High flyer on the cloud

High flyer on the cloud

Phil Cambers and friends keep their feet on the ground as their fortune grows in technology’s bright new yonder. Brian Nicholls reports.

Some entrepreneurs may sometimes feel their fates rest with the stars, others that they’re swept on the wind. Phil Cambers and his three fellow venturers have their feet firmly on the ground though, and the only time Cambers’ thoughts are nearer the clouds is when navigating his model aircraft above The Links near home at Whitley Bay.

A head in the Cloud, though – that’s different, something the four creators of Cramlington based SITS Group thrive on. Seven years in business together has swept them to a £6m a year turnover, a workforce of 28 and the achievement of never having lost a client.

Whereas 60% of their clients were in the North East of England initially, about 60% are beyond today – in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, London and Cumbria for example.

Beyond that too, the workload now takes them to Germany, Italy, South Africa, Australia, Angola, Nigeria, Sweden, with 70% of all business coming from private sector organisations.

This must be one of the more fruitful outcomes of any stag evening, for that’s where their start-up germinated. The four friends and solidly experienced IT practitioners, then in a 30 to 41 age group, talked the whole thing over enthusiastically around eight years ago on the busy terrace of Café Mambo restaurant and bar, on Ibiza’s celebrated San Antonio sunset strip.

“There we were, mulling it over, one salesman and three techies wanting to start our own business,” Cambers explains. “We were all very different, still are, yet still complementary. That’s why it works so well. We couldn’t have started without each other. We’ve never fallen out. We still share a beer. We’re very close. That stability’s very important.”

Russell Henderson, the celebrated “stag” of the evening, has since done much in building the SITS team of consultants, and the product portfolio of market leading solutions. Paul Rutherford had, even then, more than eight years’ IT experience to contribute, and today controls operations, including human resources, health and safety, facilities management and back office process and communication. He previously worked for big hitters: Nissan, BT Global Services, Home Group, Sage and Komatsu UK.

Paul Watson, who’d earlier fulfilled various architect and senior consultant roles for SCC, the Department for Trade and Industry and Fujitsu, is managing director, executively responsible for strategic direction.

They, then, were the techies, Cambers the sales specialist. “I’ve always liked people and have been good at talking as you probably gather,” he suggests. “Sales isn’t about talking, though. It’s about listening. I talk but I’m also a very good listener. I can’t sell to someone unless I’ve listened to what they need.”

Having more technical staff than sales people accounts for SITS’ customer retention, he thinks: “We’ve a real technical dedication. Our customers aren’t let down because we’ve the right amount of resource to deliver.”

In 2011, they saw a market gap in network and telephony solutions. “Rather than bolt networking onto our core competency - the antithesis of the specialisation we believe in -
we set up Pivotal Networks.”

Already Pivotal Networks contributes over 16% of the income. Much progress achieved so far is attributed to IT having become very competency driven. “Customers in 100 seat-plus organisations no longer want to work with a generalist,” Cambers states. “They want a specialist in their particular field. For us it’s private Cloud – virtualisation.

“We’ve stuck to our knitting, resisting any temptation to diversify. Ten or 15 years ago clients wanted one bum to kick, one throat to choke. But if you have to kick a bum or choke a throat you’ve picked the wrong supplier. Now, whereas IT managers and businesses once thought the burden of managing several suppliers, several specialists, quite onerous, they’ve found that employing dedicated specialists to do specific tasks gets the job done properly first time, to budget and without any messing about.

SITS Group

SITS also subscribes to “co-opetition” – “bit of a naff word,” Cambers admits, to describe co-operation and competition with other companies but without the competition being direct. “Some IT companies get very twitchy about recommending other IT firms to clients. Even though they couldn’t properly do some aspect of the work themselves they’d have a crack at it for fear of losing the client. We, however, are comfortable with introducing other specialist organisations into our client base.

“We don’t want to be all things to all men. That’s why SITS Group and Pivotal Networks are as they are. Of course, though we focus on a core area, that policy for SITS Group and Pivotal Networks fixes many problems. Ask an IT manager for 10 things keeping him awake at night; our solution fixes may be seven or eight of them.”

Whether or not that explains the success formula totally, it does win clients such as Banks Group, ISOS Housing, Aesica Pharmaceuticals, Unipres, Port of Tyne, and law firms such as Bond Dickinson, Muckle and Sintons.

Then there’s the Premier League. “What’s a little company in Cramlington doing working with the Premier League?” Cambers asks rhetorically. “You get deals like that by specialising. It sounds glib, but you get it by being very good at what you do because they want a specialist. They’re a multi-billion pound organisation. They employ only 100 people. But they won’t compromise on quality.

“They were looking for trusted and safe hands that had won awards through VMWare, the company whose software powers the Cloud. We’re just such an awards winner. Against stiff competition, we came across well with the head of IT there. There aren’t that many of us to make up a beauty parade – few out and out true virtualisation specialists. Our competition’s in the South. In the North East only broadline organisations do what we do.”

Despite his fervent spread of the Cloud gospel, Cambers didn’t intend to excel in IT on graduation from Leeds University. Born in Newcastle, he’d attended Mile Castle First School, Chapel House Middle School, then Ponteland County High, and he – after reading media and history at Leeds – aspired to journalism. But Leeds area offered him no such opening then. So he found a job co-ordinating the engineering in IT. It was to have been stopgap, but he took to it “like a duck to water”.

Sphinx CST distributors liked him, fast-tracked him into managing 25 field service engineers and four call co-ordinators at Maidenhead. After four years with the firm, and many road miles commuted between Leeds and Maidenhead, he was moved to sales and again excelled. After eight years away, Cambers hankered after his cherished North East. Five years back subsequently with a local IT reseller equipped him for the SITS challenge.

SITS has in fact a fifth key player: non-executive chairman Geoff Hodgson who claimed jokingly to have been SITS’ “raffle prize”. But the management seriously acknowledge Hodgson’s presence as invaluable. His involvement began after the firm won a start-up award with a prize of free advertising and a short-term mentor.

Hodgson was the mentor. Cambers says: “Because Geoff doesn’t understand IT to the extent we do, it’s a benefit. He brings us together, has a few more grey hairs than us (he won’t mind me saying) and provides a bit of questioning. A board of directors may sometimes not question itself enough. And his eclectic business background brings the party many benefits.”  

Hodgson indeed has sold and marketed for Procter and Gamble, Diageo and Coca Cola, was sales and marketing director for Newcastle Breweries and chief executive of the Federation Brewery. He has started and sold businesses, including Northumbrian Taverns, and has held non-executive roles with One North East, North East Tourism Board, Universal and Newcastle Building Societies and BE Group.

As chairman of North East Access to Finance (NEA2F) he knows well the support available to small and medium size businesses of the region. SITS has moved offices six times, always for more space. Four moves were at Quorum Business Park and two have been at Northumberland Business Park, where SITS has bought its property for the first time (5,250 sq ft), following a successful application for £120,000 to the regional Let’s Grow Fund, which now obliges SITS to create 12 more jobs. Hodgson’s experience in estate matters enabled the directors to concentrate on the day job.

“We’ve never put our hands up and said we need money,” Cambers stresses. “We’ve always done things on our own merit, such as creating 24 jobs already in a tough economic climate over seven years. That has taught us the value of making every penny, every pound a prisoner, which serves you well in good times too.

Having had Hodgson point out the advantages of grants, SITS was able through Gladman Developments to buy free of financial pressure. “We should be able to get another 30 staff into this building,” Cambers estimates.

A regular cyclist to work, Cambers occupies a desk beside a window, where he can spot unusual aircraft over Newcastle Airport. “I’d be pretty one dimensional and boring down the pub if all I talked about was IT,” he laughs, explaining his passions for planespotting, model building, and hooking salmon and sea trout on the Till.

It was the Northumbrian coast he missed when working away, having been taken to his parents’ caravan at Bamburgh since he was nine months old. Now he and his partner Karolina can take their two children – Jacob, aged three, and Camilla, four months old – anywhere up the coast at any time.

Back at the office, the writing’s on the boardroom wall – but in the form of beautifully scripted tributes from clients.