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Computer pioneer's remarkable career

They were, according to Lindsay Bury, “electrifying times”.

He is casting his mind back some 40 years to the first global computer boom, and as a co-founder of Apricot Computers he is speaking as someone who was very much in the thick of the action in the heady days of the 1970s and 80s.

We now live in an age dominated, if not actually operated by technology, where barely a week seems to go by without some search engine, social media or app operator closing in on a multi-billion pound deal.

This extraordinary, seemingly perpetual IT explosion would not have been possible without the vision and exploratory genius of the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Intel and, it is perfectly legitimate to include, Apricot Computers and its forerunner, ACT, albeit on a smaller scale.

He may be a spritely 77 years of age now - Lindsay received his last salary cheque in July of this year, some 55 years after receiving his first - but his memory is obviously undimmed by time as he talks with clarity and fondness of a career which has positioned him as one of the standout businessmen of his generation.


Lindsay Bury has packed several careers into one. You might want to visit the Bloomberg business news site and look him up for a rundown of positions he has held over the last five decades and more. Expect to keep scrolling down - it’s some list.

It begs the question: how did it all start?

“I went from school to Cambridge University, and I always had a hazy idea I wanted to go into business, as even though I was from Shropshire I was never going to be a farmer,” recalls Mr Bury, in the music room (he’s a mean pianist) of the Corve Dale home he shares with wife Sarah.

“As soon as I left Cambridge in 1960, I got a job at Schroders, the well known blue chip merchant bank, in the investment fund management side of the business, earning £500 a year.

“Amongst my many responsibilities was counting cheques with the help of one of those rubber thimbles, but it was while I was at Schroders that I developed a deep love of and fascination with the stock market, which remains to this day. I still scan the FT every day to try to beat the market!”

We are talking the mid 1960s at this point, and it was at this time that Lindsay inherited a half share in an estate in Shropshire near Craven Arms, just a few miles from his current home.

That briskly curtailed a brief flirtation with politics, which saw him contest the 1966 General Election as Conservative candidate for Stoke on Trent North. However, “the hours were bad, the money was pretty poor and you had to know everything about everything - it was not for me”.

Newly married to Sarah, he was determined to make the estate work as a sustainable business, to do which he needed a sizeable income which would clearly not be provided by rents from the estate. In fact, he used up all his free capital buying out his sister’s half share in the estate and rebuilding Millichope Park, the family home. It was important to make some money.

During our chat, Lindsay brings up several personalities who he refers to in glowing terms, often tinged with gratitude. The first is that of Michael Stoddart.

“Mike, who I knew socially, set up the Birmingham office of merchant bank Singer & Friedlander and invited me to join him,” says Lindsay. “Those years, 1966 to 1973, were absolutely brilliant and among the most enjoyable of my life - I learnt a great deal from Mike and it was a wonderful apprenticeship for me.

“We floated companies, probably two or three a year, including Allied Carpets, Kwik Save supermarkets, Turner Manufacturing and Greaves the house builder.

“When Mike moved on to head up Electra Investment Trust, I joined my cousin David Backhouse in buying control of a little bank called Dunbar from a group of mainly Scottish shareholders including the actor Sean Connery.  It was based in Pall Mall in London but I opened the Birmingham office, building up a clientele, some of whom followed me from Singers.

“Dunbar ended up being reasonably profitable - we sold it for about £2 million having paid £750,000 for it - and we lived through the height of the fringe bank crisis, somehow surviving.”

Before Lindsay had left Singer & Friedlander, he had been paid a visit by an entrepreneur called Roger Foster who had set up a company called Applied Computer Techniques which needed financing to expand.

ACT did exactly as the name implied: running computerised payrolls and ledgers for companies too small to afford their own computer, all from the mainframe of a textiles company in Manchester.

Lindsay was impressed with Roger Foster as a man and intrigued by the potential of ACT as an investible opportunity and bought a 25% stake in the company for £12,500. No one at this point could have imagined in their wildest dreams that 15 years later ACT was to spawn Apricot Computers, which for a time was the UK market leader in PCs.

He continues: “Roger and I owned half the company, which we steadily built up into a profitable business. In its first year of trading, in 1966, ACT registered a turnover of £794. By 1973 this had increased to £1 million so it was doing quite nicely.

“Then the industry went through seismic changes, largely as a result of the invention of the transistor. This was the era of the minicomputer which was followed by the micro computer.

“When the micro came along towards the end of the 1970s, we bought a business called Petsoft, run by a gifted individual called Julian Allason who created programmes for cassettes which could be run on machines such as Commodore PET. It was a quite remarkable because it was interactive and we introduced some basic programmes.

“We got very excited because this brought computing into the personal world although it was not yet relevant for the business world which is where we were, but we could see that soon it would be.

“It was at this time we were drawn to what was going on in America where we met a legendary computer designer called Chuck Peddle. He designed a machine called Sirius which was a jaw dropper in many ways. It had a powerful processor, big disc memory, good display and could run a range of accounting and business applications.

 “In what transpired to be a life changing move for us, we took on the UK licence for the Sirius, easily outselling our counterparts in the US through the 200 dealers we had in the UK. ACT was, at this point, all about Sirius and it coincided with us buying the rights to Visicalc, a pioneering piece of software which was essentially the world’s first spreadsheet.

“ACT was then floated on the stock market by Singer & Friedlander. We were the first UK computer company after ICL to get a listing. The shares soared and we all felt quite rich!”

The story took its next dramatic turn when ACT decided that the firm should make its own computer, the Apricot, sourcing the component parts from all over the world. Princess Anne opened the factory in Glenrothes, Scotland, in July 1984 which was at this point employing 90 people and making 4,000 computers a week. ACT was now a fully integrated operation able to supply its own software and machines.

“Meanwhile an opportunity arose in the US when Apple sacked its entire dealer network,” explains Lindsay. “We spent a week showing them our technology in Birmingham and then set up a new company called Apricot to enter the US market.

 “However, this coincided with everyone, including big Japanese and US companies, coming into the industry. That brought a collapse of the price structure but more importantly IBM came into the market, bringing in a new software standard with which we were not compatible. These were dark days and we were in big trouble.

“With the price structure shot to bits, we were going to lose a shed load of money, so we decided to get out of the hardware business. We lost £15 million in one year in stock write downs.

“We could have folded but we had financed the company very conservatively through equity rather than loans, and we managed to rebuild the business and produce a new range of IBM-compatible machines.”

It wasn’t long before two IT giants, Intel and Mitsubishi came calling, wanting to buy Apricot. An auction was held and it was sold to the Japanese group for £45 million, which restored the ACT balance sheet.

“ACT’s final leg was spent purely as a software company, specialising in very good, robust banking systems which were used all over the world, especially in third world countries. Eventually Misys, a UK software firm, pounced and bought the company,” says Lindsay.

“The late 70s and 80s in particular were pioneering times in an electrifying industry. Since then the whole world has piled in with huge names going bust. It’s just ruthless how the industry has chewed up company after company.”

The fact that Lindsay talks so animatedly about the rise and fall and rise again of ACT and Apricot is unsurprising given the fact that he was very much in the vanguard of the first IT explosion. What is perhaps more surprising is that he spun several other professional plates at the same time as his hands-on involvement in the extraordinary story of Apricot.

Scores of non executive directorships stud his CV, and though there are too many to list, he makes mention of his chairmanship of Electric and General Investment Trust and Unicorn Industries, and non executive positions at Portals Holdings and Roxboro.

Then came the Sage Group, a Newcastle-based accountancy software firm, one of the greatest successes of all where he served as a director for 11 years.  

“I was approached to join the board as a non executive director which was exciting, as Sage was the number one in small business accounting,” continues Lindsay.

“Under Paul Walker the CEO, we bought companies in France, Holland, Spain, Australia, several in the US - all for cash - turned them round and built them up again. It is now a worldwide company sitting half way up the FTSE and worth eight billion pounds.”

But Lindsay’s greatest single financial coup, outweighing any deal with ACT, Apricot or indeed Sage, occurred during his role as chairman of the South Staffordshire Water Company.

“When I was approached to join the board, I did wonder why I would do it as it had no stock market listing and all profits went to the water rate payers - although we did get our cars washed!” he recalls.

“Anyway, I knew various members of the board and I succeeded Teddy Thompson, a well known local industrialist from the family which owned Banks Brewery, as chairman at the same time as Margaret Thatcher privatised the water industry.

“That meant we were free to make diversifications. My philosophy was simple: to keep acquisitions small. But the plumbing franchise company HomeServe came up on our radar which had been set up and run by a brilliant young Geordie called Richard Harpin.

“Richard had created an insurance policy to sell to home owners to protect them from the risks of mains pipes bursting or becoming damaged. South Staffs bought a 52% stake in it for £100,000, including an option to increase this stake to 75% which we of course exercised.

“We wanted to roll it out across the whole country, and Anglian Water was the first to see its benefits. Gradually, over a five-year period, we made a clean sweep of every water utility in the country to sell our policies. The marketing was done by the water companies and the plumbing outsourced to local firms.

“It is the most spectacular deal I’ve been involved with. HomeServe has gone into orbit - it is now a worldwide company and worth nearly two billion pounds. There are many very happy South Staffs shareholders who have seen their shares rocket in value.”

Throughout our conversation in which he barely pauses for breath, Lindsay repeatedly refers to others in glowing terms - especially Roger Foster of ACT - highlighting their talents while making no mention of his own.

Perhaps this is best left to Theo Christophers, a Birmingham lawyer who was instrumental in setting up ACT all those years ago.

He penned a letter to Lindsay on the receipt of a (very good) book chronicling the history of ACT and Apricot, called Catch the Wave by Peter Pugh.

In it he wrote: “You must be very satisfied that your courage and vision all those years ago allowed the fruition of such talents and an enormous contribution to the IT industry . . . I admire your tenacity in hanging on during the very difficult times.”

Courage, vision and tenacity - surely the hallmarks of a genuine business heavyweight.


 At a glance... 

At work:

Current position: Retired (coupon clipper!)

Advice to aspiring business people: Have patience and wait for an unmissable opportunity

Any tips for investment? Take a close look at Australia and New Zealand

Three heroes with whom to share a boardroom table (alive or dead): Paul Walker (Sage Group), Roger Foster (ACT/Apricot) and Richard Harpin (HomeServe) 

At home:

Family: Wife Sarah, plus two children, Frank and Harriet, and their seven children

Desert island disc: Quintet from Verdi’s Rigoletto

Desert island book: Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

Desert island film: Some Like it Hot

Favourite holiday destination: Island of Jura

Three heroes with whom to share a dinner table (alive or dead): David Attenborough, Ken Clarke and Leonard Bernstein


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