Techknow: Net heads

Techknow: Net heads - NAME: RICK LATHAM

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

NAME: RICK LATHAM

POSITION: MANAGING DIRECTOR, WH SMITH ONLINE

WEB SITE: WWW.WHSMITH.CO.UK

Rick Latham has spent more than 20 years in the IT industry, 10 of them running his own consultancy. In 1994 he was a founder of pioneering e-tailer Internet Bookshop, and moved to his present role when that company was acquired by WH Smith in 1998.

When did you become interested in the internet?

I think you could describe me as an early adopter - by 1983 I was e-mailing my business partner in Scandinavia. People forget that e-mail has been around for quite a while. But I didn't really get into the net before the early '90s, when graphics started to make it more interesting to use.

By 1994 there were a handful of entrepreneurs using the net to sell things and it suddenly became very exciting.

How much time do you spend surfing each day?

Probably too much. Around four or five hours in total, split half and half into business and pleasure.

I have a 12-year-old son who is very keen and we browse together. I think he knows more about using the net than I do. I take a relaxed approach to staff surfing at work - whatever sites they are looking at, they can learn from them.

Which sites do you use each week?

I visit Amazon regularly, partly to keep an eye on the competition, but mostly because it's a great site.

By comparison, bol.com is just a competitor and I go there much less often. Of the financial sites, I like freequotes.co.uk, which has a useful portfolio management tool. I have Lycos and Yahoo! on my favourites too, because they are both handy portals, but I tend not to use web news services.

Between them, the WH Smith e-mail round-up and our corporate Reuters feed give me all the business information I need.

Who are your advisers?

We have never used design or technology consultants - we do all that in-house. But we do have access to the WH Smith group of companies, which is full of sharp people who know how to sell books.

What is your company's web strategy?

To ensure that as WH Smith's five million high street customers get online they continue to buy from us. Some cannibalisation is inevitable in the process, but it is better to eat your own business than let someone else do it. Our stores are actually a big asset to our e-commerce activities - shop windows are a great place to promote WH Smith online, and we are trialling interactive kiosks so that if a book isn't available in-store it can be bought there online. We are also working hard on our customer service, which is not yet as good as it could be.

What are the most significant changes that the internet will bring about?

I think some of the biggest changes - to do with the speed and ubiquity of communications - have happened already. When I was 20 I lived in Australia, and spoke to my mum about four times in two years. Now I e-mail friends there a couple of times a week. The net is breaking down old barriers and shrinking the world.

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