Luck of the Irish

When Volkswagens were new cars, Mike Sheeran's family arrived in Sydney having felt the lure of immigration advertising in the UK.

Originally from Ireland, they had been living in what Sheeran describes as some of the toughest parts of London. When they arrived in Sydney, Sheeran's parents sought out the type of suburb they had seen in the black and white depictions of Australian life.

"My parents came to Sydney to work and live near the beach, so we moved as close to one as possible," Sheeran said.

Having settled in Collaroy in Sydney's northern beaches, Sheeran's father quickly found work with Kodak.

"He was applying for work by actually going in to visit different companies," Sheeran explained. "When he walked into Kodak they were just about to pay someone from the US to come and work on some brand new equipment that the locals didn't know how to use. My father had been working with the same equipment in the UK before we came, so they gave him a job and a company car on the spot."

Sheeran's father drove home in a brand new Volkswagen.

According to Sheeran, sales ability is a genetic trait, which he duly inherited from his father.

"He could sell anything. After working for Kodak, he went into the copier business, and then into musical instruments. These days he is semi-retired but still does a bit of work for me selling second-hand equipment," he said.

The self-titled second-generation salesman came to the head of Danka when boss and family rival John Parsons handed over the helm in 1999.

John Parsons founded a company called Tower in 1976 with long-time business partner Frank Johnsons. Twenty years later, they sold the business to Danka for an undisclosed amount (rumoured to be between $35 to $50 million) and continued to run the company.

"Tower became Danka, but its not one of those companies that is subsidised by the overseas owners of the company," Sheeran said. "The company is still largely autonomous."

During the mid to late 60s, Parsons and Sheeran's father had been arch rivals, both vying for a leading role in the Australian copier market. However, according to Sheeran, both were of the "old school" where business rivals restricted their antagonism to business hours.

"When you are in the ring, you beat the living daylights out of each other, but at the end of the game you get up, go to the bar and have a beer. In the end, my father drifted out of the copier business and I went to work for Parsons in 1992," he said.

However, the rise to the top of Danka was nothing compared to the struggle Sheeran has faced since taking on the position.

Sheeran openly describes the last 18 months as the most difficult period of his life. Roughly 12 months ago, Danka's major vendor partner Toshiba suddenly pulled the plug on a 20-year relationship, sidestepping the channel and establishing a direct sales arm in Australia.

According to Sheeran, Danka was already on the skids financially and, with the livelihoods of over 500 people in the balance, he suddenly faced some very tough decisions.

"Toshiba decided it no longer wanted us to distribute its product and set about targeting every area of our business," he said.

Sheeran believes that of the 53 Toshiba employees in the recently established Australian sales arm, 51 were formally employed at Danka.

"Over the past 12 months, we have lost some of the best salespeople in the country, but this has proved a good thing for the company," he said.

Faced with the potential catastrophe of the loss of sales staff, the withdrawal of a major product line and already on the rocks financially, Sheeran fought back with a major restructuring of Danka which appears to have bought the company back from the brink.

"The decisions I have made in the last 12 months I would have made anyway, but to be honest, I would not have had the courage to implement them in the way that I did unless I had been forced," Sheeran said.

By his own account, Sheeran reformed the very culture of the company by focusing on staff loyalty rather than sales success. The loss of many of Danka's sales staff brought home the reality that the lives of more than 500 people were based on the decisions of about 20 very talented salespeople.

The restructuring process has left Sheeran convinced that as an industry, the reseller channel has fostered an unethical Maverick attitude amongst its sales force.

"I got to the stage where I refused to process an order because the sales guy was overcharging the customer. These guys all work on commission and while that encourages high margins, customers don't like it when they are bamboozled into buying things they don't need. Everyone in the industry has been guilty of that," he saidAccording to Sheeran, the revamped Danka is more focused on achieving regular customers than high sales.

"We had the tail wagging the dog - a couple of exceptional salespeople making big money and influencing the progress of the whole company."

Sheeran believes that now the dog and tail hierarchy has been set straight, Danka is ready to face the new millennium.

"Now that the company's culture has been set straight, we decided that Danka was not going to offer substandard service just to engage in price wars. We are looking to establish long-term relationships with our clients, and depend on our own resources rather than the whims of vendors and talented sales staff," Sheeran said.

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