We sit sipping on cardboard cups of water from a nearby cooler. Through the door, I can see rows of desks stretching away, with employees answering phones, clicking mice and occasionally gazing out of the windows. Harris is still explaining marketing strategies, while twiddling his thumbs. "You see, we're not going vertically. We're going horizontally." I look at him, quizzically. Andrew Lincoln, the press officer, shifts in his seat. "Also," he adds, "cost effectively." I nod. Lincoln nods. We all nod.
The company office is in Oswestry, a Shropshire market town named after a tree belonging to Oswald, King of Northumbria. There's no sign of Oswald's tree, or indeed any other trees, on the bleak road through the industrial estate to the south-west of the town, but it does feature several businesses ranging from road haulage to food packing. Harris's office is a sizeable building at the centre of the estate, with the company name - Total Network Solutions - proudly on display. An A4 poster is stuck to the main doors, with information about tickets for a football match taking place in Wrexham next week.
Lincoln whisks me into the Operations Room, the nerve centre of the company. "Welcome to the lunatic asylum," he says. At one end of the long, conventional office space is the familiar hubbub of staplers being borrowed and the gentle sighs of employees checking the clock. In a room marked Solutions Room, three men in suits sit below a white board, on which is scrawled various words - Omega, Tiger, Witness, Axis. They confer before continuing, presumably, to come up with total solutions.
Next door, a couple of dirty cups sit on the draining board in a kitchen, while a nearby vending machine exhibits forlorn snacks that must have been deemed inedible. It's like a million small businesses on British industrial estates, and not unlike the office of Wernham Hogg, the fictitious Slough-based paper suppliers where Ricky Gervais's The Office was set. But there is a difference. Total Network Solutions - or TNS - has suddenly become a real-life household name.
Harris strides into the Operations Room dressed incongruously in a football strip, while his more prosaically attired staff fill their spreadsheets. "Total Network Solutions turns over £30m a year," he says proudly. "We punch well above our weight in brand recognition terms."
The reason? Total Network Solutions isn't just a business in Shropshire. It's also the name of a small football club from the Welsh village of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain. Tonight they visit Liverpool FC, the champions of Europe, in the first leg of a qualifying tie for this season's Champions League. The second leg is at Wrexham next week.
Harris, unconvinced of the merits of just having his company logo on team shirts, sunk £250,000 into the club in 1997 - on the strict and unusual condition that they change their name to that of his business. The club, grateful for the investment, agreed, and its 300 loyal fans decided they would rather have a club called Total Network Solutions than no club at all.
Since the name change, the club has gone from relegation favourite to winner of the Welsh Premier League. The Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling, who does the Saturday football results, has a catchphrase for each TNS victory: "They'll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight." The gag has almost become a marketing slogan - not just for the club, but for the company too.
In the Operations Room, there is more sense of company than club. However, among the usual clutter of guillotines, laminators and computer monitors, there is a cardboard box containing a couple of TNS's minty-fresh green and white-hooped football shirts. A boy who looks as if he's on work experience wanders past a couple of posters from last season advertising a clash with TNS's great rivals Rhyl.
Ian Williams, the only TNS staff member to be employed solely on the football side of the business, paces nervously with a mobile phone clamped to his ear, either putting off journalists eager to speak to the team or dealing with requests from players for soup and rolls at their hotel in Liverpool.
"Liverpool probably have 20 full-time admin staff," Lincoln mutters. "So the marketing department is having to help Ian out for these Liverpool games. We've not done any normal work for the past three weeks."
Lincoln details the long list of "loonball" media with whom they have had to deal, and is interrupted by a call from a troublesome French TV crew. He berates them for trying to track down the mobile-phone numbers of the TNS players and the location of their training ground. "Madness," he mutters as he replaces the receiver.
According to Harris, the effort the marketing people are devoting to football is an important part of what he refers to as his "strategic marketing policy".
Whether the time and money are well spent is harder to judge, for the embarrassing reason that it's not particularly easy to ascertain what TNS actually does. Its Mission Statement could come straight from Pseud's Corner: "Total Network Solutions is the leading provider of Converged Communications, Professional and Managed Services to the Enterprise, Public Sector and Service Provider markets, delivering Innovative Lifecycle Solutions resolving Business Issues through the use of recognised quality processes."
I ask one employee to explain in plain words what TNS does. "You really don't know?" I shake my head. "We sell complete network managed solutions, which transfer voice and data."
Lincoln, busy fending off enquiries about ticket allocation for the second leg (Wrexham will hold a much larger crowd than Llansantffraid could), is equally vague. "Well... it's certainly a pretty boring marketplace," he says.
Maybe Harris himself can shed some light? No doubt, but right now he's more interested in marketing. "It's a male-dominated industry. Our problem has been getting our name recognised by ABC1 males in the UK, whether they're interested in network communications or not. And there's no better way to do that than through football."
For non-football-loving TNS employees, the encounter with the champions of Europe is becoming slightly annoying. The otherwise serene office environment is constantly disrupted by phone calls asking for tickets and other football-related favours. "If I'd had a fiver for every time someone had rung up asking for a press pass..." says Martin Hilditch, as he carries a sheaf of papers into the Solutions Room.
Andrew Lincoln says I might get a more enthusiastic response from Dawn Bettany, who works in Systems and Integration but has just popped into town for lunch. Apparently, her picture appeared in the Shropshire Post, clutching a bundle of tickets, to advertise the Wrexham game. "Is that because she's the most photogenic?" I ask. "Absolutely," murmurs a man in a tie sitting nearby, gazing into the middle distance.
When Bettany returns, I ask her about the possibility of her becoming the public face of the football club. "Ooh, I don't know about that," she laughs. Her phone rings: it's Razid from Intersonic, with questions about network security. Bettany's replies are efficient and courteous, keeping TNS's promise to deliver services to the BS7799-2 Information Security Management Standard.
But now the post-lunch slump kicks in. Someone calls asking for a trial at the club; Lincoln replies almost wearily that they're not looking for players at the moment. The buzzing of phones and beeping of card-operated door entry systems makes for an irritating audio cocktail and, to top it all, there seems to be an overheating problem in the server room. It seems that "influencing change through innovation" isn't coming particularly easy this afternoon.
Suddenly, a man tapping figures into a database leans back and starts to sing a Hot Chocolate number. "It started with a kiss..." he wails, with a singular lack of passion. "Er, what are you doing?" asks his neighbour. "Oh. Sorry. I was just trying to stop your day getting too humdrum," he replies.
Humdrum or not, TNS is doing something right. It's growing at about 30 per cent a year and has huge brand recognition. "Ring any company in Wales," Harris says, "and ask if they've heard of Total Network Solutions, and they will have."
Considering that TNS's home crowds usually number about 300, that's impressive. But how many of these companies actually know what TNS does? Harris isn't too bothered about this. "Look, I don't advertise. What I have here is a brand recognition marketing tool. And it allows our sales teams to hang their dialogue on football."
Those teams will no doubt be deeply grateful. They may know that TNS has "award-winning competence gained through understanding the best working practices of successful implementations," but it's much easier to say to clients: "Great game on Wednesday. We was robbed."Reuse content