Precious Onyx

Precious Onyx

Onyx Group is moving closer to a £50m target with three acquisitions in a year and a plum contract with Sage. Neil Stephenson reveals the firm’s growth plans to Brian Nicholls.

Envisaging a turnover which will more than quadruple over the next five years might be called wildly optimistic in the current economic climate, but when your services are in demand from the region’s biggest law firm, the country’s biggest provider of accountancy software, and certain unnamed defence customers - among thousands of others - then Onyx Group’s reasons to be cheerful are perhaps easier to grasp.

Onyx Group made three acquisitions during 2008, taking in Newcastle Computer Services and two Scottish firms, Campbell Lee plc and Dundas IT.

Now Onyx meets customer needs around the UK from two offices in the North East, three Scottish bases and a London sales office.

The Middlesbrough-based group describes itself essentially as a technology solutions provider and the region’s leading internet service provider - a specialist in networks, hosting and business continuity, data security and managed services.

It has built its reputation over 12 years, both through acquisitions and organic growth which have empowered it to provide its extensive range of ICT-related services for organisations of any size or nature of business.

Revenues have quadrupled over the past two years, partly through acquisition.

The £3m of 2006 is £12m now, and could be £50m-plus come 2013, chief executive Neil Stephenson suggests, in light of a deal with software provider Sage.

“Sage is a prestigious, well-respected business, which is noted for its diligence when choosing potential business partners and suppliers,” he says, as he explains that Sage plc has entrusted Onyx with ensuring that Sage’s business – and that of its 5.7m customers - would continue even if fire, flood or similar disaster were to descend on its £60m headquarters at Newcastle’s Great Park.

Onyx has its own workplace recovery centre at its Team Valley, Gateshead base.

It is fully equipped to provide workspace for up to 200 workers who might have to be taken in.

Every desk has a computer with internet connection, phone, and use of printing, photocopying and scanning facilities.

Onyx’s contract is a key element in a ‘business continuity resilience’ structure that Sage has developed to protect its stakeholders in the event of emergency.

Says Stephenson: “It’s an exciting deal for us and testament, we feel, to the expertise, experience and quality facilities we offer.” Andrew Morkot, business continuity manager at Sage, says: “At Sage, we seek to identify, assess, respond to and effectively manage any situation that could endanger our people, affect our customers, hurt our business or damage our reputation. I have been impressed by the Onyx facilities and the flexible, professional attitude of its staff.

Of course, we’re also pleased to support another successful business in the North East.” Business recovery is one of four Onyx Group specialities, offering a one-stop shop solution to business, regardless of size.

Neil Stephenson says: “Managed networks are perhaps what we are best known for. We have a reputation for providing businesses with premium quality internet connectivity services.” Premium data hosting services are delivered from Onyx facilities throughout the UK, including a £5m Tier 3 facility in the heart of Newcastle.

“Enterprise IT network and solutions in information system security are also one of our specialities,” he adds, “from initial advice and guidance through to needs analysis, solution design, configuration and support of enterprise-wide security systems.” Managed services for IT networks are also provided.

Security support is a major consideration, given the recent rash of vanished and stolen information threatening public privacy. HMRC, Nationwide and TK Maxx have been among the victims. Onyx reckons that about 75% of UK businesses have suffered a security incident involving data loss.

In response, accreditation to ISO 9001, ISO 27001 and BS7799 are Onyx guarantees of quality and information security. Online scams have to be confronted, too. These are soaring, while identity fraud also continues to grow.

Tactics in the criminals’ toolbox range from stealing details left on a scrap of paper to installing key-stroke software on business and personal computers to lift personal details.

Stephenson says small and medium businesses are often the worst culprits for underestimating the value of data.

Firewalls, virus protection, authentication, web filtering and email security are the very least in an armoury of security steps that should be introduced, he suggests.

Dundas is strong also in what he calls ‘professional services vertical (lawyers and accountants)’ – a core vertical market for Onyx.

The buy-up of part of Ponteland-based Newcastle Computer Services (NCS), which went into administration last June, followed the absorption of Campbell Lee in Glasgow.

“The Newcastle firm had business problems and needed re-engineering.

We bought a part fitting neatly into our Apple Macs. Another part was sold off elsewhere,” he explains.

Onyx Group also spread to Dubai after a satisfied client who was working out there recommended the group to Dubai World, flagship of the Gulf state’s global investments.

For this, Onyx has won a UKTI North East Exporter award.

Altogether, the firm has 100 staff operating from Middlesbrough, Gateshead, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Dubai and its London sales office.

Onyx grows its own staff (“we don’t poach,” Stephenson insists) and hires experienced talent as it becomes available, otherwise trawling the universities of the North East and Scotland to identify and recruit promising beginners.

Stephenson, 36, a keen Lakeland walker, Newcastle United fan and Sunderland University graduate, has been with Onyx Group for 10 years. In 1993, he took his computer knowledge to Vaux Breweries initially, working as a marketing executive.

“They were happy years where lots of opportunities were up for grabs,” he recalls. Eager for more opportunity to grow and develop a business, he looked for a smaller organisation. He went to what was then a very young Onyx Internet.

From marketing manager, it was a rapid rise to operations manager, group sales and marketing director (2001) then chief executive (2007).

“I have been incredibly happy from day one,” he says, “despite the very long hours we have been through over that time.” He played a prime role in the sale of the company in 1999, then in two separate management buyouts, in 2001 and 2006, as the company worked towards its present structure.

He was on the team that built and launched Onyx’s data support arm Databanx, and led the acquisition of Askaris last year and Interv8 in 2006.

He helps mentor many local technology businesses, supports the young Digital City start-up project at Teesside University, and is on the board of the New Technologies Institute working from Northumbria University.

This has universities and colleges of the region pooling talents to help shape the region’s IT strategy, and to encourage skills in information and communication technology.

What then, is Onyx Group’s strategy for success? “Be bold, be ambitious, invest, and accept that there is no substitute for hard work,” Stephenson says.

“And maintain a good customer focus. I make a point of getting to know all of our customers.” And what, one might add, was one of the company’s best decisions? “Joining the London Internet Exchange. It was expensive, but it connected us immediately with another 300 internet operations. That decision was worth every penny.”