The American entrepreneurial magazines are filled with exuberant profiles of ‘over-night’ stars who become social media billionaires by the age of 30. It’s heady and inspirational stuff but for Paul Thomson, a 50-year-old IT industry veteran with over 25 years’ graft tucked under his belt, and his experienced colleagues at ECS there are other ways to build a successful business.
For Paul, who worked with Digital, then became the sales director of ACS (UK), it involves building a team with superior industry knowledge and networks and then super-serving the customers. It is obviously an excellent business model.
Paul’s executive team includes Neil Davidson, as service director, who also worked at ACS and was himself a former Dell executive and Martin Boylen, formerly with Ignis Asset Management, as chief operating officer; and David Calder as IT security practice director.
The most recent recruit is Charles Quinn, who has now been managing director of the Glasgow-based company since September last year.
“In essence, ECS is an IT service company. We focus on the basics of serving our customers as best as we possibly can. For us, it is about listening to our customers and then focusing on delivering consistent, quality services. Our various company attributes help in that we are agile, pragmatic and have a can-do attitude. All of these ingredients add up to a really successful business,” says Paul, on a joint conference call with Charles.
They are both members of a cohort of computer-literate Scots who benefited from the invasion of the US computing giants such as HP, Digital Land, IBM in the 1980s. Paul was instrumental in building the success of the UK service specialist ACS, which was bought in 2006 by Dell.
Paul stayed on for a period after the take-over and then decided to team up again with Eddie Young, the founder and Chairman of ECS, and former Managing Director of ACS. Charles worked with Microsoft and Dell where their paths and careers crossed over.
ECS was founded in 2008 and delivers a range of IT transformation services including designing, building and running IT infrastructures. “We started off primarily in the banking and insurance industries, and established the company in the first two or three years in those markets, and we have diversified in the last few years into pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, manufacturing and retail. We’ve really broadened out our account base significantly,” adds Paul.
ECS now have over 30 major blue chip companies as customers, typically in the FTSE 100 or 250. While the company is something of an unknown star in Scottish business circles, expanding without fanfare through its own networking, it has built an enviable reputation with its customers.
Charles Quinn chips in. An IT industry veteran with a track record in executive leadership sales, marketing and IT services gained with the likes of HP, Dell and Microsoft, he is tasked with spearheading ECS’s next phase of explosive growth.
“I joined in September last year and it’s been a whirlwind for me since I arrived. My connection with Paul and the other directors on the board and many in the company goes way back over the last 25 years. Through our corporate careers, we’ve all worked together at some point on various projects,” says Charles.
How does he see his role now with ECS? “I’m working closely with Paul to ensure we have the right strategies in place for our sustained growth. I’m focused on what we deliver making sure we’re on-time and on budget.
For me, it’s about ensuring that the customer relationships are tight and strong. I’m working with the sales teams to move the business forward.”
It’s been a rapid six months but Charles admits it has been thoroughly enjoyable. “There is a fast-moving pace in the IT sector. We’ve got to adapt to meet the customers’ changing situations and having the capability and agility to make this happen is very enjoyable. It’s been quite incredible and very refreshing being a part of this.”
It is this kind of continuity that has helped ECS. Prior to joining, Charles led a multi-billion pound business across 75 countries as vice president and managing director of Hewlett-Packard in EMEA.
Is it not a big career step moving to a nimbler player after working with the major US firms? “I could see the great opportunity at ECS – and that’s apparent every day I’m out meeting our customers. Yes, it was big decision for me to come back to the UK and take the position as managing director, but I’m delighted to be in this invigorating organisation.”
It is a case of building on the relationships laid down over many years in the sector. “Our personal networks and relationship building – over a number of years – have been the primary route to market for us,” says Paul Thomson.
“Within the company, between us all, we have a large and extensive network. When internal heads of banking IT move on, they know about us and our capabilities and we get the call to come in and talk about their fresh challenges. We get a lot of recommendations through this kind of referencing. That gets us through the door so we can win the next piece of business.”
“We have six main practice areas: from consultancy, networks, programme delivery, data centres, end user computing and security,” says Charles.
IT security is one of the expanding areas, where large corporates cannot afford to let down their guard. Cyber attacks from all fronts are a perpetual issue for large financial institutions that are trying to remain open and accessible to customers who are on the move, using mobile devices.
“We are seeing rapid growth in the cyber-security space and I don’t see this stopping. IT security is an extremely hot market at the moment. It will continue to be so – so there is a lot of focus on this. This is the fastest growing part of our business,” he says.
Paul Thomson is on the call from India, working in Pune, which is emerging as one of India’s hottest IT locations, and home also for the country's booming motor industry. “I’m out in India to support our head of operations in Asia. I’m spending time understanding the progress that is being made across the various departments.
We are also looking at the developments and the plans for our teams in Pune. I’m also able to update our staff about the general progress of the business. The work we do here is for the UK and it is a wholly-owned subsidiary.”
There are already 60 people in Pune with that doubling to 120 by the end of the year. “We’ve got a broad range of IT skill-sets here in India from application packagers, software developers, project management specialists, network specialists. And we are growing fast.”
It obviously works well. “You can sum up our value to the customers in three distinct areas. We pride ourselves on the skill level in the company and the quality of the service we deliver. It is broad-based with a lot of experience.
We have hundreds of combined years of IT infrastructures. For us, having the right attitude is important. The can-do, agile, pragmatic attitude is absolutely key to what we do. That is at the heart of everything we do. I think it is one of many reasons why we have been so successful.”
While many companies aspire to this level of customer focus, Paul Thomson says that this has to be combined with delivery. “We’ve an impressive track record of delivery. We have a very loyal customer base. We’ve never lost a customer and we’ve never been sacked. In many instances, our relationship has developed into one of a ‘trusted adviser’. We strive to achieve a win-win for ourselves and customers.”
Typically, a large corporate in banking and insurance, the energy sector, retail or fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), has a rolling programme of change.
“Our customers will have a never-ending programme of change. For us, it’s the case of once you’ve established the relationship, you plan to work for them every year. That might not be contracted on a multi-year basis because projects will change and differ.
We’ve got established relationships that pre-dated the creation of ECS, going back to ACS,
which I ran before. Some of our relationships go back to the mid and late 1990s.”
It means recurring revenues. Despite their deep connections with the likes of Dell, IBM and HP, ECS is agnostic about which vendors to recommend to clients. “We are totally focused on the customer, so we are not tied to any particular vendor. We strive to do the best thing at all times. We do partner when it makes sense. It is about establishing the best solution for the customer.”
So how would Paul describe his relationship with his customers? “One of ECS’ fundamental principles is that we are in it for the long term with customers. We would never do anything for short-term gain. That would be a foolish approach. We will always take the long-term view and customers appreciate this.”
Charles Quinn is focusing on developing the six practice areas to exploit growth. He is already developing new growth opportunities in South Africa and leading sales and marketing activities.
“We do have some major customers outwith the UK. The South African business has been developed predominantly on the back of existing customers wanting us to be in that market place. On the back of this, we’ve moved with the customer, but in turn this has brought us fresh opportunities. We have now opened an office in Johannesburg. Most certainly, this is an area of growth for us, but the bulk of our business is UK-centric.”
ECS was recognised at No 15 in the Sunday Times’ Tech Track 100 Companies as one of the fastest growing businesses in the UK, with year on year growth of 116%. This was Scotland’s highest entry, with Skyscanner at 23rd place.
In 2013, the turnover was £55m, with the unaudited account for 2014, a turnover of £67.5m. This year the company is anticipating breaking the £80m barrier. “We’ve had an unprecedented start to 2015. There has been a huge amount of activities in the first couple of months and this augurs well for us breaking the £80m barrier,” says Paul.
The company headcount is over 700 staff and is anticipated to be over 1,000 by the second half of the year. While ECS is headquartered in Glasgow [“We’re firmly a Scottish business,” assures Paul] it also has offices in London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Johannesburg and Pune.
“It’s about a third in Scotland, the North of England and in London. As we grow this year, it will be about getting more business from our customers in the City of London.”
ECS might not be a household name around Scotland – but that might well change as it starts to raise its flag above the parapet of business.