A comfortable market town like Stokesley is the last place where you’d expect revolution. With its old mill wheel, listed buildings, high street paradise of small and independent shops, plus its weekly market and its annual fair, it exemplifies the “ever-thus”.
But visiting Andrew Frank at the appendaged Stokesley Business Park, you discover a high-tech upturn in progress at his remarkable company, Opentree. What other firms of 16 staff could show a client portfolio on the level of Balfour Beatty, Siemens, Tata Steel, LNG Storage, Atkins, and Signalling Solutions?
Opentree, formerly tsaADVET, has created during its 23 years a reputation for clever document management software in sectors such as oil and gas, steel, manufacturing, rail and energy. One of the longest established firms of its kind in the UK, it now expects its major rebrand, reflecting growth and management change, both to intensify its hold on existing sectors and open doors elsewhere too.
A stalwart since its launch, Frank took over sole management last year and is now managing director and sole owner, with turnover up by almost half and last year’s £1m-plus promising further 20% growth this year. Five new staff were hired, and five more recruitments are imminent. Opentree also has now an office in Sheffield fielding the mounting demands and needs.
Originally, the business sold and supported electronic document management software (EDMS) from Belasis Business Centre, Billingham. Ten years later it was decided the product it sold was not meeting all its customers’ needs. So it developed its own EDMS - CAB-i-NET (now marketed as Cabinet). It was adopted by Westinghouse Rail Systems in 2003, and with further evolution at Stokesley, its worldwide adoption is growing.
With it, organisations can manage total lifecycle of their documents and drawings, from creation and workflow through to business processes and issue to the client, while keeping a full audit trail. That, in effect, means real collaboration between global locations, and access to the latest version of any documentation needed fast.
The electronic management is backed by hard copy archiving, indexing and scanning. Engineers get swift and simple access to their archives from their desk, and sight of documents and drawings located off-site, as the requirement arises.
“We know any time anyone has touched a file what template it came from, who approved it. The whole audit trail goes on seamlessly behind the scenes,” Frank explains. “Implementing our software is quite easy. Getting people to change – that’s where we’re getting more consultancy involved.”
The archiving side isn’t an end in itself. However, while many firms are familiar with Windows Explorer for creating files, big organisations with no standard folder structure may find critical files all over the place. “People will store stuff on memory sticks or on their hard drive, or up in the Cloud – anywhere,” Frank suggests. “That’s ok if you’re small and can communicate.
“But once you’ve multiple offices and multiple people you have duplication. Our software looks like Windows Explorer, and copies all the icons because ease of use was our first consideration when designing Cabinet.”
There are standard templates for letters, reports, power point and other documentation – a facility Frank strongly espouses. “Because they’ve been down an alternative customised route before, people are realising that costs a lot. They don’t necessarily see it first time round. But in 12 or 18 months they do.”
Was major rebrand necessary? Frank says: “The time was right. We’re growing in a very competitive, international market. But our services are niche and in high demand. Also, our outstanding client base is doing much to advance our reputation and growth further.
“A number of global companies offer a similar service to ours but without our many years’ experience, and without our easy-to-use, highly configurable software, or the sound personal service of our highly skilled team.”
The new company name, launched before Christmas, was overdue anyway. As Frank explains: “We’d long traded under the name tsaADVET and many people thought we were an advertising agency. That name linked back to tsaADVET in the USA, whose software we once sold but not for more than a decade. We were developing software but not making the most of it.”
Hence a new website, and a corporate video worked on for nearly a year. A PR push with case studies, and portfolios of information.
Frank explains: “Many firms would like our customers. Some we’ve had for 15 to 17 years. We’re intent on keeping them, and if we can get our software in front of potential clients also, knowing they have need and some money, they’ll get what we’re driving at,” says Frank with gusto.
The name Opentree came out of a brainstorm. Frank recounts: “We think we’re a company very Open to change. The Tree comes, we think, in our strength. We’re growing from solid roots.” Fortunately the Companies House register showed Opentree and Opentree.co
Frank, it should be said, is very much an engineer still – a case-book study of heights an apprentice can rise to. Now 52 and a resident of Hutton Rudby, he served his time at ICI as a mechanical fitter. He’d earlier attended Friends School, the Quaker-inspired institution whose 156 year presence in nearby Great Ayton ended in 1997, when Wimpey turned its listed property into housing.
By 1989 he’d also earned from Sheffield Polytechnic a first class honours in mechanical engineering and a masters (with commendation) in manufacturing systems engineering. He was already by then a design engineer managing a CAD system for British Steel at Redcar, but aspiring to his own consultancy – successfully, it turned out.
“I mortgaged my house and bought £30,000 worth of computer equipment – probably a big, bold step, though I didn’t appreciate it then.” In 1992, he and two older directors set up tsaADVET Ltd, he being technical sales director. When buyout opportunity arose last year, Frank seized it and set about the new strategy.
The firm had already relocated to Stokesley in 2002, renting a building nearby for a couple of years. Then Frank designed and built the present premises, down to painting the skirting boards. “I know a bit about commitment,” he says. The building was the first up in stage three of the business park and there’s land to expand further.
He got the business into the Growth Accelerator, the partnership of government and private sector helping 26,000 of England’s brightest businesses to excel. Advisors came in. Now there’s a three year strategy covering essentials like clients wanted, new areas aspired to, and even how the warehouse is to be run. Key performance indicators accompany.
It requires major investment but Frank’s able to declare: “Up to now we’ve funded everything internally. So we’ve no debt. I intend it to stay that way. I’m a cash man.”
On the morning of interview, Frank had just returned from Stokesley School encouraged by pupils’ response to his spreading of the business gospel. Like many other business bosses, he’s dismayed by how many young people lack awareness about business. If you must work, Opentree’s surroundings are idyllic – Roseberry Topping, Cleveland’s 1,000ft-plus sandstone crown of glory, within view, and a wraparound of greenery.
Yet Frank admits: “I have the software development office at Sheffield now because of real problems trying from Stokesley to hire suitable staff, would you believe? We just can’t get software developers. I’ve talked to local universities and others.
Now I’ve got into universities from Sheffield also, and got three software interns last September with a view, ultimately, to bringing them into the business.
“We had 70 applicants then. That speaks for itself, doesn’t it?” It certainly has Frank questioning the employable output of universities in the North East.
“I think we’ve lost the plot a little in education about need of practical skills, and ability to relate to people. You get all that as an apprentice, though. That’s why I’m also keen to try to get some starters into the business straight from school.”
Almost apologetically he adds: “That’s being a bit negative but, at the end of the day… Look, we’re at the leading edge working in Microsoft technology. Yet from here, to take on a developer, we struggle even to get a shortlist.”
The company staff are loyal, some having been sponsored through university after a work placement or similar. “I’ve sponsored them through their final year and they’re back, so there’s been some success there.”
Two of the three members of his management team, in fact. There’s Daniel Taylor-North, director responsible for producing the software that customers need, then servicing and supporting it. He came on a sandwich year placement during 1996, was sponsored through his final year of university and has been with the company since.
Then there’s Paul North, Dan’s younger brother. He’s product manager responsible for developing all Cabinet software. He too came on a sandwich placement in 1999, was sponsored through his final year of university and now runs Sheffield office.
Paul Beel, finance and administration manager making up the trio, joined in 2013 having been a Business Link adviser for 10 years.
Presently Frank’s looking for a software help desk apprentice. “I’m keen to invest in young people and hopefully they’ll stay. We’ve a great work environment, and there must be some IT kids who maybe don’t want to go to university. I can’t understand why they’d want to saddle themselves with maybe £60,000 of debt. That takes some paying back. We’d pay for their training, even put them through degrees.”
Shortage of applicants, Frank thinks, may partly reflect on something seldom raised despite many other theories voiced: rural connectivity, particularly in light of shrinking bus services.
The local Hambleton District Council has some funding for apprentices from Stokesley or North Yorkshire area. But, he asks: “Depending on how far away others live, how are they to get here?
Middlesbrough is an hour on the bus because it comes all the way round and drops you in Stokesley itself – 15 minutes or so walk on top. That’s all right on a sunny day like this. But you can’t bank on that.
“You really need your own transport to get here. But even a lucky young school leaver with cash enough already to buy a car or a motor-cycle wouldn’t be able to drive till they’re 17. They might want an apprenticeship at 16.”
Norman Tebbit and “on yer bike” come to mind – though he never did mention a need for oilskins too.
Fortunately, Opentree now meets quarterly with Stokesley School, which wants industry to show pupils its opportunities, and a successful evening was recently held when numerous firms explained engineering and its prospects to young people.
“At Opentree we may be in software but we’re all engineers also, and have passion for engineering,” Frank points out.
And he’s a good role model for the school, a local lad who’s made good being brought up at Great Ayton and Newton Roseberry.