Canadian native Mark McGillivray, director of Palmerston North’s Advantage Computers, has been an environmental health officer, spent time in the Arctic circle, trained as a diver and studied economics and IT at Massey University in New Zealand.
But opening a computer store in Palmerston North in 1986 with an initial import shipment of 50 Panasonic printers kickstarted what has become a technology career spanning more than two decades.
Emigrating to New Zealand in 1982, McGillivray began his IT business in 1984 from a bedroom at home, but used a bank loan to help open the retail shop two years later. He says he undercut what at the time were the retail prices of the printers he’d imported, allowing him to sell “swagloads” of them nationwide.
He also imported PCs and launched himself into the market by advertising to gain nationwide reach.
“Others were also importing PCs but no-one would buy $30,000 of computers at a time. Other resellers were buying from me. We actually sold to quite a few dealers,” McGillivray says.
He also says some dealers in the mid to late 1980s were only selling hardware, so he differentiated by offering software too. In 1987, he gained contracts to supply Massey University, Glaxo, the Ministry of Commerce and Treasury and others. while Massey University remains a major customer, says McGillivray.
The company has built longstanding customer relationships by delivering on its promises, he says.
“We stand behind our services, even if it costs us money and it has. Our focus is about support. The major corporates are a big portion of our business,” he says.
During the past 25 years, Advantage has evolved to manage national as well as regional accounts in Palmerston North, as well as the greater Wanganui- Manawatu region. Customers range from five-strong organisations to national firms.
It relies on working with channel partners to meet customer demand, says McGillivray.
“Our clients have a huge need and we are required to deliver breadth, depth and capability. What is a challenge is we are not a huge organisation, and we rely on strong relationships with our channel partners.”
He adds to won’t take on deals that are unprofitable and its finance team works hard to carefully manage cashflows.
Advantage Computers counts Datastor, Ingram Micro, Exeed, Dove, Synnex and Express Data as its main distributors, while key vendors include IBM, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba and EMC.
“All are key to our success. They bring expertise and product knowledge. We don’t have the feet on the street to cover it all,” McGillivray says.
The split of business has changed at Advantage from hardware generating 80 percent of revenues in the past two years, to more of a 55/45 percent split as services generates more and more revenue over hardware.
The company’s corporate sales and solutions specialist, Cliff Wood, says it has a range of expertise, particularly in storage.
“We will always be selling products, but we have been thought leaders in all areas - SAN [storage area networks] technology, NAS [network attached storage], virtualisation, replication, duplication and tiered storage. We are bringing in a raft of services for our customers to market,” Wood says.
In 2008, Advantage introduced a remote backup service, along with offering anti-spam and anti-virus services using dedicated appliances. Currently offering wireless internet services and co-location hosting, 2010 will see further growth in wireless services, along with server hosting and the delivery of applications as a service, says McGillivray.
“Being a trusted advisor to businesses, guiding them on the latest technology trends that provide real financial benefits, is crucial to our long-lasting relationships,” he says.
He says Advantage spends six figures each year training staff in virtualisation, storage, wireless networking and the new management tools.
Woods says the company focuses on a customer’s business strategy rather than on product features.
“You have to have a different sales imperative for a business. Rather than how big the widget is that you want, tell us the essence of your business plan so we can judiciously use IT to solve those problems.”
McGillivray observes IT as an industry of cyclical trends.
“It is interesting to watch the cycle of computing go from mini/mainframe to distributed computing, through client server and now swinging back with virtualisation and cloud computing technologies providing processor and storage capabilities. Where the next wave of computing is going, who knows? But based on past experience Advantage will be there waxing up the surfboards to ride the new wave,” he jokes.