Interview: Sir Peter Ogden

Serial entrepreneur Sir Peter Ogden has made his millions through banking and IT, but has still found the time to launch energy recruitment outfit Spencer Ogden, which has just opened its first office in the Gulf
By Beatrice Thomas
Fri 14 Mar 2014 10:35 AM

He has been knighted for his services to education through his charitable trust and can claim credit for founding Europe’s biggest computer services company, but just don’t call Peter Ogden “Sir”.

“No, I hate it, it’s embarrassing sometimes,” the millionaire British businessman and philanthropist says when Arabian Business asks whether to use the title bestowed on him in 2005.

However, at 65, the respected entrepreneur, sailing and motorsport enthusiast and current leaseholder of the Channel Island of Jethou is nonetheless grateful for the recognition.

“It’s nice to have the honour, but you can’t get too carried away with it,” he muses.

Harvard-educated, the son of a co-op worker forged a successful career in investment banking both in the UK and US with Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, eventually becoming a managing director at the latter at the relatively young age — in banking terms anyway — of 40.

However, driven by the fear that he might one day be tossed aside by an “up-and-coming tyke” and wanting to take control of his destiny, Ogden quit his high-paying, high-flying job in 1981 and joined forces with fellow Harvard alumnus Philip Hulme to start IT company Computacenter, which today is Europe’s largest computer services company with 13,000 employees and a group turnover of £3.07bn ($5.11bn) in 2013.

Ogden, whose wealth was listed at £250m ($416.17m) in The Sunday Times Rich List 2013, subsequently also co-created the financial software and data company Dealogic in 1983, while he also co-founded with John Britten and former Formula One driver Jonathan Palmer MotorSport Vision, which operates a number of UK racing venues and runs several championships.

But when asked about the early days of Computacenter, Ogden initially struggles to recall the specific details of what was a frenetic time, but offers one stand-out memory of that career change.

“The biggest challenge was I was the managing director of Morgan Stanley at the age of 40 — one of the youngest in a private firm — and then suddenly I had a van, I was delivering computers. I would go along to Credit Suisse and say ‘I am Peter’ and they would say ‘I don’t give a s**** who you are, you’re late with the delivery,” he recalls.

“All of a sudden I was Mr Nobody and that was kind of hard to take, but that’s what happens… and that’s life.”

Computacenter, which floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1998, the same year he relinquished his role as chairman to become a non-executive director, started at an opportune time with he and Hulme having the business savvy to realise early on - and before IBM had even sent a single computer off the production line - that the personal computer would become a business tool.

“We stuck to that model religiously, we executed the strategy very well, we worked so we could invest in the business but it really was that first thing that [the growth of PCs] would happen and it did happen,” Ogden, who today retains a 22.9 percent stake in the company, says. “There were maybe 30 companies that started up in that time and there’s nobody left but us, because they all sort of went retail…there’s so many different ones, but the fact [is] that we stuck at it.”

In Computacenter’s full-year results, released on 11 March, the company increased group revenue by 5.4 percent in 2013 and posted a before-tax profit of £81.7m ($135.97m), up 1.4 percent on the previous year.

Dealogic, his other business with Hulme and a third co-founder, Simon Hessel, remains a private company, with some 600 staff at offices in nine cities across the world. To date, its figures show it has recorded 7,000 deals with $4 trillion in equity capital raised via its platform.

Ogden says while remaining a director of Computacenter, his day-to-day involvement with the company has decreased over time. “They only call me now when they want to do something really stupid,” he jokes. “Really my involvement is much more as a director on the board. Like all these businesses, it’s way beyond me now, what they do now, they run massive contracts worldwide with all these big multinationals — totally beyond my ability.”

Ogden’s business interests have also diversified over the years, with the angel investor teaming up with successful British recruiter David Spencer-Percival in 2010 to form energy recruitment firm Spencer Ogden. With a reported initial outlay of £1m ($1.66m), the company now boasts 300 staff across 12 offices around the world, the most recent of which opened in Dubai this month.

Much like Computacenter, it was fortuitous in its timing.

“At the time we set the business up, renewable was really heavily in the news — it was sort of the new energy, so really we had a lot of offshore wind farms being built, or onshore wind farms, a lot of solar, nuclear,” Spencer-Percival says from the majlis-style boardroom in the company’s open-floor office in Dubai Media City. The office, on the 17th floor, is reminiscent of a Google or Facebook headquarters, with fake grass for flooring, a retro-style kitchen and baseball bats and footballs for office downtime in what perhaps says as much about its two colourful leaders as the demographic that works for them.

“Very simply in the UK, particularly, we needed to build ten new nuclear power stations and nuclear power stations are huge engineering operations of 10,000 people plus,” Spencer-Percival continues.

“At the time Germany was reducing all this nuclear capability, which meant that we were going more heavily into renewables, so the two really were combined.”

Spencer-Percival, a founding member of recruitment company Huntress, which was sold for £52m ($86.46m) in 2007 to Nomura Private Equity Capital, says the oil and gas sector continues to record strong growth with a number of new projects in the Middle East, while renewable energy is more slowly making its mark.

According to a report released last year by market research specialists Ventures Middle East, nearly 100 projects — worth $32.7bn — had been launched in 2013 in water and renewables, led by a flurry of new power and water projects in the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

According to the World Energy Council, the Gulf region alone will require 100 gigawatts (GW) of additional power by 2020 to meet increased demand, surging at 7.7 percent annually.

“Solar is, obviously, quite a big investment in the Middle East, but because of the low electricity costs here, because of the subsidised electricity, what that means is that actually it’s incredibly difficult to make renewables profitable even though it’s a natural place for a solar farm to be built,” Spencer-Percival says.

“Renewables are being looked at quite a lot — it’s whether the big steps for the huge investments [happen]. Nuclear power stations cost $20bn to build — they need a lot of financing and return on investment is a long time, so they’re less likely to be projects that get off the ground.”

Ogden says Spencer Ogden recorded annual turnover of £50m ($83.23m) in 2013, which he is “fairly confident” will grow to meet targets of £72-75m ($119m-125m) in 2014. He believes it will be a £100m ($166.47m)-a-year turnover business in the next two to three years.

It’s a far cry from £12m ($19.98m)-a-year estimate Ogden had predicted back in 2010 as being “quite feasible” in three years, but still a long way off the $1bn companies they compete with.

“We’ve invested a lot of money, £10m ($16.65m) to date,” Spencer-Percival says, adding they have also hired a lot of graduates who undergo an intensive three-month training programme with the company.

While the Dubai office will be the company’s “super hub” in the Middle East, Spencer-Percival says they will likely open smaller operational offices in other parts of the region such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq.

It will start with a few dozen staff in Dubai, tapping into what they describe as a mobile, global workforce in the energy sector that is willing and able to move for work opportunities.

Aside from Spencer Ogden, Ogden says he is involved in a number of start-ups, with the common theme in all of his business endeavours being “people”.

“Basically finding somebody and you think ‘I think this guy could do it’. I’m in motor sports, I’m in recruitment, I’m in software, I’m in IT, but they’re all very much with somebody, a partner, who I think has the capability,” he explains.

It’s for this reason he lists MotorSport Vision and Spencer Ogden as the projects that are “the most fun, because I’m very much involved day to day”.

Ogden says support at both government level and from investors and the private sector are vital to fostering a healthy entrepreneurial culture.

It’s an area for which the Middle East has been criticised, with investors often reluctant to back any venture that doesn’t have a proven track record. But Ogden says it’s fundamental.

“If you want to  build an entrepreneurial culture and you want to have start-ups then it’s kind of in the government’s interests to try and make some funding available, but even more so to look at the tax system, which is not a problem here [in the GCC] because you don’t pay tax,” he says.

Ogden says blaming the banks for a lack of start-up support is old news and off the mark. “I don’t know why people even go on about it, people say banks don’t back start-ups and SMEs. Well, they never did and they never will — banks don’t have the people or the risk profile,” he says.

Ogden says what is growing is angel investment comprising individual business backers, which is ideal for businesses such as Spencer Ogden and capital raising up to $10m.

“They’re the best source now of financing, certainly in the UK… because there are no venture capital firms left, they’ve all gone to being private equity or to being leveraged buy-out funds,” he says.

While Ogden’s success has allowed him to dedicate more time to his other pursuits — the accomplished sailor estimates he spends 90 to 100 days a year sailing, including on his 62-foot Mini Maxi, Jethou — it also gives him a chance to pursue philanthropic endeavours.

He set up the Ogden Trust using some of the 30 million Computacenter shares he sold in the company’s float and the trust pledges more than £1m ($1.66m) a year to pay tuition fees for bright children from low-income backgrounds.

“It seemed to be that the education system in the UK is a relatively unfair system with a really non-level playing field. There’s private education and success — Oxford, Cambridge, lawyer, doctor, MP, prime minister. It is an unfair system and particularly, therefore, for bright children who have had no family wealth,” Ogden says.

“The idea was could we identify bright children and give them scholarships and put them into the best schools and see how it went and that’s basically what we did. After about five years it got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

He says it was refocused on science education, including supporting teachers, children as well as partnerships with schools.

For the man who has made a lifetime following his dreams, it’s a fitting way for him to help others pursue their own.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.