When I first started as editor of AV News, one of the first people I met was Sahara owner, Kevin Batley. Kevin was in the process of changing his traditional office products business into a manufacturer and distributor of interactive whiteboards and projectors. This was almost 20 years ago, and Kevin has taken a well-deserved step back from the coalface, handing responsibility to new CEO Mark Starkey. This was our first chance to find out about his outlook for the business and his impressions of progress to date.
First impressions of Mark Starkey are that he is more than willing to give credit where it is due to the owners and founders of both the Sahara and Clevertouch businesses, while acknowledging that timing the entry into a sector is a big part of the eventual success of the business.
“You have got to be in the right place at the right time, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One of the key things is about owning the IP at the core of the business Anyone can go and do a deal with a Chinese manufacturer. Success comes from creating your own IP and, from there you’ve got to create your own software. If you don’t do that, you don’t differentiate, and you can’t show value.”
So given that these conditions are satisfied by the Sahara businesses what do think made you the right appointment as CEO?
“I will give you a bit of my background. Post university, I actually trained briefly as a chartered accountant. I started life at EY and, after 4 years, I realised that I wanted to get into IT. I joined a pretty small IT integrator called Logicalis and I spent 17 years there. Logicalis grew significantly and partnered with the main IT vendors, companies like Cisco, IBM, HP, and in addition we were acquiring lots of business, including some video businesses.”
“It was obvious that there was a big conversion between what was happening in the AV world and how that merges into IT. Everything becomes IP becomes IP-centric. AV solutions are increasingly connected to a computer network or corporate network. After 17 years, I decided to join EMC – at the end of my first week it was announced that they were being sold to Dell.”
“I initially ran a software team across Europe and the Middle East, and we were taking new software products and basically taking them to market. It went from £10 million business to £100 million in just 18 months – insane growth! Inside Dell, I was running the cell strategy function across 11 countries in Western Europe. I had various opportunities with other AV companies, but I actually turned them down. It was only when I saw Sahara opportunity that I saw something I thought was very, very interesting.”
But what sealed the deal? “You only have to look at their profit loss account and look at their balance sheet to know that they’ve done a lot of things right. You look at the growth in their business. You see very big growth in their story. Look at the competition and you see what Sahara doing very well. Look at how they are growing internationally and the outlook is very positive.”
“But, actually, more than anything, it’s the people inside Sahara. There’s not many companies that I would have left Dell for, but this was one of them. It had all of the right raw ingredients. I could see huge growth opportunities around Clevertouch. It had obviously the distribution business, and in my over 20 years in IT I helped set up the Westcon IT distribution business in the UK, and so I knew that business quite well. All-in-all, I saw a huge opportunity and for that reason I was really keen to come on board.”
Sticking with education
Sahara is one of the few manufacturers to stay the course with the education sector, once the corporates came calling. Mark Stanley believes that it makes perfect sense to maintain the Clevertouch presence in education, and continuing to build in other verticals as opportunities arise:
“Rather than abandoning a sector, we have kept everything we have and added new markets. We stuck with education, and we are exploring other vertical markets, like the health sector (the NHS) and other parts of the public sector – blue light, MOD and, of course, corporate. With the lockdown over the last 3 months when everyone turned to using Zoom there was an emerging market. I said let’s get accredited with Zoom. We jumped on Zoom straight away and we are an accredited hardware supplier for Zoom, and we have Zoom Room solutions. We launched the solutions in the UK, across Europe and North America and they will take us to different vertical markets. In short, we won’t move away from education, but we will absolutely add new verticals to our mix.”
“So what will the new normal look like? “Really, it’s going to become a Zoom and a Teams play. so we will make sure that we have a solution or both Zoom and Teams. Here is the great thing – we turned it around very, very quickly. We needed to make a decision in a week. We literally had non-stop Zoom calls with the guys in California. They’ve got some great apps, shared some virtual backgrounds and we agreed to getting ourselves accredited so they knew who we were, they knew exactly who they were working with – and we became an officially accredited hardware partner for them. We are launching our solutions right now – it’s going to be be a situation where end-users will want a our hardware as a very easy solution for video conferencing.”
The Covid effect
Mark Starkey believes that the Covid–19 pandemic will have a long-lasting effect on the way we work and learn: “I think people realise that they can work far more affectively. They don’t have to commute, they can save themselves a couple hours every day and they can work far more effectively in terms of how they work. Within, literally, a week we made sure that our systems and our whole office could be offline and working remotely. We empowered as many people as we could. After 10 weeks it was working so well that we haven’t furloughed, and the key decision was made not to furlough. We have traded properly every single month, even though the rest of the world has been on lockdown”
How difficult has it been to transact business in lockdown: “Clearly, we have had a lot of customers with furloughed employees, but we told all our guys to keep talking to our customers. If you know one of our resellers furloughed 90% of their staff, let’s keep talking to the 10% that are still there. Make sure we can work with them, and that we can share opportunities. We have just won a huge deal in Austria. So while we are in lockdown here, we have won one of our biggest deals ever. So, it was the right decision – people have successfully worked remotely. Yes, it has been different. I was in the office yesterday the first time in two months and trying to make sure we are legally safe. We are not forcing people back. I’m saying that if you want to work from the office, we will make its safe to do so, but you are not being forced to come back in. If you can work affectively from home, that’s fine. We have kept the business very agile by doing that.”
Sahara has long enjoyed a reputation for treating its customers very well, with its legendary partner events a highlight of the AV calendar. Has Covid-19 brought these programs to an end? Mark Starkey says not: “I don’t think that events have been permanently relegated history. I think that we will play it by ear. I think we will do partner events. They may well be different, but I think we will be back with a bang. We never stopped trading. We are desperate to start face-to-face meetings again with our customers, albeit 2 metres apart.”.
“Things will come back, but they will be different but, in many ways. If you look at what tends to happen in the economy after a pandemic – they generally boom. I am not sat here being pessimistic. We have gone through one of the biggest pandemics in 100 years, and you know what? We have carried on trading all the way through and we never ever missed a beat. I think once the pandemic starts to lift. I think it will be crazy – with lots of people realising they need solutions like those we have at Clevertouch. It’s a great wave to ride – we are not taking advantage of the pandemic; we are just making sure we are in the right place at the right time.”
“It’s all about being very, very professional, with integrity and honesty in everything we do. I think that this is key, standing behind some of our partners who are potentially struggling a little bit. We say okay, look at their situation and will work with them. Eventually those things pay off, and we know we have deep, long-term relationships. Those customers will value us in the long run because we stood behind them.”
And further ahead? “The opportunities for Sahara and Clevertouch have just got significantly bigger. People will be thinking I don’t really want to get on a plane, especially if Covid-19 has a second wave. The opportunity is probably even bigger now than it was 6 months ago. Video solutions are so much easier now. In the past, they could be quite complex. When entering a meeting room and you don’t know it’s not always obvious what button to press. We work closely with Teams, Zoom and other key providers to make that our solutions are as simple and easy to operate. Basically anyone can jump on their own computer and make a call and make the product work in a corporate world. We believe that every meeting room should have an interactive flat panel on rather than just a blank TV on the wall. Then it can be used Zoom, Teams or whatever solution the user wants.