25 years ago, Phil Pepper had a dream and decided to start up Vista Retail Support. Over the course of two decades, the company has grown from strength to strength and is now the leading independent services provider for business critical technologies. We journey back in time with Phil to recount some of his fondest memories since starting the company all those years ago and what he misses the most today.
25 years ago, you decided to set up Vista Retail Support. What were you doing at the time?
In my early days in retail, I worked as an engineer for Japanese PoS manufacturer, Omron. When I first joined them, one of the big learning curves for me was not just the importance of learning how to repair PoS equipment, or how to fix a machine when it had lost its programming, but understanding the true core function of what it means to be an engineer.
I learnt from early on that, not only is it important to know how to fix a piece of equipment, but you also need to know the mechanics behind how it works, and what that retailer is trying to achieve with that piece of equipment and why they want that function in the first place. Understanding the sophistication of the hardware and its lifecycle was key.
I loved every minute of my job at the time, and after some years of working and building relationships with some of the most brilliant retail and hospitality companies, I thought to myself, “ I could do this even better”.
At Omron, my work was fundamentally based on the importance of ensuring I knew the ins and outs of each customers’ IT infrastructure, their pain points and how we could future-proof them from experiencing more IT failures. I had built up a good working relationship with my clients, gaining valuable trust and confidence.
That is where I knew I had an opportunity, and where I knew I could sell myself as a single expert and go at it alone!
What were your initial thoughts 25 years ago that led to your decision to set up Vista?
My first thought wasn’t actually “I want to be a standalone consultant”. I knew I didn’t want to do this alone or do it for just for one business.
I rapidly moved from thinking “I want to build a service company” to “I can help other businesses”. It was that early entrepreneurial thinking that led me down the path to starting a business. To do this, I knew I couldn’t depend on one customer. We needed to have a larger number of customers to be sustainable.
There were also so many learning curves I experienced at the very beginning. For example, how do I run the financial side of the business? So, I went and bought a software package to run the accounts on my laptop not knowing the first thing about accountancy!
As you can probably imagine, there was also a massive amount of risk associated with starting a business. I was already in a pretty well-paid job within a great company, so leaving this to become a standalone business was a huge risk. Not only this, but within the first month, I knew I needed another person, if not two. So, the risk now became two or three-fold. I knew if we failed, it wouldn’t just be me that would be affected!
What was your vision in 1995 when you first established Vista and how have you met these or even surpassed them?
Once I knew I was going to start a business, I knew I wanted to establish a family culture. Not necessarily from a literal sense, but a culture that was all about strong relationships in the team, where knowledge was spread. No longer did I want to be the expert but make my employees experts too.
To do this, I knew I needed to establish two things. Trust and personal relationships. These were the foundations into developing an excellent team and the customers valued this approach too. We went from strength to strength acquiring new customers and growing the team as we went along.
In the first year, we went from just me in the business, to five people. From there, Vista has continued to build an excellent team now over 200 strong. I never imagined that Vista would grow to the size it is today but I am very proud of the fact that some of the people I employed still work there today and the people culture is still clearly evident.
Who was Vista’s very first customer? What was their story?
Working in the industry, I developed a very good relationship with Primark. When I realised I wanted to branch out on my own, I approached Primark with my idea. I was encouraged to set up the business and in the first week of its operation, I flew over to Ireland to see Primark and some of their directors. I was delighted when Primark had said they wanted to engage with me and provided me with my first project, becoming my company’s first official customer.
To have so much trust and confidence placed in you so early on by a customer of Primark’s size was truly amazing and something I will never forget.
From there, there was a lot of excitement. The work I was required to do for Primark wasn’t to maintain their hardware, but to provide installation work at new sites and refurbish work at existing sites. This meant understanding the whole anatomy of the retailer, getting my feet on the street as an engineer and seeing the work through from beginning to end. Vista later went on to secure the contract to maintain the entire Primark estate and also attracted many new customers such as Greenall’s Inn’s and Spar.
What are some of the challenges you faced when you started the company?
Funnily enough, one of my biggest initial challenges was finding a company name! I even went through a phone book and started in reverse to see if I could get an idea for a name that suited us.
Just as I was going through the process and thinking I was going to start up a business, my wife and I took a trip to New York. We visited the Empire State Building, and in the foyer, was a list of all the company names occupying the building. One of the names I spotted had the first name “Vista”, and I just had a lightbulb moment. I was honed in on the idea that Vista represented a vision and it fitted the bill. I needed a name that reflected my vision of what I wanted the company to achieve – to be the best retail technology service provider in the UK.
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments since you established Vista?
For me, there are two accomplishments that stand out.
When Vista reached a certain stage of growth, I rapidly realised I could no longer be those ‘feet on the street’. I needed to hand those reins over and focus on growing the business at a higher level. We were starting to win more and more business, with some of the UK’s largest household brands and we were looking at bringing on board professionals such as a Finance Director. My limited areas of knowledge in this respect and the rapidity of business growth meant that I knew it was time to bring in the experts. I did not necessarily see this as a challenge or a limitation to my capabilities, but rather a huge accomplishment as to how far we’d come.
Another great accomplishment was when we won Lloyds Pharmacy, who still to this date, are a customer of Vista’s! I first worked with Lloyds Pharmacy back in my Omron days and we had an excellent relationship for years. A new opportunity came about at Lloyds Pharmacy, and Vista decided to go for it. We went through the bidding process and beat off two competitors that were far bigger than us at the time. It was an enormous achievement for me and the team.
Today, Vista supports over 120 leading blue-chip organisations. What would you say has been a big factor in this success over the years?
The core culture has always remained the same at Vista. What I found interesting when I came back in for a visit recently, is that although there are so many more people, there is still the same culture of support and all the elements that come with it. Vista’s people are the champions of the business and have genuine compassion for the organisation and its customers.
Vista has the knowledge and understanding of what the most important thing is to each of its customers. Although the sophistication of technology and the systems that run in the front and back office of customer environments has changed and advanced, the core culture of understanding why the technology is so essential, how to fix it if an incident is logged and how to prevent it from failing again, remains.
People at Vista will always look at the lifecycle of technologies used within customers’ estates and provide fresh insight for customers aligned to their most important business objectives.
My son James is now CEO. We often joke about the fact that I never asked him to join Vista. My business partner repeatedly asked him to join as a project manager way back in 1998. James was happy in his role at Ford Motor Company at the time and didn’t want to leave. I think he had a bad day one day and called to say, “I will take the job”. He never looked back.
In the early years I think James had more pressure on him than most to achieve. He never wanted to be treated as the boss’s son and he certainly wasn’t paid as well as others doing similar roles. He grafted and put the hours in, over the years he contributed greatly to every role he did and when I retired from the business in 2005, he was managing the repair facility which he had founded. I do recall him saying to me that one day he would become CEO. He was joking at the time. I said “I know you will”, but I was also joking! It was remarkable to see his progression through management to take over as CEO 13 years later. I can see that James has assembled a strong team, he is technically innovative and also trusts and believes in Vista’s people. This influences the culture in the business and ultimately makes it a success.
What do you miss most about the company?
I miss the people, the customers, and I miss the challenge. The whole ‘buzz’ you get from working at Vista! It would have been so hard to have been just a single consultant.
When you have a team around you, it is so heart-warming to walk around the business and see them develop new skills and come into their own. You’ve still got people at Vista today who were there when it all began 25 years ago. Others have worked from ground level into managerial roles, and there are so many people who have expanded their own knowledge and personal development.
People stay at Vista for a long time and I believe that’s truly telling of the culture and character that makes Vista what it is today. Also, I miss the fact that there was always another client to win. I always enjoyed the presentations!
If you had to name one of your favourite memories during your time leading the company, what would you choose?
In the very early years, we had a company get together. From me to them, I wanted to thank everyone for doing such a wonderful job. I did a PowerPoint presentation to the tune “Proud” by Heather Small – “What Have You Done Today To Make You Feel Proud?”. I highlighted things they had done throughout the year that I’d noticed, and I got such a buzz at seeing their faces when they’d spotted themselves on this presentation! It was a great moment.
If you had one thing to say to someone considering working with Vista, what would you say?
I’d have to choose between two: “You’re in safe hands” or “Welcome to the Family”.