A two billion dollar deal between technology giants has presented one Yorkshire entrepreneur with what could be his most lucrative opportunity yet.
Jim Hart was a distant but eager observer when US firm IBM recently agreed to offload one of its many divisions to Chinese empire Lenovo. The acquisition was long-expected and a fairly commonplace type of transaction among the world’s software-driven superpowers.
But for Hart’s Yorkshire-based Europlus Direct, it could be transformative. Europlus sells Lenovo and IBM maintenance services worldwide. A network of global offices supports growth and annual turnover for 2014 was £7.1m.
For all its international successes however, business in the US has been limited to date. That could be set to change following Lenovo’s snapping up of IBM’s US$2.1bn server business x86. The deal gives the Chinese firm a strong foothold in the enterprise market and, according to Hart, will enable his own firm to better target the US market.
Lenovo has its sights set on challenging the world’s two biggest PC makers, Dell and HP, and an assault on the US market is reportedly a major part of that. “We’ve tried to target the US through IBM for several years but, partly for legal reasons, it hasn’t quite panned out,” says Hart.
“But Lenovo will open things up for us. We think working with Lenovo in the US will be a massive change for us and double the size of the business in the next two or three years.”
Currently Europlus has a registered office in Las Vegas but few, if any, staff there. This is likely to change on the back of increased work through Lenovo’s products and services. “Initially we’re going to run the US operation from the UK, with people working from 2pm - 10pm. We will then transfer it over to our Sydney office, which will work on customers from there. We’ve invested in new CRM and IT systems and are doing lots of training but eventually we will have staff over there and possibly an office on the east coast.”
Hart expects Europlus to double in size into a £14m turnover business within two to three years, with staff numbers also doubling to around 70.
His other business, One Global, is also on a solid growth trajectory. The translation and global recruitment firm, based in the same building as Europlus, is currently turning over around £650,000 annually. It is expected to surge past £1m inside 18 months, with growth coming from various markets around the world.
Through a small team and a network of over 2,000 freelance translators, the business trades with clients across the globe, translating into hundreds of languages. Perhaps surprisingly, given rising tensions, sanctions and talk of a new Cold War, Russia is proving a particularly fertile territory for the firm.
Hart says: “There are a lot of translation requirements going into Russia and Russian is up there with Chinese as our top language. We’re getting a lot of engineering and manufacturing firms from the UK going into Russia. We also do a lot of e-learning translation into Russian.”
Digital marketing is a growing specialism for the company, with Hart explaining: “Nowadays it’s not enough just to translate someone’s website. You have to help the site be found – and we can offer advice on that.”
For all the new capabilities being developed via web technologies, however, Hart insists there will always be demand for human rather than automated translation services.
“When you use something like Google Translate, it’s fine if you just need the gist of something. But if you are creating an engineering manual for an aeroplane, for example, you have to be extremely accurate. When you’re working with brands, you also have to ensure they are portrayed in exactly the right way. Machine translation has its place but it would have to be incredibly sophisticated to replace what we do.”
Across his two businesses, Hart now has offices in Sydney, Las Vegas, as well as Yorkshire. Last year he also offloaded his African business, which had bases in Senegal, South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia, with a head office in Mauritius.
With two flourishing businesses under his belt, Hart has achieved significant success in a relatively short space of time – having not been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug until he was 39.
He was inspired to go it alone by his family. Taking advice from his two entrepreneurial brothers-in-law and his self-employed dad, he opted to launch his own venture instead of finding a new job during a period of unemployment.
That was in 2004, when Europlus Direct emerged with the backing of IBM, specialising in selling the tech giant’s maintenance services contracts.
Alongside family guidance, international experience also aided his success. Growing up, he excelled at languages and his first job as a graduate saw him flogging advertising to the Germans. It preceded two years of globe-trotting, taking in stints in the retail sector ‘Down Under’ and as a teacher in Chile.
With his homeland beckoning, he eventually took up a job in Skipton using French and German to sell software.
The company, Connections Plus, later enlisted Hart to expand the sale of HP’s maintenance services across Europe. He took the plunge as an entrepreneur around a decade later.
“At the time there were lots of resellers of hardware, but hardly anyone selling services. There was a real gap in the market,” he says. “IBM spotted that gap too and needed a company like mine to step in and focus on services.
“We started out working on IBM’s server range and also selling contract renewals on the ThinkPad computer range [later sold by IBM to Lenovo]. But most of our sales were related to the x86 servers business.
“From 2005 we had launched the model in France and basically rolled it out across the whole of Eastern and Western Europe.”
In 2008 came the opportunity to break into Africa. Hart admits this was a tough market to crack and was pleased to exit it amicably and profitably last year when he sold the business.
Meanwhile, One Global was formed out of a true moment of entrepreneurial opportunity-spotting by Hart.
“We had to hire quite a few language speakers for Europlus and I wasn’t really happy with the recruitment agencies I was using. So I decided to employ someone in-house just to recruit language speakers. Eventually that just expanded into offering the service to other companies needing languages recruitment. The translation just developed alongside that.”
The business, which operates with all translators based in their native countries, saw growth of around 35% in its recruitment arm last year and 25% in translation. And investment in technology is aiding continual growth this year.
Hart says: “We have a lot of customers now that send big internal communications round, so we have created a system that enables firms to monitor the level of engagement from employees in certain content.
“We are also working on technology that makes it easier to translate websites in real time. We’re basically developing new innovations that will differentiate us competitively.”
With new opportunities in the US and, increasingly, Asia, opening up, Hart’s two businesses look well placed to continue their global expansion in the back end of 2015.
And the Yorkshire entrepreneur’s international adventure shows no sign of slowing down, for all the uncertainty looming over markets here and beyond these shores.