TEARING around the track in an Aston Martin N24, Alan Bonner knows the whole racing team’s fate depends on his performance – and only the top podium position will do.
“The only spot is the top spot,” he says. “In your mind, that is the only one available.”
It didn’t quite work out that way last weekend at Donington Park in Leicestershire, where the Vantage Racing team for which Bonner is one of the drivers secured pole position but ultimately finished third. Bonner, an amateur racer since winning the Jim Russell Scholarship for future drivers in 1992, was understandably frustrated.
However, having driven in more than half-a-dozen motorsport categories over the years, he knows the only solution is better planning and execution the next time around the circuit.
It’s much the same in business, where the chief executive of Pinnacle Technology is re-shaping the company for the technology race that lies ahead. Fourteen years after setting up what began as a small Scottish-based telecoms supplier, Bonner has no intention of easing back on the throttle.
Revenues have surged nearly nine-fold since Pinnacle joined the Alternative Investment Market in 2007, culminating in a record month, in March, which pushed sales to £6.4 million in the latest half-year results.
Bonner says the trend will continue, with annual sales of £50m expected within the next two years.
“I am very confident in that I know, or I believe I know, what I need to do,” he says. “Our customers buy on average just 1.3 products from us, and what we need to do is get them to buy two or three or four each. These are products that they need, and which they are already buying, just not from us.”
It all centres on the re-vamped strategy that led Pinnacle earlier this year to drop “Telecom” from its name and switch into the FTSE’s software and computer services sector, leaving its roots in fixed-line communications behind.
Many businesses are struggling to cope as the boundaries of the workplace are blurred by employees using their own devices to do their jobs while on the go. Spotting this trend, Bonner has re-shaped Pinnacle into a specialist manager of IT services, network connection, data storage, data security and mobile technology.
Bonner concedes it is all but impossible to predict what this rapidly-changing market will look like in five years’ time. However, the self-confessed work obsessive is intent on moving up the food chain.
“The landscape is shifting very quickly, and really the only way to deal with that is to be wide awake, all day every day,” he says.
It’s a challenge he clearly relishes, and which he has seemingly been preparing for all his life.
Raised in the Borders, Bonner began working the stalls at East Fortune markets at the age of 11. After school, he went on to study at Northumberland College of Agriculture – “don’t ask me why” – and it was during his commutes that he spotted what would become his first fully-fledged business.
“When I came home, I used to pass an empty shop every day, and I would think about what would work in that shop,” Bonner recalls.
“Video libraries were doing well at the time – this was in the days before 24-hour television – and I decided to open one up.”
The business grew to nine shops before Bonner sold up in the mid-1980s and began a new job in sales with CIS, the insurance arm of the Co-operative Group. After a few years he started up his own insurance brokerage based in Hawick, then later moved on to become a sales director for Bupa.
During his four years with the healthcare specialist, Bonner expanded the sales team from 34 to 523 people. By the time of his departure, the operation was generating annual revenues of £35m.
It was during a Christmas visit to see his sister in South Africa that he first read a news article about forthcoming deregulation in the UK telecoms industry. With insurance coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny, Bonner was drawn to the idea of setting up in a sector with more freedom to move.
He began running a telecoms consultancy in 1996, during which time he was also a sales manager at Atlantic Telecom, the ill-fated Aberdonian firm headed by Graham Duncan. Bonner then struck out on his own in 1998 – three years before Atlantic’s collapse – to set up Pinnacle.
He spent much of those early years treading the traditional meet-and-greet path to sales growth, talking with small business owners and persuading them to sign on.
The business trundled along until 2007 when Bonner seized the opportunity to reverse his company into the quoted Glen Group, which had been set up by Duncan after Atlantic Telecom’s demise.
Though Glen was struggling, Bonner thought he could quickly get the combined operation into shape. But instead it turned into one of the most challenging periods of his career, with maiden losses of £3.1m and the onset of the recession just a few months away.
“We had only really been on the markets about two minutes when everything started to close up,” he recalls.
With no cash and no access to capital, Bonner combined Pinnacle’s paper with his personal skills and went on the acquisition trail to growth. To date, he has taken over eight businesses in all-paper deals that have brought new customers and additional areas of expertise to the business.
It has been a successful but labour-intensive job that Bonner is still pursuing as the company hunts for additional data storage and mobile capacity.
More deals are likely for Pinnacle, but only if they prove to be a “step change” for the business.
“I am actually really comfortable with the fact that my life is my work right now,” Bonner says. “It’s how it needs to be.”
Indeed, not even his beloved motor racing provides an escape, with weekend meetings populated by investors, customers and the 70-odd staff working from Pinnacle’s nine locations across the UK.
Bonner’s team partner, Scots-born businessman Tom Black, is also one of Pinnacle’s largest investors with a 3.2 per cent stake in the business. Chief executive Bonner owns 10 per cent of equity, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining his work compulsions.
“It is not really a job to me – it is an obsession, a journey.”
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