Paul Hougton

Paul Hougton of Grant Thornton (left) and Carl Cavers

People First

Paul Houghton, who runs Grant Thornton’s Sheffield office, explains to Mike Hughes how a close relationship with Sumo Digital and its chief executive, Carl Cavers is having wider implications for the region.

Playing a video game on your own – man or woman versus machine – can be an exciting experience, but to fully appreciate it, you need a partner.

The same applies to many of the clients working with Grant Thornton. As we have found in the other interviews for this fascinating BQ series, the group works with people first and then looks at the books further into the relationship.

Like the best-selling games developed by one of its newest clients Sheffield-based Sumo Digital – such as the latest in the Hitman franchise or the upcoming Crackdown 3 – the full potential is only realised when you work as part of a team (much like Sumo has asked Sackboy, Oddsock, Toggle and Swoop to do in LittleBigPlanet3, as I am sure you already knew).

Grant Thornton’s strategy has always been to know its clients before they become clients, so that it can work with the right people at the right time in their company’s growth. Often a relationship will start at a networking event, on a recommendation, or at one of the private dinners Grant Thornton holds with business leaders that have become key influencers and can be part of a collaboration who will share best practice and pool its resources for the wider good of the region.

“We had been watching what Sumo was doing well before a mutual friend introduced us fully in 2014”, said Sheffield office leader Paul Houghton. “We spent a lot of time getting to know each other and understanding the Sumo business and its direction of travel and when the opportunity came six months ago we wasted no time and were thrilled to talk to chief executive Carl Cavers about how we could work together to be their auditors and tax advisers.

“For us, it has never been about just looking at the books. Yes, we are appointed to do a job in terms of accounting support, but it is far more than that and goes much deeper to allow Grant Thornton to fulfill the passion it has for the people who are shaping such a vibrant economy.

“Carl and the Sumo team were a perfect fit for Grant Thornton because we have always had this passion for working with dynamic businesses that we know will be going places.”

But for that team to really gel, the assessment of potential needs to take place on both sides. Caver’s company had already had quite a journey, and he wanted to find someone who had a shared passion for the sector and the impact it could have on the Sheffield city region.

He told me: “We started Sumo from the ashes of Gremlin Interactive, which was one of Europe’s largest games publishers, so what looked like a new business when we set up 14 years ago was really an accelerated start-up.

“We had already established relationships with the likes of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo and decided to do something different by walking away from publishing, which was a risky part of the service, and focus purely on development to provide a premium offering to other publishers.

“We have now been working with Microsoft for 14 years and Sega for almost as long because we believe in building partnerships over a long period rather than just having our clients for a single project. After a long-distance relationship with an investor in San Francisco, we felt that we needed someone very local who we could contact on a regular basis and get the right level of support. So we bought the business back in 2014 and were immediately able to reinvest some of the proceeds and accelerate the growth over a very short period.”

Sumo now has three locations, with 300 staff here in Sheffield, a small satellite office in Nottingham with 50 people and then 70 more staff in Pune, India. There is growth at each of those sites, with each having clear strategic goals. That level of activity and business acumen does not go unnoticed, and the fact that Sumo and Grant Thornton both have offices in Pune meant that a business relationship was always on the cards.

Houghton said: “Our Pune offices are only two or three miles down the road from Sumo, which makes it very easy for us to work together, but our relationship would have thrived wherever we were. We pride ourselves on our global reach, which is essential if you are going to be working with growing businesses and be of practical help in their markets.

“The last thing we want to do is run after a lot businesses where we don’t have a relationship. We look for that foundation first to build into a growing pipeline of businesses we can work with when the time is right – just as we did with Sumo.

“We don’t formulate a strict pattern of how we should work together, but Carl knows he can call me at any time on any day and we will have a chat. I have clients now who might even call me at 10pm on a Sunday evening – but if they do I know it is important to them.”

Cavers is clearly pleased to have found his Grant Thornton solution and to already be reaping the benefits. “With Paul being local and a very strong advocate for businesses in the Sheffield region, we knew each other for three or four years prior to that and had always looked at what Grant Thornton was doing and how it was supporting Sheffield and we thought it was a business we would like to work with,” he said.

“Its global connections were one of the key factors for us, a something that had hugely impressed us. We had an office over in India and needed a partner that understood that kind of location and could help us navigate through a minefield of different laws, regulations and processes.

“With all those markets to work in, another thing I really value is a high level of confidentiality. A lot of the work we do can be very exciting, with people keen to discuss it all because these are very recognisable brands. But we all appreciate a high level of sensitivity around the seven or eight projects we might be working on at any one time, particularly when only two or three might ever be announced.”

The last thing businesses like Sumo need is the distraction of trying to ensure that everything is running smoothly on the support side. They need to plan future finances and get targeted levels of support to keep on growing, whether that is by acquisition or organically, without becoming distracted by the “noise” of a problem.

Entrepreneurial, innovative and ambitious firms need a trusted partner to give them the freedom to push forward with the business and make sure that growth comes from being focused in exactly the right areas – facing forwards, not looking backwards.

“The digital and gaming sectors are changing almost by the week, and while we wouldn’t pretend to know everything about everything, we know that Carl and his team understand their business. So we can have a breadth of knowledge and use our connections to think around it in quite a different way and stimulate growth for the company and the region,” says Houghton.

“Grant Thornton has an instinct and a responsibility to look at that wider region. Who are the people who are going to work for Carl in the next five years – where will they come from and where are they going to live? Through my work on the Sheffield City Region LEP, I can help shape the housing, transport and skills policy agenda. People need places to live, to be able to get to work, and to have the right skills.”

“This is a not just an audit process,” agrees Carl. “We like to work with Paul on something that is much broader than a usual functional client relationship, which means we are often talking about supporting the digital economy locally, attracting talent to Sheffield and working with the university to ensure they are offering the right courses with the right entry levels that means people go on to achieve their degrees.”

More than any other sector, digital changes at an eye-watering pace, and its innovations change our lives month by month. Companies like Sumo that are at the cutting edge of that change need agility, foresight and an open mind to capitalise on every new opportunity – and they expect their partners to be on the same wavelength.

“The video games sector has looked bright for a long time now, and the growth has been phenomenal, along with the pace of technological change and the sheer scale of the sector,” said Cavers.

“We have proven we are particularly agile and are able to satisfy the requirements of any new technology breakthrough. That does get challenging and it is often ‘edge of the seat’ stuff. When you are small and want to go in a different direction it is like turning a speedboat, but with 400 staff it is more like turning a tanker. But having the right support alongside helps us make that turn a little bit quicker.”

Paul has a more personal experience – but one that may chime with many parents and chief executives: “In the 80s I spent hours programming my ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro – both still up in our attic – so I feel I have some affinity for the UK’s techy past. Now having Sumo as a client has prompted us as a family to get an Xbox One, but more importantly it helps to give me even greater appreciation of the astonishing levels of creativity and technological capability that go into creating modern-day games. It’s all about understanding my client better. At least, that’s my excuse.

“But it’s not just me – every business, large or small, local or global, is looking at things differently now. Attitudes have changed - including ours – to appreciate and help develop the true value of businesses who are setting up our regions for long-term sustainable success.”

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