Published in Megabuyte, October 2013. Original article here (£).
The Megabuyte Interview: John Innes, CEO of Amor Group
He shoots from the hip, John Innes, laughing and talking about all sorts of things most CEOs wouldn’t say to a journalist, at least not while coffee is the only thing being served. “My career has been completely unplanned, certainly until I joined this company. I wouldn’t recommend my career path to anyone,” says Innes, counting the industries off on his fingers: music, casinos, oil and gas, tech. We’re in Mayfair, where “everything takes longer and is more expensive”, as the CEO of the Amor Group is down from Aberdeen for a few days. He has a lot to fit in, both for work and otherwise, as he used to live in the Big Smoke back when he played in an 80s New Romantic band. It’s a fond memory although, he presses, he sincerely hopes no photos remain.
But make no mistake: beyond the self-deprecating humour and disarming ‘cards on the table’ attitude is a CEO who has done a heck of a job whipping Amor into shape. The company, which provides software solutions to the energy, transport and public services sectors, is in a growth spurt; Innes has doubled its size since leading the 2009 management buyout, and last year delivered a 27% jump in organic revenues, to £57.2m.
Our meeting took place before 12th September’s announcement that Amor had attracted the interest of Lockheed Martin, which acquired the Scottish outfit for an undisclosed sum. While the deal was unexpected, it also supports many of Innes’ stated goals, such as more boots on the ground and more acquisitions. The funding question has now been answered with the Lockheed deal, after which Innes commented on “the remarkable synergies between our cultures and ambitions”, calling it “a perfect fit at the right time” as Amor looks to meet lofty expansion targets. After all, Innes’ eyebrow-raising plans has Amor delivering £250m in revenues and £40m in EBITDA by 2016. It is the Amor culture that wins it, asserts the CEO; after all the company tagline is to be ‘friendly, entrepreneurial, aspirational’. Or is that you, I ask as our coffees arrive at last.
“I suppose to an extent the business culture is a reflection on its leaders. I’m friendly. Am I entrepreneurial? I don’t know. I’m fairly open and honest, which has got me in a lot of good places and a lot of bad places,” Innes never really wanted to work in a large corporation, feeling he lacked the “political skill” to do so. “When I became CEO five years ago I didn’t really know what the job was,” he says, referring to when he bought out an earlier version of Amor back in 2009. Of course, his success is not as random as he makes it out to be, as he was originally brought in to build up and sell Pragma, the Aberdeen-section of today’s Amor, back in 2001. The sale happened four years later, to France’s Sword, before in 2009 Innes took Pragma and Glasgow-based Real Time Engineering with him in a buyout backed by Growth Capital Partners.
“So in 2009 we had a bit in Glasgow and a bit in Aberdeen, and you must understand, those people have had 100 of years to learn to hate one another,” says Innes.“I’m exaggerating,” he quickly adds, but the importance of creating a cohesive culture is probably his biggest lesson.
“Culture trumps strategy. Not only do you need a fantastic plan, but you also need an environment where people want to execute it. And people generally want to do things when they feel happy, appreciated, and rewarded.” After learning the hard way that handing out matching business cards does not a cohesive culture make, Amor brought in a third party to find out what the problem was: “It was a litany of failure! But that’s normal. That’s where you have to start.” Since starting with two offices, Amor now has eight: ‘’People come up to me and ask questions and tell me what I’m doing wrong. And they can say anything to me as long as I can say anything back. We are getting on quite well. The evidence is that the place feels better and the numbers are going in the right direction.”
Speaking of the numbers, Amor’s notable growth spurt has taken place in a tough environment. How did Innes manage this? “I’m actually quite a lazy person. I’ve had to work much harder than I’d have liked,” he shrugs. It’s a joke, I think. “It’s good that I enjoy it, because if I hadn’t it would have been a nightmare. Everybody’s worked really hard. … There’s all the smart stuff: the IP that we have, the way we go to market, the way we sell. But a lot of it is just really hard work and long hours, focusing on the numbers.”
While Amor “doubled everything from 09 to 12: sales, profits, people, offices”, Innes doesn’t expect the economic environment is likely to get any better, not in the next five years at least. “But I think we can double again. I think our markets will be sustainable. I think we have good products and services. We try and sell things people need rather than want: we need to run an efficient airport, we need to run safe offshore platforms, we need to send kids their exam results.”
In order to do this, Innes wants to invest: hire more good people, develop the products, expand the international operations, acquire some companies, and especially develop the operations in North America and the Middle East. The recent collaboration with Scottish Power is a model that can potentially be repeated in other industry verticals, as a way for little Amor to punch above its weight by accessing IP it would cost a fortune to develop in-house.
Before the Lockheed Martin deal, Amor’s ‘small fish’ status was arguably a challenge in terms of competing for IT contracts against large competitors with big pockets. But even as Amor grows, Innes is conscious of keeping a neighbourly attitude, breaking the company down into business units to make sure the company never gets too big to care: “You will never deal with a big company called Amor; you will only deal with the Amor Scottish government business unit, and you will know most of the key people within it.”
While proud of the business Amor has become, Innes focuses less on his own experience and more on what it can be for others when asked about motivations: “I’m very excited for the people in the business. I’m really proud of creating about 400 jobs over the last couple of years.” Before joining Pragma back in 2001, Innes was what he describes as “primarily a sales person”, meaning the leadership skills came after lots of trial and error: “Normally I figure things out by falling over and skinning my knees. There were people around me who helped, but there’s no substitute for experience.” He describes how he puts new hires in positions where they know they are going to fail, and when he tells them this they laugh: ”They say, ‘You’re not that stupid John!’ But don’t underestimate my level of stupidity. I was born to poor parents, that’s stupid!” He’s joking again, sort of. “Then they go through what we like to call the discomfort zone. That’s the only zone where an individual develops, whether that’s personally or professionally.”
So why choose the significant discomfort it must have been to move from sales to executive management? Innes thinks for a moment: “You know, I realised that unless I did something transformational, I would end up doing manual labour and drop at 70.” Of course he felt driven to take on the challenge and all that, but Innes’ immediate motivation was that he needed a pension. Or maybe it was that a bit of money in the bank could help his family: Innes is married and has three grown children. When he’s not working he spends a lot of time outdoors, often with the dog. And the band still gets together: “It’s perhaps the oldest band ever, but we don’t play for people unless you want a room cleared very quickly.”
Asked what gets him up every morning, Innes is quick to point out that he still hasn’t really made any money. “But I’m having a lot of fun. I think it keeps me alive. You know, my mother trained as a teacher, worked until she was 65 and died at 66. I think what really did it was that she stopped working. People need something in their lives to get them up in the morning. Amor gets me up in the morning.”