White men can jump . . . on an Apple

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It's perhaps no surprise to find a self-confessed Mac evangelist drawing swords for the triple-headed beast that is Australia's largest Apple reseller, Next Byte. And MD Adam Steinhardt does see himself as something of a crusader.

Steinhardt, Tim Kleemann and Crawford Giles joined forces to create Next Byte in 1995. Steinhardt says they duly found the hoped-for gap in the marketplace.

Back then, people tended to think of the Harvey Norman and Dick Smith Electronics types, more generic household brands of the world, rather than retailers entirely devoted to selling computers. When Next Byte started, it was almost impossible to find Apple products in Australian shops. Nobody knew where or how to buy them, he says.

Furthermore, Steinhardt believes most computer resellers are short on inspiration, even when they are genuinely enthusiastic about the technology and have the technical skills to back that up.

He says he made it his crusade -- his goal -- to bring a computer retail experience to Australians that could inspire fervour and devotion to a particular brand -- in this case, Apple Macintosh.

'We saw a gap in the marketplace in that there have not been a lot of great computer retailers. If you try to think of another genuine computer retailer, it's hard to think of anyone,' he says.

Steinhardt says Next Byte has always been prepared to jump that little bit higher to give the best possible customer service. Kleemann, in particular, can often be found up at 3am bidding for the latest Apple product releases from the US, while Steinhardt flies constantly around Australia visiting Next Byte stores, ensuring company strategy stays on track.

Without that passion and drive, especially in the early years, it is doubtful whether Next Byte would have made the impact it has, Steinhardt says.

Yet simple enthusiasm is of little use unless it's tightly focused on quality products and services. Next Byte has total belief in Apple's 'fantastic' range, Steinhardt says. 'The other key thing is we have a really good balance of capabilities between the three directors. Tim had 22 years of experience selling Apple Macs, and Crawford did accounting.'

He also warns it is a mistake to try to undercut, for example, computer prices offered by online resellers. 'If customers ask for that, you just have to say no. [Yet] customers can call us at 8pm and get help, and not be left in the lurch for 24 to 48 hours. We say, this is the way it will be, but if you trust us we can make it work for you.'

Today, Next Byte, which stocks Apple and Apple-compatible products, continues to spread steadily across the country, opening two shops in June, one each in Adelaide and Sydney, to bring its total number of stores to 13. Two more are tipped to open in August.

The Adelaide-based retailer aims to have 18-20 stores across Australia by the end of this year, which Steinhardt says will be funded by the reinvestment of profits. The company is 'heading towards $60 million' in revenue.

'We can see [further] potential in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. And Perth should get another one,' Steinhardt said to CRN at the time. 'We are pretty keen to get economies of scale to enable us to become known as a mainstream brand in Australia, so we need enough shops to get enough to spend on direct multimedia marketing and advertising to take the Apple message to the people.'

Steinhardt's clarity of focus and evangelical determination perhaps stems from his experience as a top athlete. Steinhardt is a former champion pole-vaulter. You might say that jumping from one thing to another is something of a specialty.

He won a sports scholarship to the University of Washington, Seattle, where he began reading for an Undergraduate of Business Studies degree in 1988 (the US equivalent of a Bachelor in Business) but left after 18 months to return to Australia and target the 1990 Commonwealth Games, where he jumped 5.10 metres in the men's final to finish sixth.

Since then, he has been enrolled in five different universities in Australia, studying business and IT-related papers but has no patience with the system. The way he sees it, why waste time sitting in a lecture theatre learning the same stuff when what is needed is to maximise one's competitive edge? 'Life's too short,' he says.

The command carved above the door of the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece, not far from Olympia, was: 'Know thyself'. Asked for the secrets of Next Byte's success, Steinhardt cites his strengths in marketing and vision -- in paying attention to the entire customer 'experience of buying a computer'.

The company's newer Balmain, Glenelg and Brisbane stores do just that, sited in trendy shopping strips where he believes the slick, sharp visual design features of the Apple range will attract customers. So far, Steinhardt says, the gamble is paying off, with walk-in customers increasing as time goes on.

When it came to the short-lived reseller group Buzzle that hit the headlines in 2000-2001 for around 18 months, Next Byte got in and then got out again, in August that year, before the ill-fated consortium went down in flames. Steinhardt says he could see the writing on the wall.

'We could see what was going to happen. We could see a couple of businesses going in to use it as a lifeline. They didn't have their basics in order. There was deceit -- a cover-up -- so there wasn't a stable financial situation for the Buzzle launch.'

In addition, he says the Next Byte directors had no desire to compete within a chain of 30-odd stores across the nation, and it's easy to get the feeling that it isn't Steinhardt's style. He'd rather be thrilling customers with the latest tales of Apple derring-do, in his own way, without others holding him back or telling him how high he can jump.

'We wouldn't like to be part of a big business, having our fun curtailed and living on the top of a big building,' Steinhardt says. Anyway, he's more of a triathlon man these days.

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