Graham Wylie left Newcastle University in 1980 with a Bachelor's degree in Computing Science and Statistics and an idea. A year later that idea had become a company called Sage, selling accountancy software. When he sold his share in the company 21 years later, Sage had a global valuation approaching £3 billion, the only technology stock in the FTSE 100 index and his personal wealth was put at £116 million. As the proud parents and their overdrawn offspring in the room today pause to contemplate this achievement, I will describe how this phenomenon came about.
Graham is the son of a miner, born and raised in the North East. He won a place in our University and to make ends meet took a summer job. An accountancy firm hired him with a small government grant intended to help small businesses take advantage of new technologies. He wrote a piece of software to help with their records, a programme now called SAGE line 50. He was then hired by David Goldman to write some software for his printing company Campbell Graphics to estimate the price of print jobs. He used that first piece of accountancy software to produce the first version of Sage Accounts. The owner of that printing company was so impressed he joined with Graham and two others to form Sage, initially marketing their product to printing companies but soon expanded their horizons. Growing weary of their perpetual driving a Chrysler Alpine up and down the A1 they concluded they should establish a network of resellers who they could support by telephone.
1984 brought a pivotal decision to seek investment from venture capitalists in order to win the contract to add their software to the Sinclair QL computer. They didn't win the contract but did acquire business expertise and a plan to grow. A year later they hitched their wagon to Amstrad which allowed them to market their product to the growing army of personal computer users. Attempts to extend into Europe revealed the challenge of dealing with the particular legal and commercial structures in different countries. This diversity prevented the big players like IBM producing a standardised solution and left an opening which Sage was able to exploit. After flotation on the stock exchange in 1989, they were able to grow through acquisition. Their first was DacEasy in the USA, a direct equivalent of Sage in the UK, followed in 1992 by Ciel in France. By buying equivalent companies in each country they were able to expand their influence, gaining the benefit of scale combined with the strength of local knowledge. Once the formula became established, the company was on its way. Its solid foundations withstood the turbulent boom and bust of the dot com bubble while Graham continued in his role as UK managing director. He resisted the opportunity to become Chief Executive of the international organisation, claiming with typical modesty to know his limitations. His decision also allowed him to remain in his beloved North East and ensure the company would keep its headquarters here employing over 5000 people to serve their customers worldwide, now approaching 3 million in number.
Presenting Graham today is relatively easy, as I can identify so closely with him. Both sons of North East families and graduates of this University, we continue to share much in common including at least one close friend who tells me we both have a preference for trailing white lobelia, we have the same religious affiliation, Newcastle United, and both have a tendency to improve our handicap by acquiring golfing gear; my last purchase was a Wilson fat shaft 7 wood, his was a golf course. I have investigated Graham's progress in the noble sport and find that despite his obvious brilliance as an entrepreneur he still has some way to go to achieve world golfing domination. Having had his technique analysed I would like to offer one small piece of coaching advice. I think he is standing too close to the ball...after having hit it.
Graham's great wealth has enabled him to make contributions to the community, the most visible being his major donation to support the Sage Centre on the south bank of the Tyne, providing our city with its first world class concert hall. No doubt he will find more opportunities to help make our region great again. He has acquired a small Gateshead company and has new plans to develop it but even if this time the achievement is less dramatic, nothing can diminish the contribution he has already made.
Mr Chancellor, Graham Wylie is a shining example of how the combination of natural talent, a little luck and of course, a good University education, can change the world. Though he would be the last to boast about it, he has made a major contribution to the regeneration of our region. Our country needs more like him and I hope there are some in the room today who will be inspired by his work.
Graham has been awarded the CBE for his services to industry and on behalf of Sage has accepted the freedom of our great city. I invite you, Mr Chancellor to add our accolade by making Graham Wylie a Doctor of Civil Law honoris causa.
Professor John Burn