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Phil Doye: the Kelway tapes

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Fascinating conversation with Phil Doye, the founder and CEO of Kelway. It’s always interesting to learn about the upbringing of an entrepreneur.

His father was a merchant banker who was involved in many of the big City stories of the eighties such as the Guinness scandal and the Woolworth bid for B&Q. So he was always exposed to business. There was always an FT lying around the family house in Woodford Green, Essex. His father could clearly OD the young Doye on business and finance  As Doye told me: “when I left school and started to go for job interviews,my Dad would present me with the report and accounts of the company I was going to, even though I was applying for some apprentice monkey position.”

Doye is the third of four siblings – he’s got two brothers and a sister. But he was not the academic one. “They did their homework and did well at school. I was completely different.” One result was that his parents didn’t send him to independent school. “They probably thought they were wasting their money. It may not be a politically correct view, but it was probably spot on.”

Doye learned a huge amount from his first acquisition, a company called Elcom in Basingstoke. But the compelling account on my day at Kelway came from his managing director and long-standing colleague Dan Laws: “When we bought Elcom, we had never bought a business before. It was a pre-pack. We had got rid of the entire management team. There was no manager with any knowledge of how the business worked from a system or process perspective. We had no credit limits. We could not trade. We had created a new company to buy the assets of the old company. Half of the companies who had lost money with the administration of the old company were Kelway suppliers, so we had IBM who put us on hold for a month and wouldn’t trade with us. They couldn’t work out what had gone on.

“Because there was no staff, and no management, and it was in Basingstoke, we would get the train every morning at 8.05 to Basingstoke, which took about 50 minutes. We spent all day sorting this crap out. We were so knackered we would have to go to the pub on the way home. We would get back at 11pm. And because we had all this extra business that we were having to put through the Kelway system, all our warehouse systems were falling apart, so we would spend an hour or so on a conference call trying to work out where this kit was in the warehouse because no-one knew where it was. I then had to get up at 5am again to go back to Basingstoke.”

Laws’ life may still be hectic but it’s a damn sight more civilised than that now.

Phil Doye under lights

The Kelway offices in Fleet Square, close to St Paul’s, are an important part of its corporate statement of intent. They are smart, modern, airy, although perhaps needing a little more character.

There is one really nice touch, though. All the meeting rooms are named after holders of the Newcastle United No.9 shirt. So you can book Shearer or Milburn. It’s a Dan Laws thing. (Ha, as a Liverpool fan myself, he didn’t have time to get a Carroll nameplate up.)

Read more about Phil Doye and Kelway in the Summer issue of Real Business magazine, out on July 8.

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