MM Profile: Robert White
The managing director of Durell Software taught himself programming to produce computer games and built a successful company but when the gaming business changed he turned to writing fully integrated software for the financial services sector with the aim of making it clear and simple to use Interview by Rachael Adams
When Robert White drew a cartoon instead of filling out his personal details on a job centre form, he did not know how drastically it would change his life.
He says: “When I saw that lovely blank page I thought I could not possibly write on it. I got a letter back from the Department of Health and Social Security asking if I had considered art college and my mum saw that as a directive from the Government that I had to go to art college.”
White met his wife at art college and they married immediately after graduating. His new father-in-law, who was a quantity surveyor, suggested White take a degree in that field and he agreed.
“By the time I finished the degree, I realised I definitely did not want a career in quantity surveying. However, the final year involved a lot of computing and that was where I got the computer bug.”
White’s father-in-law’s next suggestion was better than his first - he directed White to a role at Oxford Regional Health Authority.
“It was basically building hospitals by computer. Being young and cheeky, I went for the manager role and when I was waiting to be called into the interview there was an older man there who looked a bit down-at-heel. He said he was there for the assistant manager role and had 10 years experience lecturing in CAD, so I suggested he went into my interview and I went into his. He ended up being my boss.”
Three years into the role, White’s wife inherited her grandmother’s house in Taunton. The couple decided to relocate but this meant he had to find a new way to employ himself.
“I had seen the game Space Invaders and thought it was pretty boring but one day when I was in the pub, where they had computers built into the glass tabletops, I saw one of the original games where computers fire multiple missiles. I thought, I have no idea how to do that, I have to find out, and spent the next three months teaching myself machine code.”
White bought himself a computer and wrote a couple of “very naff” games, and Durell was born. “I used to buy 500 tapes at a time and sell them all by post but within three months I realised it was not sustainable for me to be a programmer and run the business.
“I had done the spec for Harrier Attack so I got a couple of guys to join me. I paid for it by consulting for BDS Applied Research of Cambridge, training the US Corps of Engineers in Washington in integrated computing.”
By 1986, Durell had revolutionised the gaming market with Turbo Esprit and was number one in Italy.
But White says by 1987 the gaming industry had changed for the worse. “It had been lots of start-ups doing interesting stuff but suddenly it got invaded by Nintendo and Sega. We sold the rights for our games to Elite Software for about £100,000 and reinvested that writing Insurance Master, which is what Durell is today.”
Today, Durell has achieved White’s aim - to be a fully integrated financial services system. “Our competitors have separate document viewers, planning tools and fact-finds. We have built our own. We even had our own word processor in machine code on the first version.
“The argument that as an integrated system, you are a jack of all trades and a master of none is fair but equally most people only use at best 80 per cent of any software, so you do not have to be anything more than a jack of all trades.”
He says having only one system for clients to master is another advantage to an integrated approach but he admits there is still some way to go.
“As providers, we should all work together, so clients can use bits of each program but there is so much legacy rubbish that it is a nightmare. Some stuff comes in on spreadsheets, some in XML, and it is a bit of a mess.”
Clarity of usage is key for White. “I do not think software is intuitive, you need someone to show you how to use it. When we were showing Harrier Attack at an exhibition we pinned sheets with instructions next to the controls. A couple of kids were playing the game and one said: ’Oi mate, what are the controls?’ I pointed out the instructions, and his friend replied: ’My mate can’t read.’ So I am obsessed with making things clear and simple.”
Durell’s latest additions reflect this obsession. Its Web-link facility allows clients to log in and view their details.
“We are also looking at financial planners which will be a bit like Prestwood’s Truth software but we will offer two versions - one to our IFA clients and one that people can download for free from their adviser’s website.”
White jokes that they must be mad to be giving away a version of their software but he says the retail distribution review and the focus it will bring on adviser- charging is one reason Durell is offering the free download.
Durell is well placed for the RDR, says White. “First, because we service general insurance brokers and IFAs and we are seeing more IFAs crossing into insurance and second, because I integrated a full accounts package with fee-timers and VAT into Durell from day one.”
But White shares the widespread concerns about unintended consequences from the RDR. “I think it is going to leave poorer people without advice.”
Perhaps surprisingly, he does not think technology is the answer. “What will happen is consumers will do it themselves and they will get misled by the insurance companies. People need advice.
“I am worried that advisers will drop out and that will affect Durell but I have been through that so many times. Things go up and things go down. The only person who is really affected by Durell’s fortunes is me and I am all right, thank you.”
Born: 1953, Wellington, Somerset
Lives: Combe Florey, with wife Veronica
Education: Diploma of art at Dartington College of Art and BSc in quantity surveying at the University of the West of England
Career: 1983-present: managing director, Durell Software Ltd; 1983: consultant, Applied Research of Cambridge; 1980-83: computer-aided design specialist, Oxford Regional Health Authority
Likes: Pauillac wine with friends, movies and learning Italian
Dislikes: Sports news, pointless speculation and disorder
Drives: Jaguar XJ Sovereign
Book: Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
Film: Twelve Monkeys
Album: Mayhem by Imelda May
Career ambition: For Durell to be as widely recognised for its financial services and insurance software as it was for its games
Life ambition: To leave my three children healthy, wealthy and wise
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Creating something on my own, possibly drawing or painting