Entrepreneur Interview: with John Burns, Diamond Group
Posted on the 23 November 2016
From founding a photocopier repair business in 1992, John Burns created the Diamond Group, which provides IT, communications, photocopiers and financial services, all from its office in the Team Valley. Still going strong 24 years later, John shows no signs of slowing down and has ambitious plans for growth. His business operates nationally and has recently been supported by the Let’s Grow Fund.
So tell me a bit about your background.
I remember getting in trouble with my mother when I was at school when she opened the kitchen cupboard to find that she had no sugar or vinegar left. I’d been making toffee cakes and selling them to my mates. So I suppose I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit.
I left school in 1975 with little in terms of qualifications and worked in a factory and office jobs. Knowing this wasn’t what I wanted I went to college to study electronics and trained to be a typewriter engineer, I progressed onto working with fax machines and printers, before becoming a service manager, overseeing all aspects of service and customer service. I left the company in 1992 to set up Diamond Business Systems.
What was your first business premises?
Diamond Business Systems’ first office was my spare bedroom, with the workshop in the garage. We started with a second hand photocopier which I bought for £25, I refurbished it and sold it for £300.
Within the first year turnover for the company was at £100,000 with around £50,000 profit, after five years the company turned over half a million but profit had reduced to £25,000, this was a major business learning curve.
In 1994 Diamond Business Systems moved to a small unit within an enterprise zone, at the time we were situated next door to a pizza store. The pizza store caught fire and the blaze spread to our premises. This was devastating at the time, but resulted in us moving to a larger premises on the same estate, so I suppose it had a silver lining. Due to growth in the company, we moved to Blacks Corner, Boldon to gain a prominent position within the local area.
The early 2000s marked the digitisation of the photocopier industry, for Diamond Business Systems this meant that we had to engage with IT companies on a regular basis. I was spending around £20,000 - £30,000 a year on IT, and through this I found a business partner who was working in IT, and we formed Diamond IT in 2006.
Did the recession change your approach to business?
Like every company we tightened our belts, but in one way the recession didn’t affect the business as you might expect, service of existing equipment is more profitable than selling replacements, so customers wanting to repair their existing machines rather than purchasing new equipment was advantageous for the company.
The recession, however, did bring a difficulty in gaining finance for consumers, money had been lent freely previously but it got a lot stricter at this point. Diamond Business Systems had an efficient cash flow at this point in time, therefore we set up Diamond Asset Finance LLP, enabling us to provide customers with finance under the Diamond Group name which is a major selling point for us.
How has the market changed since you started?
Telecoms and IT are increasingly closely linked now. More and more people are looking towards telecoms based on Voice Over IP. This means giving full technology service to small businesses, doing the whole lot for them, rather than them going to a number of different suppliers. Security is a hugely important part of our IT business now, the need for every organisation from the smallest companies up to large multinationals and government departments to take this seriously cannot be underestimated.
There has been a trend for offices to go paperless, which some people are trying to do but often find it difficult. The way people work it’s easier to sometimes have a piece of paper for reference whilst working on a computer.
What do you think the next big trend will be?
It’s got to be the availability of better connectivity, there are a lot of business parks where the broadband speed is terrible. When communications infrastructure on these sites is improved the companies there will move towards hosted VOIP services too. The availability of suitable broadband is a deciding factor for many businesses when choosing premises, which is going to shape the economic map of the region for the duration that it’s not available everywhere.
Since we started providing IT services the pace of change in technology has been phenomenal, which has put communication and computer systems at the centre of almost every business’s processes. This means that we will see further advances in security to keep up with those in technology, protection against cybercrime is vital, hackers are able to bring down a whole company, country or even the global economy.
What would you say your unique selling points are?
We have two main USPs, our customer focus and our completed offering from one provider under one roof. We’re large enough to provide the highest quality of support to all of our customers, and small enough to know them well and understand their needs. Offering communications, photocopiers and IT all together, along with finance packages to pay for it, we remove the pain and stress of the customer trying to do it all themselves.
The first thing you would notice if you walked into our business is the average age of the employees. There are a lot of young faces around, we’re investing in the next generation, so our customers know we’re there for them in the long term.
How do you keep everyone at Diamond motivated?
I believe in sharing everything with our staff, this includes successes, failures, future goals and aspirations. During Diamond open days, all members of staff get involved in telling people about the company, from our receptionists to our engineers, we are a team and that’s what Diamond prides itself on.
Recognition is also a key motivator at Diamond, I believe in recognising individuals for their good work. We reward each team member in a way which is tailored to them as an individual. Some employees prefer financial rewards, whereas others prefer to be recognised in other ways.
How does your motivation now compare with that when you started the firm?
Individuals are motivated by different things at different points of their careers, when I first started out in business feeding my family was my main motivator, yet these days my daily motivation comes from seeing a happy workforce and watching individuals within the company progress. I would however still like to see annual turnover reach £5million – maybe then I will consider taking a backseat! If you enjoy what you do, you will never do a day’s work in your life. And that’s how I feel.
How does mentoring feature in your business?
Personally I do bits of mentoring, I am registered as a Prince’s Trust mentor, I am also available to support people through the Entrepreneurs’ Forum.
We are looking to do more training with the Diamond Group, we’ve got two apprentices now. Since January we’ve brought on two more sales people and an IT technician, on top of our IT apprentice and the apprentice engineer from the photocopier side of the business. We are looking to add perhaps another two or three by the end of the year.
What are your future plans?
My main plan for the future is growth, over the next three years we plan to take on 20 employees, as well as possible acquisitions of copier and IT companies. In the long term I would like to develop our existing staff, so eventually I would be able to take a back seat, if I wanted. I don’t see me going anywhere for a few years though. As the business continues to grow I would like to help my fellow directors to develop, so we can stay ahead of the game.