits increased annually, and it became one of the largest systems houses in the country.

Despite his high profile, he is a team player and has enjoyed getting there and basking there alongside his colleagues and, sometimes, his competitors. 'We did do something pretty special. These guys pulled off something fantastic in the Eighties. We enjoyed working together and got a kick out of it. We loved being successful; we had to win. We're the same now - we like being professional, better than the rest, no tattiness, everything done properly.'

The company's downfall came when the Government departments it worked for insisted on fixed-price contracts. SD- Scicon made a huge loss and despite turning around its finances, was taken over by EDS for pounds 162m. This made Mr Swinstead richer, but effectively consigned him to exile. His severance terms included a two-year non-compete agreement. Back in Scotland, he fished, played golf and itched to return to the City, but never contemplated breaching the contract. 'I wasn't demoralised,' he says. 'One is very lucky at 45 to have a sabbatical and a few pence as well. But there is no way I could have stayed out of the City. I love the industry and I love the City, especially the corporate finance side of it.'

Back with a purpose, he has given himself five years to direct Parity's mission to 'take on the software industry', having briefed his 'tremendously good' managing director, Paul Davies, and finance director Richard Farr that he wants to be told to go if he ceases to add value.

'We want to become a major player in the UK, moving out into continental Europe in the next five years. Having created that goal, I have put pounds 2m of my own money into this. I have certain ambitions for that pounds 2m and it could be exciting. We're going to make an awful lot of money. Then I'll leave the company.'

(Photograph omitted)

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