Alex joined BGF from KPMG Corporate Finance in February 2012 and is responsible for sourcing and executing investments throughout the South West and South Wales.
Since joining, he has been involved in over 10 completed investments and currently sits on the board of a number of these in support of their growth aspirations.
Alex graduated from the University of Warwick with a degree in Mathematics in 2004 and qualified as a Chartered Accountant with KPMG in 2007.
He now lives in Bristol, enjoys playing tennis, squash and golf and participating in at least one ski trip a year.
- BVG Airflo Group (Board Observer)
- Canburg (Board Observer)
- Sub10 Systems
- Magma Global (Board Observer)
- SHS Integrated Services
Ned works in BGF’s investment team in the South West and is responsible for finding and completing new investment opportunities as well as continuing to work with the boards of BGF’s investee companies.
Ned joined BGF in January 2012 from Maven Capital Partners (formerly Aberdeen Asset Management) having worked in their London office since 2007. He has completed more than 20 equity investments and has been involved with the boards of most of these companies. Earlier in his career Ned worked in corporate finance with BDO Stoy Hayward and previously qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2001.
Ned graduated with a BSc in Oceanography with Mathematics from Southampton University. He lives in Bristol and is married with three young children. Ned is an improving golfer, a keen snowboarder and a declining footballer.
- BFF Nonwovens (Board Director)
- APSU (Board Director)
- Ecovision (Board Director)
- Sub10 Systems
- Trunki (Board Director)
- SHS Integrated Services
James joined BGF’s South West team in December 2011. He is responsible for the origination and execution of investments in Wales and South West England, with a focus on Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and Dorset. He will also sit on the boards of certain investee companies.
After qualifying as a chartered accountant in Glasgow, James specialised in corporate finance transactions surrounding privately owned companies, typically in the SME space. He has worked in the South and South West of England for more than 10 years including as a Director in the RBS Structured Finance Southern team and latterly as an Investment Director in LDC, the Lloyds Banking Group owned private equity house.
He has experience of a broad range of sectors and transaction types but always with a bias towards growth companies and with a particular interest in businesses that have the ability to scale rapidly and the qualities of the management teams that are required to support them.
James enjoys golf, rugby and most sports but is usually diverted by three small children and two large dogs.
- Adestra (Board Director)
- Abbey Pharma (Board Director)
- Skyscape (Board Director)
- Bullitt (Board Director)
- Primrose (Board Director)
- Vysiion (Board Director)
FUNDING SALES & MARKETING
“We call it the ‘ugly duckling syndrome’,” says Sarah Wood, Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Unruly, a London-based company that is one of the world’s leaders in social video campaigns. “Businesses like ours reach a stage where they’re no longer a fluffy chick start-up, but nor have they become a Google-like beautiful swan – yet they still have to compete against both of them.”
It’s a common theme amongst successful business founders and entrepreneurs. If getting the business off the ground was difficult, making the leap to scale and global reach can be even more challenging and nerve-wracking. One of the biggest problems is that building a sales and marketing infrastructure capable of acting as a springboard for that leap requires financing and specialist expertise. Growing businesses are often short on both.
At Unruly, founded in 2006, the business had reached a critical moment by 2011. “We’d run almost 2,000 campaigns but when you hit a certain size it feels uncomfortable to start taking even bigger risks without a cash cushion on the balance sheet because there are inevitably going to be problems to overcome at some stage,” says Wood. Unruly had made a big splash in New York but was desperate to open an office in Chicago, while also needing to get a Berlin presence up and running and move into Asia. “Geographical footprint is so important when you’re dealing with Fortune 100 companies,” says Wood. “The trouble is it takes the same investment of time and money for a business like us to open new offices and subsidiaries as it does for a huge multi-national, but they have much greater resources to play with.”
To make matters worse, time was pressing. “We knew organic growth wouldn’t be quick enough,” Wood adds. “There were no market leaders in the US or Germany, so this was a real window of opportunity.”
It was at this stage Unruly began negotiations with BGF. “We considered other types of financing, including debt, but we wanted backers whose interests were aligned with our own,” Wood explains. Tim Whittard, a BGF investment director based in Birmingham, says the sort of growth capital Unruly sourced is perfect for growing companies that want to develop sales and marketing with the aim of taking the business to the next level. Such companies need new people, as well as infrastructure that may range from scalable IT platforms to physical property, but none of this spending generates an immediate guaranteed payback.
“Investment in sales and marketing is all about preparing the ground for growth but it is cash-burning and speculative – you’re just not going to be able to raise debt to support that,” Whittard argues. “In any case, even if you could fund these investments with debt, there are good reasons not to: with an equity partner, and particularly with BGF, you’ll also get commercial support, including a presence on the board, and hugely valuable access to networks of useful contacts.”
This was exactly what Richard North, chief executive of toy development company Wow! Stuff, was looking for when his business reached critical mass. “We were making good money but we were also aware there was a ceiling,” North recalls. “As an entrepreneur, you always wonder if you could do something really big, but you also have a fear of failure, and we felt we’d reached a crossroads – that if we were really going to go for it, which we had the ambition to do, we’d need help.”
Wow’s discussions with BGF were completed over the course of a few weeks early in 2012, securing a £4.8m investment in the company. North wanted the cash to fund an Asian office that would oversee local production and quality control, to fund expansion into the US and to beef up product development, but the arrangement was not simply a financial one.
“Running a business is lonely – very often you don’t even know what it is you don’t know,” North says. “With BGF, we’re in it together and I’ve come to see that as just as important as the money they’ve provided – more so really.” Not least, they have introduced an exceptional non-executive director to the company with toy industry experience at the highest level, whose networks have already helped Wow to move closer to mass market volumes.
Software business Celaton has also been in recruitment mode since securing a £2.5m equity investment from BGF in January 2013. “The difference this money has made to us is that we can invest in the right people to go for growth,” says Celaton’s chief executive, Andrew Anderson. “Good sales directors and marketing directors don’t come cheap and we’ve already made some fantastic hires.”
However, Anderson points out that development of sales and marketing requires more than just additional people. “It is also about the effort that goes into marketing and sales; BGF encouraged us to spend three months conducting some good old-fashioned market analysis that we’d simply never had the resources for in the past,” he says. “You can waste an awful lot of time and money doing the wrong things and that analysis is already providing us with some priceless intelligence.”
Anderson did at least consider other sources of finance when he realised Celaton’s growth potential was being curtailed by its lack of capital. “Our bank was very supportive, but it brought out its standard lending models and we just couldn’t get the boxes ticked,” he says.
Celaton also held talks with several other equity investors before settling on BGF. “They were only interested in a minority stake, but, also, they were prepared to work with us,” he says of the decision. “With the venture capital firms we met, we always felt we were working for them – they gave short notice of meetings, for example, and were hugely demanding about the information they wanted and then their key people wouldn’t turn up.”
In the end, it’s the relationship that matters most, says BGF’s Tim Whittard. Sales and marketing investments require patience – and while they’re waiting to see those dividends start flowing, both investor and investee have to be able to work together constructively.
“My personal checklist when I’m thinking about whether a company has investment potential starts and stops with my assessment of its management – and its CEO in particular,” Whittard says. “He or she needs to be genuinely looking for a partner rather than being solely focused on the money – the chemistry is hugely important given that we’re going to have such a long-term relationship.”
HOW THE INTERNET CHANGED THE WORLD
“The internet’s biggest impact on SMEs has been as a great leveller, making it possible for a small firm to be a global company from day one, with the reach and capabilities that once only large companies could possess,” says Charles Roxburgh, a director at the management consultancy McKinsey, which has been researching the impact of the web on the global economy.
“They can reach customers, find suppliers and tap talent on the other side of the world – and also use the internet to provide significant marketing and brand muscle.”
McKinsey’s work suggests the internet has been a hugely powerful enabler for many SMEs: in a survey of more than 4,800 firms in 12 countries around the world, it found that those which use web technologies grew more than twice as quickly as those with little internet presence.
Nor are the benefits that the internet offers available only to online businesses. While the web’s development certainly has spawned thousands of new ventures that could not exist without it, many more conventional businesses are harnessing its power to grow far more quickly than they would ever have dreamed of had they launched in the preinternet world.
The interenet is now making a major contribution at every stage of the value chain, boosting productivity wherever you look. Not only has the web fundamentally changed the way products and services are sold, but it has also revolutionised development, design, production and distribution. Even the smallest businesses now operate with the sort of geographically diversified supply chains and global workforces that until these past few years would have been the preserve of large multinational corporations. There is more to come. McKinsey’s research suggests that on a global scale, the internet is now responsible for 3.4 per cent of GDP (in the UK, it says, the figure is as high as 6 per cent) but will deliver much more. Large companies are part of that story, but it is small and medium sized enterprises for which the internet presents the most exciting opportunities.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY OF CUSTOMERS: AFG MEDIA
AFG is the company behind Morphsuits, the all-in-one fancy dress costumes that have become a common sight at stag dos, fancy dress parties and special events all around the UK. Founded in 2009, AFG had revenues of £1.2m in 2010 but has grown astonishingly quickly. This year, sales total £11m and the business is now expanding internationally.
Gregor Lawson, one of the three founding directors of the company, says AFG has social media to thank for its 300 per cent year-on-year growth. “Without Facebook, we simply would not exist in the way we do today,” he explains.
With little to spend on advertising or marketing in its early days, AFG’s strategy was to build a community of customers through its Facebook page – not everyone would buy a costume straight away, Lawson reasoned, but the more they participated in the community, the more likely they would be to spend money when the occasion arose.
“People underestimate the commercial power of Facebook,” says Lawson. “For every one person who does something on our page, another nine will ‘like’ it and another 90 will see what’s been done.”
AFG is scrupulous about engaging with everyone who posts on its page – even complainers become advocates of the business if you engage with them, Lawson argues.
In addition to the ideas its Facebook users come up with – not least a remarkable number of photos of Morphsuit wearers in ridiculous poses – AFG offers plenty of proactive opportunities to engage. It organises competitions and even meet-ups – a flash mob in Trafalgar Square, for example, attracted 200 Morphsuit-wearing fans.
“People think social media is flitty,” Lawson says. “I disagree – if you’re clear about your objectives and your customers, you can deliver real commercial advantages on Facebook.” AFG’s own statistics prove the point – they have 1.1 million Facebook fans and counting. And only a small proportion of those fans need to become customers to sustain AFG’s rapid growth.
ACCESSING GLOBAL SUPPLIERS: PRIMROSE
The business model at online garden products retailer Primrose developed as a consequence of the way search engines operate. Type, ‘barbecue’ into Google and the site it delivers you to has to pay the search giant for referring you – even if it then discovers you were after a £5 disposable barbecue rather than the £300 gas-fired models it sells.
The solution, says Ian Charles, one half of the husband-and-wife team who founded Primrose in 2003 and still run it today, is to make sure you sell every barbecue the customer might possibly be interested in – or water feature, or garden bench and so on.
“We realised we needed to expand into every possible type of garden product and to offer the deepest possible range in each case – to become the Amazon of the gardens world if you like,” says Charles.
“Fortunately for us, one thing the internet has done is made the infrastructure of sourcing free – it now requires far less of an investment to find the manufacturers.”
Primrose aims to offer greater depth in any given garden product range than its suppliers and therefore needs to source huge amounts of stock in an industry where manufacturers are based all around the world – often in inaccessible, emerging market locations. For a relatively small business, the cost of such a sourcing operation would traditionally have been prohibitive, but the internet has changed that.
Much of Primrose’s sourcing is now conducted entirely online. That has enabled it to build the sort of stock range that means customers who use imprecise, generic terms when using search engines – that’s most customers – will usually find what they’re looking for at Primrose. “This sourcing has enabled us to be real product specialists in larger and larger number of ranges,” Charles adds.
It seems to be working – despite the entrance of giants such as Tesco to online garden products retailing, growth of up to 40 per cent a year has proved sustainable.
TAPPING TALENT: UNRULY MEDIA
Unruly Media makes and distributes social video campaigns for some of the world’s biggest companies, as well as many smaller businesses. It’s a business that wouldn’t exist without the internet, but for Unruly the web is also hugely valuable for back office operations such as recruitment.
“The internet opens up the passive talent pool,” says Deana Murfitt, the company’s chief people officer. “Prior to the internet there were lots of people sitting around who were ideal for the kind of jobs we recruit for, but there was no way of getting at them.”
Thanks to sites such as LinkedIn, Murfitt explains, Unruly has effectively been able to transform part of its human resources team into an “in-house head-hunter”. For the majority of roles for which the company recruits, the process is to identify the skills and experience needed and then to scour LinkedIn and other talent databases for candidates who might be suitable.
One obvious advantage is hugely reduced spending on recruitment agencies, but “our approach is about the quality of candidates sourced as well as the expense of finding them”, Murfitt adds. By cutting out intermediaries such as recruitment agencies, Unruly can be sure it targets only those people with the exact skillsets for the roles it is looking to fill.
Tapping talent in this way has other advantages too. “This is extra helpful for us, and for all small businesses, because the brand may not yet be recognised in the marketplace,” Murfitt says. “If you can build up your online profile, by building up lots of collateral around the type of employer you are, the kind of culture you have and the values you look for in people, you can build up your profile and reach out to passive candidates over the internet.”
Unruly has been so pleased with the results of its internet networking that it now offers staff a bonus if they are refer successful candidates for jobs. Murfitt explains: “It’s like an ecosystem of connected people who are all interfacing across the internet to try to find the right person for the role.”
BUILDING A BRAND: BROADBANDCHOICES.CO.UK
As viewers of daytime television will know, brand is everything in the price comparison business – several competing personal finance sites have spent a fortune on advertising in an attempt to build it. In the home broadband sector, however, Broadbandchoices.co.uk has chosen to set out its stall a little differently.
“In a business-to-consumer market like ours, brand is really important but the proposition has to be absolutely right too,” says Michael Phillips, the managing director of Decision Technologies, the owner of Broadbandchoices.co.uk. “We’ve spent a great deal of time building an engine that has every tariff in the marketplace – nobody lists as many packages as we do, so nobody can claim our level of expertise.”
Since launching in 2005, the company has worked especially hard on its user interface, directing customers to an extensive list of potential broadband deals and then using a succession of filters to narrow down the choice. In a market that isn’t entirely commoditised – people are looking for different speeds, for example, or to bundle their broadband with TV and a phone service – this is crucial to the customer experience.
“Broadband is getting more complicated all the time,” Phillips adds. “Our job is to help people prioritise the variables in order to make the right choice for them.”
The business has, in other words, used the power of its technology to build a brand that is based on quality rather than ubiquity. And it is now in the process of doing the same thing in international markets such as Spain, France and Germany.
The great thing about the internet, however, is that once your brand value is established, ubiquity follows more quickly than ever before. “What’s really exciting is that in the broadband price comparison market there has been no definite brand leadership established yet and that’s a huge opportunity,” Phillips says.
ACHIEVING GLOBAL REACH: WORKSHARE
For Workshare, the internet has delivered global scale in a remarkably short space of time. Founded in 2009, Workshare provides businesses with a highly secure cloud-based document management service that enables users to share files with colleagues and clients of their choosing. Those files can be accessed via PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone and worked on by any user granted the right access privileges – the system also tracks all changes made to documents. Workshare targets markets such as legal services and financial services, where there’s a high concentration of skilled and mobile workers operating in a regulated and sensitive environment. Other examples include the pharmaceuticals industry, as well as government services.
Ordinarily, it would take years to build trusted relationships with such businesses and even longer to achieve critical mass. But not for Workshare – while it has only a handful of overseas offices, it already has hundreds of customers in 65 countries all around the world.
Anthony Foy, the company’s chief executive, says that in addition to the right product offering, it is the viral distribution model on the internet that has enabled Workshare to achieve such reach so quickly.
“Every one client that subscribes to our service typically invites five others to join them – and every one of those five then invites three more contacts of their own” he says. “We haven’t got round to tracking what those three contacts do yet, but you can see how the maths works for us.”
Clearly, the numbers begin to add up very quickly, and have already done so for Workshare. But Foy believes there is plenty more growth to come – “we’re nowhere near the point yet where we run short of potential new clients,” he says. Independent research from Gartner supports that view – it thinks this market niche will be worth $8bn by 2014.