Rafi Razzak’s entrepreneurial spirit is as strong today as it was when he set up IT solutions provider Centerprise International 35 years ago. New technology breakthroughs make the future even more exciting for the business, he tells Tim Wickham.
Rafi Razzak shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, he’s more enthused than ever about new opportunities for Centerprise and a desire to build a legacy for his workforce to continue. “I only wish I was 20 years younger,” jokes the youthful 69 year-old.
He emphasises the importance of Centerprise’s core values of honesty, trust and respect. “Our approach is acknowledging that we have a shared destiny with our customers – your success means my success, your failure is my failure,” said Razzak, who used £50,000 of his own savings to start the business in 1983.
He has grown Centerprise to an annual turnover of £100 million, was CBI Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000, and is proud that the company is one of the UK’s few remaining computer manufacturers. Razzak points out that Centerprise is probably the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) longest serving approved IT supplier, with a 27-year track record.
But when he began in Wokingham he didn’t pay himself a salary for the first two years. Obtaining credit from suppliers and banks was a major challenge. “Starting your own business is a very lonely job – the feeling you might not be able to pay your bills, or have to sell your house to survive,” he recalled. “In the UK, I don’t think there is much help for start-ups, which is probably why the failure rate is so high. It’s part of the reason I support initiatives for entrepreneurs.”
Over the years, Razzak has shown an uncanny knack of targeting the right market at the right time with the right solution. After initial success in office supplies, he turned to his electronics engineering background and began making PCs. The business name became Computer Enterprise – shortened to Centerprise. The company imported components from the Far East, then configured, sold and maintained the machines.
“I decided to custom build PCs for business only, not the consumer market. That’s how we have survived all the upheavals in the computer market over the decades, and today we still only sell to business,” he said.
Razzak’s first customer for his computers was Motorola, to analyse data from mobile phones used by the police. His engineering skills were behind smart ideas for the MoD, like removable laptop hard drives for security, especially in the field. “We had military helicopters landing next to our factory in Basingstoke to pick up laptops during the first Gulf War,” he said.
Centerprise broadened its customer base with car parts distributor Unipart in an ambitious project to equip garages and car dealers with PCs for checking car component stocks. Centerprise manufactures Advent computers and currently makes Sega’s gaming computers for pubs and arcades. Up to 2,000 computers a day roll off its production lines.
The group’s diverse activities also include recycling computers for steel, copper and valuable metals like gold and platinum, another under-developed market in the UK. Its factory in Wales is increasing in size from 50,000 to 120,000 sq ft, with up to 8,000 sq ft for recycling. Around 70% of its 250-strong workforce is based at the head office and factory in Basingstoke.
For Razzak, building a business for the future is all about staff empowerment. “We don’t have a silo structure here, it’s more of an entrepreneurial culture. Managers are responsible for their own P&L. We have many really high-quality people and put a strong emphasis on encouraging and developing young talent,” he said.
Centerprise is investing significantly in research and development, service and engineering skills. Razzak said: “The digital age of disruptive technologies, like the internet of things and artificial intelligence, has only just started. We’ve not seen anything yet.”