Ross Reyburn talks to Andy Dillon, managing director of IT firm VeriLan, and discovers the title of his autobiography could very well be A Tale of Two Stadiums.
Driving a Peugeot van onto Coventry’s ring road back in 1995 doesn’t seem an obvious route to securing a £1.25 million contract. But the fact Birmingham-born entrepreneur Andy Dillon was displaying his firm’s name, PC Doctors, on the vehicle ultimately led to his lucrative five-year contract masterminding the IT system at the city’s Ricoh Arena.
Thirteen years ago, Dillon decided to buy some vans decorated with his company name to expand his computer repair business and found the power of advertising was to bring instant dividends.
"I had just picked up the first van and I was on the ring road when it was spotted by Paul Ettridge, the finance manager of Coventry City Football Club, when he was driving back to his office," Dillon remembers.
"When I got back to my office in Binley, he rang up and said: ‘We’ve got a problem with a PC, I just saw your van on the ring road, could you come and have a look at it for us, please?’
"We got to Highfield Road within an hour. It took me about two minutes to work out the computer had lost its network card settings - I just reinstalled the drivers."
The repair led to PC Doctors getting a permanent contract looking after the football club’s PC system.
Later the fates were again with Mr Dillon when Mr Ettridge became the chief financial officer for Arena Coventry, the company responsible for the £113 million Ricoh Arena, built on the outskirts of the city in Phoenix Way, Foleshill. And this led to his current five-year contract to design and supervise the IT infrastructure at the sports, entertainment and business venue which became Coventry City FC’s new home under a leasing arrangement in the winter of 2006-07.
Born in Smethwick in the year England won the World Cup, Mr Dillon’s early life in Birmingham offered no hint of what was to come.
The son of a West Indian bus driver, the main feature of his early schooldays at Brandhall Junior School in Warley had little to with the classroom.
"People wanted to have a go at me because I was the only black guy," he tells you. "I was doing karate at the age of six and I spent most of my time fighting at school. In senior school, I kind of established myself and no one messed around with me."
He left school at 16 with no qualifications and then spent five years in New York where his mother had moved after his parents split up and there he first started selling mobile phones.
"It was a great place to go but it wasn’t for me - after five years I had enough. It is 30 or 40 times faster than Britain and nobody has any time for anybody."
Back in England, Andy found he had a flair for kickboxing and found himself commuting to Coventry where his kickboxing instructor Dev Barrett was based. Later he moved to the Warwickshire city where he followed in his father’s footsteps as a bus driver.
Before long, his talents as a salesman with a natural aptitude for electronics were to surface and at the age of 23 he gave up the sport to concentrate on his career.
His success came when he started helping a fellow sports club member sell mobile phones in his spare time.
"Everybody wanted a mobile phone at that time I found I could sell as many as 50 contracts a month."
He then set up his own shop, S & A Mobiles, in Stoney Stanton Road and started to repair phones after going on a course after a contractor working on the road outside his shop produced another chance change of direction in his life.
"After his mobile phone fell into a pool of water, he came in the shop and asked if I could do anything with it," recalls Mr Dillon. "I cleaned it up, but couldn’t make it work. But I suddenly realised this is interesting and found a guy in Birmingham called Andy Evans to teach me to repair mobiles. I realised circuit boards and diagrams were nothing to me - I could read and repair them."
Again it was a chance incident when his computer broke down that led him into a more lucrative electronics market.
"The guy who fixed my computer was away on holiday and I couldn’t wait for him to come back so I took the lid off the computer to find out what the problem was and fixed it and thought, 'That was easy'."
It was then he diversified into computer repairs and founded PC Doctors in 1994. The name served him well but he later changed the name to the more puzzling VeriLan Technologies - the "Lan" referred to Local Area Network-based technology and the "Veri" stood for "various".
"When we started out, we were really a domestic-based business. There were very few computers in the business sector. As that changed, we needed a more corporate name as we were losing work.
"It actually worked - within months we were picking new clients. Now people view it as a technology-based business, which is much more relevant to what we are doing."
In 1999, Andy Dillon’s small company landed a prestige job that made headline news when he was called in as a troubleshooter to sort out the Rugby World Cup ticketing chaos at the newly built Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
"It is again all down to that chance sighting on the Coventry ring road," he explains. "We were responsible for Coventry City Football Club’s new ticketing system at Highfield Road.
"It was part of Ticketmaster and the first computerised sports ground ticketing system that was available in the UK. We arranged for Synchro Systems, based in Stoke-on-Trent, to supply the servers and hardware and we designed the infrastructure.
"Synchro Systems were also involved in the Millennium Stadium and they were having issues with getting the servers working. We were called in to help through our work with the company in Coventry.
"We built a new system in 48 hours. I literally shut my business down in Coventry and took all my team down to Cardiff. There were seven of us and we left that day.
"The actual hardware didn’t have the capacity to deal with the amount of ticket sales needed simultaneously. It should have been able to sell 40 to 50 tickets within a minute, but the capacity was something like seven or eight tickets and then the system would jam.
"We supplied another 20 terminals - we didn’t have time to buy them. We just built them by hand and prayed they worked. It was great fun. When we arrived there were cameras filming the queues. Within 72 hours, there were no queues and no more bad press."
Less fun was the fact that his firm never got paid for their troubleshooting exploits despite the fact the Millennium Stadium has been universally acclaimed as one of the best sporting venues in Britain.
"We were going from being a small company with a £250,000 turnover to effectively a £600,000 company just with that one job that lasted eight months over the World Cup period.
"But it never happened. The contractors had badly underestimated the building costs of the stadium and we were never paid the £370,000 we were owed.
"We would have made a substantial profit, but we never got even pence in the pound. The other side of our business was okay but we had taken on a lot of debt - probably around £200,000 – to buy the equipment we needed in Cardiff.
"Either I went into receivership or I got my head down and rebuilt my business.
"Fortunately I was only dealing with only three or four or four suppliers. I told them the truth - you either work with me and I’ll pay back everything I owe you or go against me and I will throw in the towel and you’d lose all your money as I had done."
Taking into account interest and VAT, Dillon had to raise around £300,000 to clear his debts and it was to take him 18 months to pay off what he owed all his suppliers.
"The VAT office were very good," he adds. "They stopped charging interest at a point and they really did help me out."
Mr Dillon, who made use of his helicopter’s licence to travel to the Welsh capital when working in the city on the contract, remains philosophical the £370,000 he was never paid.
"A stadium broke me and a stadium made me," he says. "I was trashed at the Millennium Stadium and Coventry’s Ricoh Arena put me back on my feet.
"I don’t feel bitter. I am now in a 10 times better position than before I went to Cardiff."
A major breakthrough came in 2007 when VeriLan was awarded the £1.25 million Ricoh Arena contract ahead of competition from BT and several other multi-million national companies.
As well as his company headquarters at the Binley Innovation Centre, Dillon has an office at the Ricoh Arena where he supervises his IT system that tell you everything from peak times at the computerised turnstiles to where people are in a complex that includes a conference venue, boutique hotel, casino, health club and banqueting facilities as well as the sports arena.
Expansion is now his goal and his home city of Birmingham is now a prime target area with the opening of his new office at the Blythe Valley Innovation Centre on the outskirts of Solihull.
"My company is worth just short of £1 million today," he says. "We are going to double our staff based on work we have coming in and we are looking to push this figure to £1.5 to £2 million this year."
A trim six-footer, Andy bears little resemblance to your average British company director. He dresses smart designer casual. When we met he was wearing a V-necked sweater, white shirt with cufflinks showing and one of his 37 pairs of designer jeans. He also has a passion for watches and diamonds.
He looks a youthful 42 and bears a passing resemblance to former England rugby player Jeremy Guscott. His easy-going manner belies his strong self-belief and his claims to be "a born salesman" and "electronics whizz-kid" are stated in such a low-key manner they don’t seem that arrogant.
He lives in a modern house in a Warwickshire village with his partner and seven children. His kickboxing days are over, but he keeps fit road running three-and-a-half miles three times a week.
His company expansion programme includes a new service called VeriLan Solutions offering web-based applications for hotel groups, holiday firms, property companies.
Technological advances have also renewed his original commercial interest in mobile phones. Now VeriLan will integrate Apple iPhones with your computer system so you can browse the internet and read your emails on your mobile phone without using your laptop or computer.
What wonders has IT in store for us in the future?
"At the Ricoh Arena, we are aiming to become the UK’s first cashless stadium," he says. "You will have your own loyalty card you can top up on line. You can have your burger or a pie and they’ll just swipe the card.
"Technology is driving the world. You won’t be able to have a crash soon because the car controls your driving."