Dan Nicholl talks Business Unknown with Jeremy Ord

So here’s an idea for a smash hit of a movie. A few mates get together, armed with big dreams, plenty of ambition, and a collective set of skills in a new fad called computers. It’s the early 80s, sanctions are firmly in place, and three upstarts are set to take on the creaking behemoth that is the South African telecoms industry, a strictly regulated space that doesn’t invite disruption. Fast forward to 2020, and the same three upstarts are the architects of a billion-dollar business with a global presence. And the best part of the movie? It’s all true. Welcome to the Dimension Data story…

“It started when Doc Watson and myself were at school. We became best friends, and remain best friends to this day,” explains Jeremy Ord, my guest over a virtual lunch together, and who along with Watson and Richard Came, makes up Dimension Data’s founding triumvirate. “We’d decided at school that we wanted to run our own business, we didn’t want to work for people. I learnt some programming while I was waiting for an interview for a Canadian visa, where I was planning to do my articles. But I realised I loved South Africa, and I loved playing sport, so it would have been a crazy decision to go to Canada…”

It proved a monumental decision, both for Ord personally, and for the South African business landscape. Having learnt computer networking, Ord, Watson and Came kicked off a company called Causeway Communications, the forebearer of Dimension Data – although the beginnings hardly suggested the company’s auspicious future. “We started in a garage with no money, but we understood the skills that were required for computers to communicate together, and that stood us in good stead. We manufactured our own product because of isolation, did all our own marketing, brought modems into South Africa. It set the tone for Dimension Data, and the type of company we are – a relationship company, very innovative, crafting our own solutions. I think that’s why we’ve had such longevity.”

Longevity, and success in considerable measure. Tens of thousands of employees around the world, dozens of integrated businesses, and in 2010, a deal with Japanese firm NTT that netted £2.1bn. (Don’t bother with the currency conversion – way too many zeroes.) As of last year Dimension Data forms part of the greater NTT group, overseeing business in Africa and the Middle East, and with Ord as chairman, his IT fairytale shows no signs of ending.

“I go to work every day and my best friends are there,” is the simple assessment of why the allure of the business hasn’t waned in almost four decades at the helm. “We work hard, but we have fun, and that’s always been the case. It’s been a long journey, but we had the self-belief, and felt we could take on the world – and as such we built a business.”

But no business can get through 40 years without the occasional storm, particularly in the shifting sands of information technology. So what was Ord’s lowest moment in the Dimension Data story?

“From the middle of 2001, the IT market collapsed. We had 11 000 people working for us, and we had to let three and half thousand go. Margins went through the floor, and it was survival of the fittest. It was a hard, hard time.” And to give a stark illustration of just how rough a ride those few years were for Dimension Data, Ord reveals one particularly brutal deal. “We had to get rid of businesses. We’d bought a software business in America for $400m. Two years later, we sold it for $10m. Nature of the beast at the time…”

Nearly two decades on, the memory still has Ord wincing slightly; welcome distraction comes in the form of food, with a warm olive ciabatta sinking into rich, spicy aubergine dip that headlines a shared meal, and one that also gives starring roles to stretches of crispy crackling, and charcuterie that encourages just one more bite, until suddenly the whole lot is gone. It’s the perfect meal to pair with a bottle of wine, which just happens to be another of the Dimension Data founder’s passions.

“I’m not a wizard in the kitchen by any means,” Ord stresses, “but I love going out to restaurants, sitting round a table with friends, having good food and wine and enjoying the banter.” And there’d be one wine label in particular he’d opt for: his own. “I started out not knowing anything about wine,” Ord concedes, before recounting the journey to Waterford, the estate he now owns with celebrated winemaker Kevin Arnold. “I ‘phoned Kevin, who was at Rust en Vrede at the time, and told him I needed a winemaker. A few days later, he called to say he’d love to take up the challenge himself.” They subsequently found an idyllic stretch of land on which to begin their wine journey together, and in 1997 started building Waterford from scratch. Today the estate consistently produces some of South Africa’s finest wines, and together with cycling – and Dimension Data’s hugely successful involvement as technology partner to the Tour de France – brings business and passion together.

Business has been solid during lockdown, led by a remote working system that Dimension Data has produced – “a world-beating African solution that’s already been rolled out by one of the banks in the thousands,” Ord says with evident pride. But he isn’t blind to the challenges South Africa faces. “How does government get back the confidence of people, because they don’t trust government, and unfortunately actions have backed that up. It’s a very challenging environment.”

As lunch drifts to an end, Ord references the Singapore success story, where government supports and retains talent; and South African brand Veldskoen, receiving considerable financial support for its American operation after an application made just 24 hours earlier. “That’s what we need, that sort of innovation, of stimulation. We don’t have that money, obviously, but there’s nothing to stop that sort of thought process, one that’s not bureaucratic, and allows people an opportunity.” A couple of international examples where we could match the intent, if not always quite the same financial muscle, and ones that back up Ord’s suggestion that “there are massive challenges in this country, but also massive opportunities”.

And after voicing a hope that personal interaction won’t be lost as the digital workplace accelerates (with help from the Covid environment), a return to the opening motif. When they finally do make the Dimension Data movie, who plays Jeremy Ord? Richard Gere as the current day IT tycoon? Tatum Channing as the big dreaming programmer? In keeping with the theme of friends and family that’s been a constant throughout lunch together, the chairman opts for a lead actor Hollywood hasn’t encountered. “Ideally for me, and this is a selfish thing, my son would be my number one choice. He’s in London at the moment, but I really want him back, and going forward I want him working with me side by side.” For the man behind a business that retains such a strong family ethos despite its size and sprawl, Jeremy Ord’s pick makes complete sense.

(Visited 1,457 times, 10 visits today)