How this technology boss pivoted and tripled his turnover during lockdown

Owen Gleadall almost lost his entire business when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK last March but he pivoted and tripled its turnover in 2020, writes Lizzie Murphy.

Owen Gleadall, founder and managing director of Merlinsoft.
Owen Gleadall, founder and managing director of Merlinsoft.

When Owen Gleadall threw a glass of red wine over his boss during an office buffet in 1981, he vowed never to work for anyone else again.

True to his word, over the last 40 years the founder of technology firm Merlinsoft has carved out a niche across the retail and tourism industries which has seen him at the forefront of consumer-driven technology.

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The Barnsley-based company, which employs 11 people, specialises in admissions and ticketing systems for visitor attractions, venues and events.

After almost losing his entire business at the start of the first UK lockdown last March, Gleadall, 75, pivoted the firm, using his programming skills to design a pick-your-own voucher software system for fruit farms. It went live in mid-June and by the end of October it had generated over £6m in sales, compared to a turnover of £2m for the whole of 2018.

“It worked really well,” he says. “It maintained social distancing, controlled visitor numbers, and kept staff safe because interactions with visitors were minimised. It literally went from nowhere to completely off the scale.

“For April, May and the early part of June, I think our total income was £5,000. For the last two weeks in June our income was £362,000. In July it was £1.1m, in August it was £1.5m and over the course of the next three and a half months we did £6.5m.”

Merlinsoft’s core business creates admissions and ticketing systems for what it calls ‘tier two’ UK visitor attractions, such as cathedrals and heritage railways. It has also worked on projects in the Middle East, including the National Museum of Oman and projects in Saudi Arabia.

Gleadall says he always had an interest in electronics - a passion which has led to a varied and colourful career spanning almost 60 years.

After leaving Maltby Grammar School in Rotherham at the age of 16, he joined the RAF where he completed an electronics degree.

His seven-year career in the forces saw him undertake a three-year stint on the front line during the Vietnam War.

He was captured by the Vietcong and, although he was rescued a few weeks later, the experience left him with what he later realised was post-traumatic stress disorder. He left the RAF on medical grounds and returned home to live with his parents.

“We were captured because they thought we were American,” he recalls. “We didn’t realise how serious the situation was at the time.”

The effect of the experience took its toll on his mental health and he went to work in the family road haulage and coach business.

“It was a good thing because I was at home being looked after by my mum at a time when I needed it,” he says. “At that time everyone expected you to buckle down and get on with things, you weren’t allowed to be depressed.”

Two years later, Gleadall decided to follow his passion again and complete an addendum to his degree - in computing.

He returned to the RAF, creating radar plot extraction systems for various technology companies.

He went on to develop laser scanning systems for the print industry and later for retailers, through a US firm.

It was while working for the US firm that the red wine throwing incident occurred. It was the culmination of an argument over which departments were entitled to eat a buffet that was on offer in the office one lunchtime. “It was probably the shortest resignation letter that anybody’s ever submitted,” he jokes.

Gleadall decided to move from Watford back up to Yorkshire to start a new business, developing point of sale systems for small independent retailers.

He describes his career highlight as a ‘technological scoop but a commercial disaster’ when he and his colleagues designed and built the very first touchscreen system for retail in 1994.

“We launched it in 1995 to be told by everybody that there was no requirement for touchscreens in retail,” he recalls.

Due to escalating manufacturing costs the marketing rights and intellectual property were acquired by an Italian manufacturer. However, the deal went sour when the manufacturer got into financial difficulties, which Gleadall says left him with a £400,000 bill. The technology was never used.

At around the same time Gleadall developed his first integrated admissions and ticketing system for a new project at Chester Zoo.

However, it wasn’t until the financial crisis rocked the retail industry in 2008 that he realised the firm had to make that side of the business a priority. The following year, Gleadall worked with Visit England to develop new admissions and ticketing systems to push tourism development in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics.

Now, with little prospect of visitor attractions opening up again before Easter, Gleadall is once again looking at other markets to develop alongside the core focus of the business, including a food ordering app.

He remains confident about the long term prospect for tourism. “The more you coup people up, the more determined they are to go out,” he says.

Gleadall, who is married and has two grown up children, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild, says he has no plans for retirement because he still enjoys the challenge. “Every morning there’s a challenge and an opportunity. It’s my job to beat the challenge and find the opportunity,” he says.

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