Before establishing distributor Datastor in 1992, shortly after arriving in New Zealand with a shipment of Taiwanese 286 PCs, Dickerson had run a number of successful businesses in his native South Africa.
Dickerson’s first job, after completing his military service – compulsory in those days – was designing and selling farm sprinkler systems.
Following this, he embarked on an OE to the UK at a time when few South Africans undertook this rite of passage.
In London he initially worked for a property company, but since he had learned to fly planes at 18, he soon made a living from aviation.
“I started flying Kiwis, South Africans and Aussies across to France for the day on Sundays. Then I got into delivering aircraft all around Europe for a factory in Germany.”
When Dickerson returned to South Africa in 1971 a friend asked him to run a hotel in the tourist town of Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape.
“I had no experience or formal training, but I had seen in the movies how people like to experience a hotel.”
Dickerson ran the hotel successfully for five years, saying the secret was providing exceptional service. “People want fantastic service.”
But he still had the aviation bug and in 1977 he entered this industry full time, working for a company that retrieved crashed aeroplanes. “I had to make temporary repairs to fly them back.”
Eventually Dickerson set up his own company, selling Beechcraft airplanes across Southern Africa and Indian Ocean islands such as the Comoros and Reunion.
Giving great service again ensured the success of this business, says Dickerson, along with getting people excited about flying.
Dickerson’s introduction to IT came in 1988 when he bought his first IBM PC, running Lotus 123, to replace “the little box of cards” in which he stored information on his customers and aeroplanes.
Before long he had upgraded virtually all the PC’s components and found he had enough parts to build a whole other machine, which he decided to sell.
“I put an ad in the paper and got 30 phone calls. It drove me crazy – I had one IBM for sale, but got 30 calls. So I rushed off to companies that did upgrades and got all the bits I could and managed to supply to at least 25 of them.”
Although still in the aviation industry, Dickerson started dabbling in technology and began building networks for other companies.
When he decided to move to New Zealand he had some space left to fill in the container of belongings he was shipping over.
And so he arrived here in 1991 with around 30 Taiwanese 286 PCs.
“I had to sell them when I got here and then people wanted other things. So I went to Taiwan and bought all sorts of products that I started supplying to other distributors and I suddenly became a distributor and Datastor was up and running.”
The company started with Dickerson and two other employees, one of whom was a technician, and expanded organically. “We grew the company for the first five years without an outbound sales person just by sending out price lists and giving incredible service. Once we got the sales staff going the company grew steadily and today we have 70 staff.”
As a distributor, Datastor got its break landing the rights to one of the first brands of raid controllers, DPT. “New Zealand became number five in the world with the amount of products we sold. That really gave us the start – other companies saw how well we were doing and approached us.”
But Dickerson has enjoyed growing not only the company over the years, but also its people. “The biggest kick I get is to see people grow.”
He also enjoys introducing people to technology and has found future employees in some unlikely places. “One staff member who used to serve me in a vegetable shop. She was so good, I got her in and she was fantastic.”
Throughout all the different industries Dickerson has operated in he has held fast to one principle – do it better than anyone else.
“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, it is all exactly the same – it is just service. You give people what they want and customers will come back to you.”
What Dickerson knows about running a business he has learned from his own experiences. “I have never read any sales or business success books and haven’t learnt any bad habits from university professors. So I have a pretty uncluttered mind.”
Dickerson finds storage exciting, especially as capacities increase in the face of an almost insatiable appetite for storage. “I find it absolutely fascinating. Storage is what it is all about. With the internet, everything runs off storage.”
While he loves golf and classical music, of which he has an enormous collection, Dickerson still has a passion for taking to the skies. “New Zealand is so beautiful; it is wonderful to take an aircraft and fly around.”
The IBM notebook I bought three years ago – it is so small and thin, I did a motorcycle trip around Europe with it.
Google is just incredible -– I use it for absolutely everything.
Golf, cricket, rugby – I support the All Blacks now.
Dry gin martini – I don’t care if it’s shaken or stirred!
If you could have a coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
World War II pilot and Battle of Britain hero Sir Douglas Bader. Those guys were amazing – they went from flying Tiger Moths to Spitfires.
What’s been the most important technological advance in IT?
Aerial density on hard drives – it is just incredible what they can get on a square inch of hard drive now.
If you weren’t in IT what would you be doing?
I’ve done it!
What book is on your bedside table?
Lighting brochures – I’ve been building a house for 18 months, so I’m looking for the right products.
Who is/was your mentor?
Ernest Harper – South African architect/businessman – the designer of my new house and whose hotel I ran.