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Queen Of The Cash Machine

HANDS ON: Ana Stewart started on her odyssey by a chance summer job at National Cash Registers.  Picture: Julie Howden
HANDS ON: Ana Stewart started on her odyssey by a chance summer job at National Cash Registers. Picture: Julie Howden

Next time you use a cash machine for one of the many things that can now be done with an ATM, you might like to reflect that were it not for a fast-talking woman from Dundee, your options would have been much more limited.

In the early years of the cash dispenser, users were confronted with a black screen and flickering green lettering which allowed them to withdraw cash and nothing more. These days people can use the dead time spent waiting for the machine to deliver their money on tasks such as topping-up their mobile phone, while messages are now displayed in sophisticated graphics.

The machines are made by foreign-owned giants. But their new functionality is due to technology devised by a firm headquartered in suburban Newport-on-Tay, whose founder and chief executive, Ana Stewart, can claim to be the first person to have spotted the potential versatility of the humble cash machine.

Sitting in i-design's compact offices that look onto the Tay, the slightly built Stewart laughs off the suggestion that there is anything special about her story.

She insists that John Shepherd-Barron, the Scot who invented the cash machine but did not patent it, whom she met at a function recently, is more deserving of the appellation "pioneer".

The modesty and resolutely cheery manner, however, belie the forceful character of someone who was determined to do well from an early age.

"I'm an achiever and I'm horribly competitive," says Stewart, who spent her childhood dreaming of playing at Wimbledon.

Preparations for i-design's successful listing on the Alternative Investment Market last July were complicated when Stewart badly injured her leg playing to win on the tennis court, leaving her on crutches.

With such entities as British Airways and the government using products supplied by Stewart's i-design to run campaigns on ATMs, the 38-year-old heads an operation which the market values at around £7m.

But the mum of two primary-age children admits that she may never have developed what proved to be a lucrative passion for ATMs had it not been for a babysitting assignment in Dundee.

While studying interior design at Duncan of Jordanstone art college, Stewart was doing the honours for a family friend who worked for National Cash Registers, the US giant which had a major ATM manufacturing operation in Dundee.

Learning that Stewart specialised in design, the man asked if she would be interested in a summer job at NCR. Stewart said yes and so began a story that would see her play a key role in the transformation of the cash machine into an all-singing, all-dancing sales and marketing tool.

Stewart started out designing digital files which helped make ATMs look nicer and easier to use. In recurring stints at NCR she was given far more responsibility than an undergraduate might expect, and did so well that NCR even lent her a cash machine on which show her wares at her degree show in London. Her graduation project involved designing materials to promote a venue in Spain, her mother's native land.

The work experience made a more lasting impression than the average summer job on Stewart, who realised that her design skills could be in demand in the emerging world of hi-tech manufacturing.

"I'd really gotten attached to the whole graphical interface aspects and I knew there was a market. I knew there was demand because I was being given quite a lot of responsibility, even as a student."

As a result, while university colleagues followed the conventional route into work, Stewart was emboldened to give up job-hunting after a couple of months.

"That was kind of where the whole ATM relationship began. It grabbed my attention because I knew there was demand and there was going to be growth in the whole front end of these devices and I kind of just decided to go for it.

So (in 1991) I set up in this spare room and it just sort of went from there."

With £40-a-week help from the taxpayer under the old Enterprise Allowance scheme, Stewart won enough commissions from banks, educational bodies and the like to make a decent living.

Stewart's mother passed her some money left by her father, a music teacher who had died on the night that Stewart moved into her first flat at university. This paid for computer equipment which played a key part in her early success.

"I've been quite fortunate and it's quite nice for me to be able to feel that I was able to use that money and I've not wasted it."

But Stewart was not unwilling to take big personal risks to back her judgment about how the market would develop.

By 1995 she had employed five staff and moved into the downstairs of her boyfriend's mum's house. The following year the boyfriend, Ralph Hasselgren, whom Stewart married in 1996, joined the business as a programmer to support a push to add the capacity to develop functional systems as well as graphics.

A photo system called Photo Album, which has sold 200,000 copies worldwide, was one of the fruits of the drive.

Subsequently Stewart saw that there was a huge opportunity for banks to get value from their costly ATM networks - which 75% of people use to access their spending-money - by employing them as marketing tools.

"They were desperately trying to make their newly-branded ATMs more profitable; they could do more with it to get marketing messages to customers. We knew if we were to offer them something that would do more than just a little graphic on the front end they would jump at it."

Stewart and her husband invested £250,000 on attracting the right staff to develop the technology needed to sell to banks. After Nationwide said it wanted to use its cash machines for marketing its offerings in 2002, the building society became the first firm to sign up for the firm's "ATM:ad" technology in 2003.

The next step was to convince banks that other firms would pay good money to use the ATMs.

"When you look at it logically, almost half of all banks' ATMS are in shops, supermarkets, railway stations - you're going to generate a lot more revenue from somebody like BA or Nivea outside Asda than you are trying to sell them a mortgage," says Stewart, recalling that banks used to say they would never run third-party campaigns on their machines.

This was a red rag to a bull.

"When they say impossible' that just gets me going and I say well I'll make that possible'."

In 2004, Stewart raised £250,000 from Sigma Capital, the technology-to-property investor, to build i-design's capacity and step up the pace of development.

This helped i-design develop a sophisticated offering under which it can design and run marketing campaigns on ATMs, leaving advertisers and the banks with little to do. The company also built a London-based team to sell to the buyers who plan campaigns for their clients.

However, feeling that she needed to know how the media-buying business worked, Stewart spent weeks on the stump amid the smart young things in London.

"I felt like I was their mother, most of them looked about 18," she chuckles, recalling the feeling of triumph when British Airways signed up to run the first third-party ATM campaign in 2004.

In the years since then, while many in business circles have remained ignorant of Stewart's achievement, i-design has gone from strength to strength.

ATM:ad is now installed on more than 2100 ATMs throughout the UK, delivering around 210 million transactions per annum.

During the year to September 30, revenues rose by 52% to £1.03m. Pre-tax losses held steady at £622,000 as investment in product development and staffing increased.

Stewart says the successful AIM flotation played a key part in boosting the firm's profile and addressing concerns that some may have had about doing business with a relatively small Scottish firm. She reckons a key contract win with Alliance and Leicester bank was due to the flotation.

Recent highlights include winning a flagship deal with Royal Bank of Scotland in January. Stewart won the emerging entrepreneur gong at the elite Entrepreneurial Exchange awards in November.

With increasing numbers switching on to the potential of ATM advertising, Stewart's excitement about i-design's growth potential is palpable. The company has been receiving lots of inquiries from overseas and Stewart is confident that nobody can match its offering. Claims that the cashless society is on its way are older than the hills, she says.

But as London is only a short flight away from Dundee airport, across the water from i-design's base, she sees no need to move the head office from Newport-on-Tay.

Competitive instincts notwithstanding, Stewart, who breaks off from our conversation to admire the baby that a colleague has brought into the office, seems determined to keep her feet well and truly on home ground.

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