AS a schoolboy growing up in Leeds, Darren Stringer’s ambitions were decidedly “low tech”.
“I wanted to be a welder.” he says. “I was not overly academic. I was an average student. “My mum was a hairdresser and one day – at the time I was starting to look for work – one of her customers said they were recruiting at the company in Leeds where her son worked. She said he worked for a firm called Systime, but she didn’t know what he actually did!”
And that’s how Darren’s 32-year career in IT got started.
“I decided to apply for a job and I got an interview. I was set on as a trainee IT engineer. When I went for the interview I was scared to death. When my mum asked me how it went I couldn’t even remember because I was so scared. But I got the job.”
Ten years later – having moved on from the firm – Darren met by chance the man who had interviewed him and given him the job. Says Darren: “I thanked him for giving me the opportunity and asked why he gave me the job. He said it was because in the interview I'd asked him lots of questions and that because I had an inquiring mind, I would want to learn.”
Darren certainly seized the opportunity, rising to become a service engineer at the age of 21. “That was my ambition, because it meant I’d get a company car,” he says. “I thought: ‘Happy days, I’ve made it!’”
He went on to join ICM Group in Birstall, where he worked for 18 months before joining Peter Wilkinson, now recognised as one of the UK’s wealthiest businessmen, to work in IT engineering – before moving into sales, where Darren’s background in IT engineering proved invaluable.
“Engineers tend to be pragmatic and logical,” he says.
“As the company took on more and more suppliers, Peter asked me to move into a commercial role – which meant learning about procurement, finance and legal issues – transferable skills.”
When Peter formed Planet Online, Darren joined as director of operations in 1997. And when the business was bought by Energis the following year, he helped it grow from a £22m turnover business employing 100 people to one generating £154m of sales and employing 500.
Darren became group procurement director, working with offices in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. “I would look for the best products across all these territories,” he says, “I would be dealing with five different nationalities. I learned an incredible amount about people and I really enjoyed myself.”
Eventually, Darren left to return to sales – briefly working for an IT firm in Cheshire – before embarking on self-employment and setting up Brighter Connections as an all-round IT practice.
“I’d had the itch for about five years,” he admits. “When I started on my own, I felt I had a good base of skills. But I had no customers and that was my biggest anxiety. But I knew I was capable of selling.”
Darren launched the business from offices at a Paddock mill where the firm was based for eight years.
Brighter Connections moved to its current address at Edgerton about a year ago. It now employs 14 people and has built up an impressive client list by offering technological solutions, software packages and professional services.
The firm has adopted “profit from IT” as its statement of intent, says Darren, adding: “We aim to help customers transform their IT function from a cost centre into a profit centre. We are not there just to take money off them for fulfilling their immediate needs for a PC or a laptop.
“It is about what we can provide to make their business more cost-effective and give it a more competitive edge. The aim is to put the customer at the centre of the transaction.”
Among its successes, Brighter Connections has completed contracts for clients including Huddersfield accountancy firm Revell Ward and vehicle management group FMG – in the latter case saving them a five-figure sum by providing an innovative system allowing 25% of FMG’s staff to work from home with access to all necessary applications in the event of bad weather stopping them getting into the office.
“We try to demystify It for our clients” says Darren. “We make sure our proposals are easy to understand, relevant to the customers’ needs.”
He says: “From the start, I wanted Brighter Connections to be a customer-orientated business. We got ISO accreditation in our first year of trading.”
The credit crunch in the last three months of 2008 were “pretty miserable” and business fell by 50%. “Clients told us it was nothing we had done wrong,” says Darren. “It’s just that the credit crunch stopped everyone in their tracks.
“Business started picking up again in January, 2009, and we turned over 10% less than we had the previous year while making a small profit. The year after that, our business doubled in size. At a time when the market was very tough, our clients found out that what we had been telling them in the good times about our ethics and behaviour was still holding good.
“Customers started entrusting us with bigger and bigger contracts. What happened in 2009 was that we moved from being an available or approved supplier to a preferential supplier because we were trying to create a partnership with our clients.
“We have seen relatively steady growth, but our goal for the next 12 months is to expand turnover by 40%, but keep the same ethics. We can expand without having to compromise our ethics.”
Darren, who lives at Fixby with his wife and two daughters, says: “I think Huddersfield has so much to offer. There’s an energy and a can-do attitude. We have 20 customers based in the south of England. We are 200 miles away, but they say one of the reasons they like us is that we have a no-nonsense attitude.”
Huddersfield is also great cycling country, he says. “I’ve always been interested in sport, but as I got older I couldn’t play football any more. I started running, but I bumped into a couple of guys who were into cycling. I like being outdoors, so I got a bike and instead of going out for two hours and running 10 miles, suddenly I could go out for two hours and cover 30 miles!”
Darren was bitten by the bug, gaining coaching accreditation with British Cycling and co-founding the Kirklees Cycling Academy to develop cycling among youngsters aged six to 18. The academy is based at Spen Valley Sports College, where training takes place indoors during the winter months.
“We have 50 members,” says Darren. “We have some regional and national champions and kids getting onto the bottom rung of the Olympic Development Programme, based at Manchester. We are the 92nd most successful club out of 1,600 in terms of points accrued in road and track racing.
“We had a 20% growth in membership after the Olympics and the success of the British riders. Now we are trying to get a group of people together to campaign for a tarmac race track in the Huddersfield area which would be open to schools and other cycling clubs. It’s early days, but we are determined to get a facility up and running.”