Writing ghosted material for an executive of Barclays Wealth and a series of sponsored case study articles on small and medium sized businesses for Barclays Commercial Bank

Seabourne Express Courier – strength in breadth

Filed in: heathrow, barclays, freight, seabourne, courier

Some businesses owe their success to laser-like focus on a particular niche expertise or seg- ment of their market. With Seabourne Express Courier, it is almost the opposite.

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Seabourne Express Courier – strength in breadth

The recession continues but bad news does not tell the whole story. In the latest in our series of monthly articles we highlight another of the region’s business successes. Richard Willsher of The Business Magazine writes

Some businesses owe their success to laser-like focus on a particular niche expertise or seg- ment of their market. With Seabourne Express Courier, it is almost the opposite.

Seabourne is a holding company for a small group of operations in international express courier and freight forwarding both by sea and air. With headquarters near Heathrow, it has annual revenues of around £30 million and employs 200 people, including at its offices in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and South Africa. As courier and freight forwarding companies go it is not unique but it plays to its strength in a way that has enabled it to prosper while many of its competitors have struggled.

“We benefit hugely from having an overseas subsidiary in Holland,” explains Nigel Hudson, Seabourne’s finance director. “The Dutch market has always been very good .... There are many major international warehousing companies and central distribution operations there so there is a lot of movement of products. Another factor is that it is easier to employ and pay people in Holland than it is for example in France and Belgium. In that respect it is similar to the UK.”

He adds, however, that one reason why the recession may not have bitten until January this year as far as Seabourne was concerned was because it has such a wide spread of customers. “The courier business as a whole is quite for- tunate in that there is a wide demand to move product and the range of customers is a broad cross-section across all industries. We have cli- ents from printing and publishing, lawyers, the financial markets, IT, recruitment, advertising, marketing – all sorts of industries. Even post 2000 when the IT industry crashed we suffered but fortunately it was only a small element of the sales ledger; there were other customers still there… This time though the recession of the last few months has hit us across the board.”

However before the recession struck, the com- pany had been on the look out to acquire other businesses. On August 1, 2008, it bought the Air Action Group of Companies, which added scale because it operated in similar areas and had offices in other parts of the UK as well as at Heathrow. Here Seabourne played to another of its strengths. “We demonstrated to our ultimate parent, C J Bourne Asset Management, that we could make money. That was an advantage we had over our competitors, we have wealthy backers. However, the company’s bankers, Bar- clays Commercial Bank, has also provided facili- ties and finance when needed and often at short notice. The bank was again critical in the Air Action deal. Nigel Hudson has a strong working relationship with Richard Palmer, his relationship director at Barclays Commercial Bank, and both are in regular contact with regard to the growth and development of the group.”

The availability of finance was critical but it has not been all plain sailing. Hudson says that while the acquisition has enabled the combined operation to generate more cash, it took until January this year to get the two operations under one roof and then a further six months to get a group-wide computer system in place. In addition, management controls have been critical. “We are now more confident that we can fight our way through the recession… We keep an incredibly tight focus on cash through credit control. We make sure that the debtors don’t slip. And we keep a very tight focus on costs as well. This way we should be able to cope with the recession while for other businesses that were already on the brink at the start of the recession it would be a different story.”

He also says that a continuing sales effort has also been crucial. “We rely on sales calls. We see it as a numbers game. The more calls you make the more chance you’ve got. The key to the courier business is new sales and new custom- ers. We incentivise our sales staff so that they can do well if they bring in new business. The way to grow organically is to bring in new business and look after existing customers. Ours is a massive, almost infinite market but you have to get out there and find new clients. Emphasis on customer service and the development of IT has been part of that, making it easier for customers to book and track shipments they’ve made.”

Hudson notes that financial analysis can be key to the well being of many businesses, not just the markets that his company operates in. “You have to look behind the figures in the profit and loss account. Look at the way you do the busi- ness. Look at the margins you’re making. Is the margin the true margin? What other costs are
in there? In our business, can routes or vans be combined, are vans coming back fully utilised? Are they taking the right routes? What is behind the numbers? I think it’s important that the finance department looks at and understands these things and provides meaningful informa- tion to the business.”

For Seabourne Express Courier getting through the recession has been about making the most of its strengths and managing its business rigorously. Its business is not unique but its ap- proach to getting through the tough times sets it apart from its competitors.

Seabourne Express Courier Group International Distribution Centre 01784-222900
Andy Simpson Head of Thames Valley Barclays Commercial Bank 07775-552125


Centrix success based on principle of divide and rule

Filed in: sme, small business, it, ftse, barclays, recession, credit crunch, centrix, s&p

SME case study for Barclays Commercial

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Centrix success based on principle of divide and rule

Despite some positive statistics, businesses are still suering and unemployment continues to rise. But bad news does not tell the whole story. In the latest in our series of monthly articles we highlight another of the region’s business successes. Richard Willsher of The Business Magazine writes

Newbury-based IT consulting firm Centrix decided to split its business in two in early 2006. This was an important move, especially as its products and services were well suited to the recession that was to follow.

Advising mostly FTSE 100 and S&P500 firms, Centrix Consulting helps its clients look at what their businesses want to achieve and what their IT operations can do to make
this happen. “It joins the two up,” explains Jon Fuller, joint founder and chief operating officer. “It’s about speaking to a business, finding out what they want to achieve
from the business and building the bridge between that and what they can get out of IT. How you plan it, how you organise it, how you organise your decision making and your governance, so you get the right decision made.”

A key aspect of what Centrix is able to bring to its clients is how to save money on their IT budget while making it more effective. “Some of our larger clients haven’t had to worry about money for many years,” Fuller explains, “but now they are thinking that they have to be a bit more practical. And the first thing they want is synergy across their operations and their IT across all parts of their businesses. It’s about IT strategy and at the moment it’s all about cost saving.”

In order to deliver the answers to these questions the firm devised some software that is able to discover and meter all of the IT applications that a firm has in its IT estate. And in larger firms there can often be many thousands of these. Many are often effectively dormant and unused. The software works out who in the firm is using the applications, when and for how long. Once this information is to hand it enables the costs of using the applications to be worked out and so provides the client with the opportunity to make better use of those that are useful to the firm and to discard those that have no purpose. The result is that the firm can prune back its computing usage, making it healthier in the process and cutting cost. The software also enables clients to cut their carbon footprint. Leaner computing means less heat generated and emitted.

Centrix was running its successful business when it decided to make the big split between consulting and developing and selling software. “Now, more than three years on, the consulting side focuses purely on consulting and the software side focuses on selling software,” says Fuller. “There is no confusion. People are not trying to do two things and doing them badly. They are now only focusing on one thing.” And as a package Centrix’ software offering offers two benefits which exactly match the needs of businesses at this very demanding time. On the one hand it saves them money and on the other it enables them to audit their IT operation which, across a number of sectors such as financial services and energy generation and distribution, is now coming in for increased scrutiny from regulators. Fuller says that of the 35,000 users that are now using the product a large proportion have bought it because of audit requirements.

Centrix’ businesses, both audit and software have grown rapidly over the last couple of years while many others have suffered. The company now has 80 employees and expects to take on another 40 in the next 18 months as it grows its sales in the UK and expands into northern Europe and then the United States. Fuller is confident that both sides of the business will do well and that now that Centrix’ software operation has been given its head as a separate firm it can fulfill its vast potential. But what does Fuller think has been the secret to Centrix’ success?

“I think it’s about standing in the shoes of your customer. What does that customer really need at the moment? You need to spend your time researching that. Get very close to your customers. We run executive briefings with the consulting side where people talk about what it is they want to talk about. So we learn more about what it is they need. And on the software side our customers come in to our customer councils and we ask: “What is it you need now? What is it you need next?” It’s like a focus group. We set this up straightaway with the first customers and they like to be a part of this. Once they’ve bought into it, they become advocates of the ideas they suggest and then they can help shape it in the future. It’s not us internally thinking it up and shaping it, it’s coming from the people who actually buy it.”

This sounds like advice that could benefit many firms at this time. It has certainly, according to Fuller, set Centrix on the right path, despite the suffering wrought by the credit crunch and the ensuing recession.
Centrix House 01635-239800
Andy Simpson Head of Thames Valley Barclays Commercial Bank 07775-552125