Most students work part time in a pub or a shop to earn some extra money while at university. But Graham Wylie supported himself as he completed his computer sciences degree at Newcastle University by creating a product that would become the first building block in a FTSE100 tech company that would cater to millions of customers around the world and employ thousands of people in the North East and beyond. It would also make the young programmer – who grew up in the North East – go on to become one of most successful and well-known businessmen in the region.
Graham wrote a software package for record keeping while working for a summer for Dr Paul Muller, a computer specialist who had gained notoriety by discovering lunar mascons (mass concentrations) on the surface of the moon, thereby allowing the Apollo Moon Landings. The NASA scientist subsequently toured the world lecturing about the discovery and on arrival at Newcastle University, fell in love with the city and settled here with his family.
Through Paul, Graham met David Goldman, the owner of Campbell Graphics Printers, who asked the student programmer to add a customer and supplier files to his record keeping software. David was so impressed with the resulting accounting package that he asked him and Paul to go into business – which they named Sage.
After Graham graduated, he spent his days travelling to the nation’s printers, selling, installing and maintaining his software.
“We didn’t sell huge amounts and we were living hand-to-mouth to pay the bills in those early years,” Graham reveals.
It was after a major printing firm bought the estimating and job costings software that Sage began to expand the accounting software sales to other sectors – a strategy that would eventually turn the company into a global success.
Graham puts the rise of Sage down to a number of catalysts. Firstly, in computing, accounting software was regarded as boring and so Sage enjoyed very little competition.
“It wasn’t word processing or graphic design and so no one in the industry really bothered with it – even though accounting is the staple diet of all businesses,” reflects Graham.
Sage also began recruiting resellers across the country to sell its software, while retaining all of the accounting queries and maintenance services.
“This meant it was a really easy sell for the reseller, while we gained a recurring revenue base as every customer came directly to us for stationery sales and upgrades.”
Accountants were also given the software for free in return for them recommending the product to their clients – further boosting the software’s profile into the market.
Finally, the launch of the affordable Amstrad PC, priced at around £299, encouraged Sage to lower the cost of its software from £1000 to £99. This caused a dramatic rise in sales.
“We got the right price point and the sales just exploded,” says Graham.
Sage was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1989, valued at £20 million.
It was a key milestone for the company but the team always focused on more.
“Our mental attitude was not, ‘haven’t we done well?’. It was that we had to keep going and do better than we did the month before.”
That drive lead to continued growth for the Gosforth-headquartered company and it listed on the FTSE100 in 1999 – a position it still holds.
By 2003, Graham felt he had achieved all that he could at Sage and decided to retire from the business.
“Sage was my first job and I had helped to build it into a big corporate machine. I also had a number of things going on in my life. I’d recently had a health scare, I’d bought a big house, and I was getting remarried,” he reflects.
The 43-year-old left the the business and sold some of his shares in the business for £112 million. For most, this would signal some serious rest and relaxation. For this entrepreneur, the hiatus from the business world lasted just one weekend.
“I retired from Sage on the Friday night and by Monday morning I was bored,” he says.
Graham, who describes himself as having, “a very active brain”, has since gone on to establish and invest in a number of businesses.
Among them is IT support company, TSG, and high-intensity, low-impact fitness concept Speedflex.
Graham also created the destination hotel and golf complex, Close House, at Heddon-on-the-Wall, returning the hotel to a family residence in 2014 to concentrate on making the golf club the number one destination in the North.
“The club has taken the thick end of 12 years to create but I think we’re just about there,” says Graham. “We have two great courses, a par 3 course, a PGA Academy, a great clubhouse and 17 bedrooms to attract golfers from out of the region.
“Now, the club is concentrating on building its membership and we are on the verge of bringing a very high profile event to the club, which would be huge for the region.”
Graham has also allowed himself to indulge in another passion of his – horse racing, an interest peaked by his wife, Andrea, a keen equestrian, and his father, who used to place a £2 bet on a horse race every day.
“One night I was out with friends who all knew how much I enjoyed horse racing. Someone said to me, ‘Graham, you should buy a race horse’. The next day, I was stood in a field in Durham. I didn’t have a clue about horses but my wife said I should buy a grey one, so I did. That horse, Lord Transcend, went on to win its first four races and so I bought three more which were all successful at Cheltenham.”
He continues: “Without such a successful start, I may have given up but I got hooked. I buy horses every year and I’m always looking to emulate the success that I’ve had.”
Graham has also been a prolific supporter of charity over the years but his charitable activity stepped up to another level after one of his twin daughters underwent major heart surgery at two days old.
The traumatic event spurred the Sage founder on to help those going through similar experiences and he has subsequently raised millions for the Children’s Heart Unit Fund (CHUF).
“My daughter’s operation at two days old made it very personal for me and so when I was asked if I would do something for CHUF, they were pushing against an open door.
“I decided that I didn’t just want to raise money. I wanted to raise the profile of the charity as well so that it could become more sustainable.
Graham has gone on to arrange a number of glittering, high profile charity events in aid of the charity.
The latest of which – a star-studded golf day at Close House – raised an unbelievable £545,000 in one day.
Highlights included Alan Shearer, Lee Westwood and Ant and Dec joining Jersey Boys star Ryan Molloy on stage for a rendition of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You in full Four Seasons’ garb, Jeremy Kyle hosting a special version of Ant verses Dec and Ronan Keating entertaining the crowd with some impromptu singing.
“This year really was special,” Graham delights. “Unfortunately we’ve raised the bar so much that it’s going to take a lot to better it next year – but we have to and have already started working on it.”
Graham has now taken his charity work on another step by establishing the Graham Wylie Foundation, which launched on May 13 this year.
“I had been planning to start my own foundation for quite a few years but I hadn’t found the right person to run it. Then, by chance, I met Angie Jenkison who ran the Teenage Cancer Trust in London and was looking to move back to her native Newcastle.”
The pioneering and ambitious new charity looks to raise millions to educate, help and inspire under-privileged and vulnerable children in the North East.
The foundation will also be one of only a few charities in the world that commits to 100 per cent of donations going to good causes, with Graham funding all of the admin and office costs himself.
“I’m told it’s quite unusual,” Graham says. “But I wanted to make sure all of the money people gave went directly to the people we want to help.”
The foundation’s first major event, Rock ‘n’ Raise, will see the Kaiser Chiefs headline a large-scale charity concert at Metro Radio Arena on the night of the Great North Run (September 11).
Funds raised on the night will go towards building a Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Centre in Jesmond, the first of its kind outside London.
In addition, the Graham Wylie Foundation will continue to support CHUF, as well as smaller projects in the North East, via an online application process.
In everything that Graham does, there is desire to improve and do better – whether it’s building more sales and profit into a company or creating ever more impressive charity events to encourage bigger donations.
It is a mentality that has served the businessman – and the North East – extremely well, with the results set to benefit the region for generations to come.