A family affair

Fleur Doidge
10 December, 2007
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Computers Now is a family concern if ever there was one. Started off in 1990 by husband and wife team Carole and Jessel Rothfield, the reseller has grown to include more than the usual number of sisters, aunts, nieces, mothers and daughters as the top echelon of management. And there are more sons and daughters waiting in the wings.

Starting off at a rather inauspicious time Apple-speaking, as the excessive 80s gave way to the sober 90s, this Melbourne company has seen good times and bad. Today the reseller is helmed by joint managing director team Pam Rothfield — daughter-in-law of Carole and Jessel — and Renai Ingersole (neé Lawrence).

Renai Ingersole, who is daughter of previous managing director and third shareholder Judy Lawrence, has been working at Computers Now since the early days. The Rothfields had a take on computer reselling gleaned from the US experience — Carole was American by birth. In the States, the couple had seen Apple becoming a very popular brand, but there wasn’t anyone trying to achieve the same thing in Australia at that time, according to Ingersole. “At that stage, certainly in Melbourne, Apple resellers were more focused on niche markets, as far as targeting graphic design and that sort of thing,” she said.

The Rothfields started Computers Now, and in 2007, the reseller is stronger than ever, with eight locations across Australia, standing squarely on its four pillars: education; services an integration; retail and professional; and creative.

Ingersole indicates that it’s this four-square balance that Computers Now has aimed for, and that has contributed to its ongoing success. “Computers Now, early on, was a generalised reseller running from a single location. We sold to everyone, really. We had sales staff for all areas but it changed after the Buzzle debacle,” she said.

Increasingly, the managers of Computers Now began to see that putting all one’s eggs in one basket really wasn’t the best way to ensure the reseller’s future. Then Apple itself made it known that it had views on the value and performance of very general, non-specialised resellers. “We agreed,” Ingersole said. “When individual people cross all the areas [in a business], it tends not to be so effective.”

So Computers Now got busy building genuinely specialised parts to the business. That kind of diversification evolved into a long-term plan, which has only come to near-full fruition in the last 12 to 18 months. “Today, we run our four different business modules separately,” Ingersole said.

Ingersole was promoted to director and third shareholder in 2001, after her mother, Judy Lawrence, stepped away from a more active role in the business in about 1999. These days, she does a lot of sailing, according to Ingersole.

Silence is strength.
You don’t need to trumpet certain things out loud, to all and sundry. And so it has proven with Computers Now. This team has run this company for nearly 18 years, quietly and steadily staying focused on the game and growing the business.

Although it’s a profitable company, expecting revenues this year in the order of $70 million, even today, references to Computers Now in the media are relatively rare. Yet they’ve continued working away, ignoring the generation gap and spectre of potential family squabbles. They’ve built a diverse and stable company that seems notable in part for its ability to get on with the work of selling computers, avoiding the public eye so courted by some other resellers.

The education sector is a hotly-contested market in Australia — for PC resellers as much as for Apple. Yet Computers Now can boast deals with such prestigious clients as the University of Melbourne and the University of NSW — where it opened an Education Centre as the UNSW Authorised Apple Education Agent, taking over from Unimac in early 2006 after a year confined to hardware servicing.

The reseller has also worked with Deakin, Victoria, RMIT and Swinburne universities, working cross-platform and with multiple offerings. Computers Now is also an authorised education reseller of the popular HP ProCurve networking and wireless range.

The reseller focused initially on the consumer and small business markets, with a heavy emphasis on the latter, according to Ingersole. But in 14 years it became Apple’s largest Education reseller in Victoria and NSW.

Part of its success is almost certainly down to its clear guiding principles, which can even be found on its web site. Computers Now aims to choose products that stand the test of time, and believes that computers should make one’s life easier, not harder. Simple, no-bull principles that many resellers and IT providers would do well to emulate.

The company has also moved with the times, starting free podcasting seminars for education clients in 2006.

Other Computers Now corporate clients include the Reserve Bank of Australia, NAB, News Ltd, Time Magazine, Readers Digest, Rural Press, Saatchi & Saatchi, Mojo, Leo Burnett and Young & Rubicam. Creative industries remained a strength, partly due to Apple’s traditional focus and partly due to working with the in-house skills of the Computers Now team.

“Pam had traditionally worked in the film industry, but had wanted to try something a bit different,” Ingersole said. Rothfield’s creative contacts were undoubtedly of value, especially to the creative arm of Computers Now, icorp. icorp offers a range of solutions, via its consultants, for digital media producers and publishers of magazines, web sites and the like.

Ingersole, on the other hand, started with the company while she was still at school and liked it so much she stayed — although she had not thought of a career in retail at that point.

So why has the family stuck with Apple? “The opportunities are really good and Apple’s in a really good place. I think Apple’s still releasing really good products. So, if you’re going to partner with anyone, they’re as good as the next one,” Ingersole said.

Ingersole has two siblings, one of whom, an 18 year-old brother, is showing interest in Computers Now and may take up a role in the company, perhaps after university. She also has Oliver, her one-year-old son with her husband and Swimwear Galore boss Andrew. Some time in the future — way off in the future — when Oliver is thinking about a career, well, who knows?

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