Words John Edwards | Pictures Jonathan Moore
THE business world can be an unforgiving environment, where a ruthless edge is a necessity for reaching the top, but John Coyne's journey owes everything to an unsolicited act of kindness towards a stranger that has been repaid multiple times over.
The one-time Wigan Athletic midfielder, a key cog in a dynamic board of directors at Altrincham FC, is one of two leading lights behind Venditan's emergence as one of their industry's foremost providers of eCommerce solutions and services.
Yet, little over 20 years ago, he was, in his own words, "scratching my head" over what he might do next as the end of his career as a full-time professional rapidly approached. He was at a loss, utterly bereft of ideas, until a chance friendship began that had its roots in the Billinge-born Everton fan's caring nature.
"All I ever did growing up was play football, and, in my mind's eye, I was never going to do anything else," he said. "I came through the Academy at Everton in the same youth team as Franny Jeffers, Leon Osman, Richard Dunne and Phil Jevons, and even when they released me, I thought there would be something round the corner, which there was at Wigan.
"Eventually it starts to dawn on you that it won't last forever, and that happened towards the end of my last season at Wigan in 2000. The previous manager John Deehan had always liked me as a player and been great with me, but then Ray Mathias took over and it soon became clear he didn't rate me quite so highly.
"Prior to that, if a contract was coming to an end, I always thought 'there'll be another one, this isn't it', but it was different this time. I started thinking I might have to start looking for something away from football. A proper job, but what? I genuinely had no idea.
"I'm from a family of builders from the construction industry, but that's not me. Maybe I'd have gone to university as a mature student, or I could have ended up with an office job somewhere, though I don't know which sector.
"At roughly the same time, there was a young lad responsible for designing Wigan's first website who would often be in the canteen hoping to get some content for it, interviews and so on, but all the lads ignored him. The older ones, in particular, spoke to the evening paper or the weekly one or perhaps the Manchester Evening News and would have nothing to do with him.
"He'd be sitting there on his own, and I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. I didn't know him, but I went over and had a word, then started getting him a few autographed shirts and footballs and telling him a few storylines I said I was happy for him to use, just to help him out.
"Anyway, it turned out he had seven or eight clubs on his portfolio, and after I was duly released that summer, he contacted me via Wigan and said if I wasn't doing anything else, would I like to join him in visiting other clubs and help him sell websites to them?
"He said if there were any questions about football, I could answer them; anything technical, he could. And he did. He really knew his stuff, and by the time he decided to sell his business six months later, I had learned so much from him about all sorts of technical stuff and felt ready to move on myself and really get to grips with the line of work I'm in now.
"That's how I fell into what I'm doing today. That was my big break, and I consider myself very lucky. Soon after, I met Chris Maule, and we have expanded massively and gone from strength-to-strength at Venditan, with him as founder and chairman and me managing-director.
"But I owe so much to that young lad who used to turn up at Wigan. I lost touch with him and don't know what he's doing now. He's an Aussie who was based in Chorley, so he could be anywhere, but I'll always be grateful to him for launching me on my way to where I am now.
"Without him, I don't know what the course of history would look like for me, because when I started with him, I had no knowledge of the field I now work in. I started with zero knowledge but, six months later, was able to hold an informed conversation about websites, the internet, digital marketing, you name it."
For those unenlightened souls among us, John, could you describe in layman's terms how Venditan operates? Also how your Alty connections, including being a highly-valued sponsor, came about?
"Venditan has gone from three or four people working above Starbucks in town to being based in a fabulous office building at 1, St Peter's Square, working with some great clients.
"We used to try being everything to everyone, selling lots of different services, but after the 2008 financial crisis, we decided to really double down on eCommerce. That was our core service and skill-set, and it became our main focus.
"In a nutshell, a retailer has an end-to-end journey, from purchasing stock from a supplier to selling it, and our eCommerce platform deals with the process every step of the way. In simple terms, it frees the retailer to concentrate on what they are good at, which is identifying the product they want, creating a demand for it and getting it sold.
"We also specialise in solving any complex issues that may crop up that businesses might struggle to deal with. That is quite niche and sets us aside from a lot of our competitors.
"As for becoming an Alty director, that all started when I was on the board at Swinton Lions and they were renting Sale's Heywood Road ground in Brooklands. Neil Faulkner knew one of their directors and sponsored a game, and he introduced me to Noel Shield, who promptly asked if I'd sponsor a game at Alty.
"I said I would, and that led to me having the first of several chats with Lawrence Looney, who asked if I would be interested in joining the board, an invitation I eventually accepted, initially on a let's-see-how-it-goes basis towards the end of 2019.
"My first game as an active director was the Tom Peers FA Cup tie at York City, and I remember being in among all the Alty fans in the away end and pacing up and down the terrace until about 10 minutes of added time was finally up and we were through. I think that's when I knew I had been bitten by the Alty bug.
"It was then a case of where could I fit in and best serve the club, and I was proud to play a part in launching the Academy, with Neil Sorvel running it alongside his role at first-team level with Phil.
"After that, the focus was on strategy and branding. That was the next big project, getting a retail store up and running and ensuring we had a website where you can read all the news about the club, buy hospitality or a replica shirt or whatever, sponsor a player, buy tickets for a game and generally find out any information you want all under one log-in.
"That had to be the vision for the club, and, after a long haul, we are getting there."
And the Venditan boards that we see round the ground?
"People might think it's a director donating to the club, but it's not. We've got boards at both ends of the ground and we buy corporate season tickets for hospitality as part of Venditan brand awareness. It's like with all the club's partners and sponsors - the idea is for it to be mutually beneficial. We have got to get our brand awareness out there.
"It's the Venditan Terrace at the away end, but the main one is at the home end of the ground. We've got naming rights for that iconic terrace, and it's now the Venditan Golf Road - I can't tell you how proud I am of that."