‘I could do with a rest,’ admits Robert Dighero, the chief financial officer of online auction company QXL. His joking manner suggests he knows he’s not going to get one in the near future.
‘I’ve been in this mode for a number of years now and it would be nice to have some time off and to slow down. I love my job, but sometimes feel I need a personal tardis and 48-hour days,’ he adds.
But stop. If Dighero appears to be crying out for help, nothing could be further from the truth. He is desperately aware of the need for leisure time – especially as he is married with three young children – but is also deeply committed to the QXL cause.
The time factor is also illustrated by his own admission he has no hobbies – he gave them up when he joined the dot.com revolution. After a pause he struggles to recall that they used to include swimming, tennis, films and keeping fit.
‘There is certainly a time management balancing issue within the company.
‘That is the difference between working for QXL and a so-called normal job with normal hours which are managed for you. We need to manage that but we are a way off that yet. As the company matures we will move towards that,’ he adds.
Indeed as I left Dighero at the splendid Landmark House in West London, the home of QXL for the last year, well after six o’clock on a Friday evening, there was little sign of his staff preparing to go home.
Predominantly a young team decked out in casual dress, the QXL office shares Dighero’s contented and focussed approach to work. Cynics may say staff are eager to work in a bid to protect their share options, but what is wrong with that?
The QXL story began in September 1997, with the company carrying out its first auction two months later. Dighero, 34, joined QXL in June 1998 and has served as a director since last August.
He has a long history in the new economy. Before joining the auctioneers, Dighero was chief financial officer of multimedia company AOL UK. He worked in that role from October 1995 to June 1998.
Prior to that he spent a lot of time in New York working for Bertelsmann, focusing on acquisition strategies in the new media sector. He had previously worked as a management consultant at Bain and Company.
By this time Dighero already had an established pedigree. He received an MA (Hons) and an M.Eng (Hons) from Cambridge University, and can boast of an MBA with Dean’s List honors from INSEAD in France.
If the internet, as many joke, should be measured in dog years, Dighero is clearly proud of his time online. ‘Nobody had heard of the internet in 1995 when I began working in that world,’ he says. ‘What a difference five years makes, as there are many people today who believe in it.’
So what attracted Dighero to the dot.com world? It certainly doesn’t appear to be money. ‘Partners at the Big Five earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a year and are set up in a nice and safe living,’ he argues.
‘If you look at the internet sector, it is not financially all that attractive to be in. Look at our share price. It has fallen down 90% in the last year though it did rise 1000% in the previous 12 months.
‘For any accountant who is risk averse or does not have the stomach for stress, I wouldn’t recommend it. But if you are willing to take risks and are looking for great fun, this is the sector for you’.
Share price aside – and you could argue QXL’s fall is more of a sectoral perception problem than the result of a local problem – as head of finance, Dighero has seen QXL go from strength to strength. Its 1999-2000 financial results showed its gross auction value increased to £20.5m for the year compared to £3.2m for the previous 12 months.
Other highlights included a membership growth from 30,403 to 557,000, with the number of items auctioned on its site rising from 212,515 to 5.4 million. ‘When I first started here we were only certain of being able to meet the payroll for two months ahead. Now we don’t have to worry about that. We have raised the stakes considerably and the size of the game,’ Dighero adds.
Time to consolidate
The company overseen by Dighero is now heading into the third phase of its operation plans. The third stage is to consolidate and move the company towards producing profitability, following a spell of spending on acquisition and investment in its systems.
He insists: ‘What we must do now is not just spend cash. It is now a case of how fast can we generate cash. The company will enjoy a profitability focus from now on. And we have plans to get there fast.’
It is certainly understandable if Dighero is feeling the pace. Since joining the auctioneers over two years ago, it would be fair to say he has constantly been in the fast lane.
He has been involved in plenty of acquisition activity. These include eSwap and Humpty Dumpty, two UK consumer-to-consumer sites, a deal with Doubleclick, a move designed to increase advertising revenue, a tie-up with Lycos-Europe and the acquisition of Danish auction site Jubii Auktion.
But Dighero will struggle to match one recent deal for public profile.
What am I bid for this plastic seat?
QXL won the contract to auction off the assets of the Wembley stadium when it is pulled down later this year.
Everything from the floodlights to the taps, pitch and signposts are to be sold off.
‘They approached us,’ says Dighero. ‘They were looking for an auctioneer with international capabilities. As far as we know we are the only people who can carry out multi-lingual and currency auctions.
‘So far we have auctioned off turf from the 1966 World Cup final, taps, a fire exit sign from the mens’ loo. Rod Stewart has bid for the floodlights and Paul Gascoigne has put in a bid for the Queen’s Box.’
The live auction later this year is certain to bring maximum coverage for the site, as well as a raft of new members.
Dighero would be hard pressed to find similar levels of excitement elsewhere.
But his move into dot.com financing was not planned. He is not a chartered accountant but has spent a lot of time in corporate finance and management consulting.
‘I came into the internet world mor by accident than judgement,’ he explains.
‘It has been great fun so far. But the moves I have made have been good ones. AOL for example is set to explode completely. I was responsible for launching their UK division and that was great fun.
‘The difference between AOL and QXL is that AOL is part of a big group, and so it had the funding in place. At QXL we have had to go out and raise the necessary funds and capital.
‘Working for QXL is very hands-on. When I first joined we were literally three or four people working out of one room. There is one belief I have always held and that is businesses need to have very strong financial controllers.’
The aim of QXL is to become blue chip stock.
And with Dighero’s talent and enthusiasm for work, to say nothing of his team, that possibility is certainly not beyond the realms of probability.
VALUE OF ONLINE AUCTIONS HITS $2BN AND RISING
Online auctions are among the most significant ways the internet is creating new business models. And QXL.com – a pan-European online auction community, conducting auctions in 11 languages and 12 currencies – is just one of a handful of consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer auction sites.
But what is expected to drive real web growth is business-to-business sites. Last December General Motors successfully conducted probably the most significant internet-based business-to-business auction so far. Since then these exchanges have swept like wildfire across the corporate landscape.
As well as car makers, airlines, retailers and oil companies are among the thousands of organisations already benefiting from the cost savings and efficiency that they can bring.
CommerceOne is the company that supplied the auction technology to General Motors and many others besides. It is probably the best placed organisation to assess the value of online auctions.
Earlier this month it put a figure on that: some $2bn worth of goods have been traded in auctions for customers worldwide, resulting in cost savings of up to 50% on sourcing. ‘In addition,’ says the company, ‘customers have cut approximately two to three weeks off the typical negotiation cycle, enabling them to rapidly recognise profits from liquidation of excess goods.’
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