Lee Wade, CEO and co-founder of Exponential-e

Megabuyte, April 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.28.54The Megabuyte Interview: Lee Wade
“Let me start by saying one thing: I’m not interested in me. I’m interested in this company.” Exponential-e CEO Lee Wade sets the tone for our chat literally the moment I walk into his office, located near London’s Aldgate. I take my seat and sip my water with some apprehension: this sort of start rarely makes for a good interview. But I needn’t have worried: Wade is the lynchpin for his company’s unique culture of pioneering innovation. Not to mention when a CEO is as dedicated to his company as Wade is to Exponential-e, there’s a thin line between the company’s spirit and the person at the top.

Take Wade’s whiteboard wall in his office: it’s filled with notes, cuttings, charts and pictures. “There’s all manner of stuff up there. Look here,” says Wade, getting up from his seat for the first of several times during our chat. “Here are our competitors,” he points to a list. “Here’s their gross margins, their turnovers. That’s just a benchmark, but we beat every one of them except one, and this year we’ve matched their gross margins at 53%. It’s all random stuff up here. This is Harvard’s trapezium of innovation,” he says, pointing to a figure, and then to some fish swimming in bowls: “These fish tanks are our equivalent. These are the drivers of the Exponential-e business: applied innovation and dynamic disruption.”

Innovation on tap
The fish tanks are the business plan, explains Wade: cloud and connectivity specialist Exponential-e delivers two innovations every year, one major and one minor. This lets them swim alone for a bit, as it takes the competition two to four years to catch up and jump into their tank, by which time Exponential-e has moved on. “If you’re swimming in the tank alone you have leadership and exponential growth. That’s our proposition.” Wade has lectured extensively on this over the years, since before Harvard published its model on innovation. “It’s a growth model! Growth by innovation. Regardless of your market, boom or bust times, the model works. It’s held us in good stead.”

He points to another chart: “Here’s all the innovations we’ve had over the past 13 years. Many of them are world leading, and some of them are still a world first. ”Last August’s launch of the Desktop-as-a-Service GPU is one example. “DaaS has been around for years, but GPU, meaning high-powered processor accessed from the cloud, that’s the innovative part.” It enables industries such as the graphics sector to access powerful servers on a pay-as-you-go basis: “It cracks the capex issues all these companies face. We used the VMware’s Horizon Desktop-as-a-Service, Nvidia’s GPU card, and our own cloud infrastructure. It took us about 18 months. No one has done this ever before.”

This little breakthrough caught the attention of Nvidia, who has invited Exponential-e to work with them on their next graphics card and put that in the cloud too. While the investor community knows Exponential-e for its sector-leading organic growth, what the big-name competitors know the £60m revenue company for is its ability to deliver complex, bespoke jobs. Another chart: “This is the complex network we built for NBC for delivering high definition pictures of the royal wedding.” The big players needed nine months to do it, says Wade, whose team did it in eight weeks.

So what’s the secret, I ask; how do you nurture and maintain this feisty attitude to innovation beyond the startup phase? Wade sits down. “The esprit de corps of Exponential-e – do you know the phrase? It’s the strapline of the French Foreign Legion. It means a strong sense of enthusiasm and dedication to a common goal that unites a group of people. […] We got our brand values from a survey of our customers and employees: they thought we were smart and capable, approachable, strong, innovative, full of integrity.” Hiring smart people is vital: “I know meritocracy is a philosophical idealism, but we are as close as you can get. If someone’s earned it, you have to give it to them. I made a sales trainee the sales director after three years. Our managing director, he now runs the company, I took him on as a trainee from university.”

Three years to version 3.0
Right now, Exponential-e is working on transitioning the company into what Wade calls a world class citizen – or Exponential-e 3.0. And this has been the plan all along, Wade assures me: “It’s our culture that drives the company. All these things we’ve talked about add up to this: Exponential-e 3.0. That’s been on our wall for ten years.” Well, there’s one thing that’s changed: the scope has expanded, from Europe to the world. “What I’m seeking here is about one thing, and one thing only. Recognition! Because we believe we are the best at what we do in the world.”

Wade pauses for a moment. “When I was raising the money to start this company, I got thrown out of venture capitalist company offices. They said: ‘Hold on a minute, you and this company whose name I can’t even pronounce, you’re going to take on the world’s biggest telecoms companies and beat them at their own game?’ There was one guy, and I’ll tell you what he said: ‘You’re absolutely mad.’” This was during the dot-com bust years, when ‘internet’ was a swear word in the City. “But nothing’s changed. We’ve always had this goal.”

Version 3.0 will be presented this year, and Wade hopes the goal of world class citizenry will be reached after three years: “That’s when I’m done. I’ll hand it off!” He snaps his fingers. “Then I can rest easy, saying: ‘We did it! We got there! I knew we would. I never doubted it for a minute.’” There’s a lot of work left to do still, in terms of the company’s internal systems, but when it comes to the world of cloud and infrastructure, Wade is confident the company is already a leader. Right now, for example, Exponential-e is on a bidding shortlist alongside three household names: “We’re not being shortlisted just to sharpen their pencils. It’s because they know the superiority of our cloud offering. And you know what? We’re going to win! We’re going to beat those three because they cannot do what we can do. […] That’s what I told the VC guys 14 years ago: ‘We’re going to beat them at their own game.’”

Of course, for a plucky little London company of 300+ people to have this sterling reputation means a lot of phone calls where Wade has to tell suitors he’s not selling. “I was just talking to one this morning. I was a bit blunt, I said: ‘We’re not interested in private equity or a trade sale, please don’t contact us again.’” He laughs. One of these suitors with deeper pockets would probably be able to roll out Exponential-e’s world domination plans faster, Wade admits, but the plan is firm: This year, the company will look to roll out globally, probably focusing on Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo first, then New York and Amsterdam. “Our results this year are our best ever, and when our annual results get made public I get inundated with more of these suitors trying to buy us. But three years on, when we hit that 3.0 mark, then I might be interested.”

Timing and education
Exponential-e’s biggest strength – constant innovation – also represents the company’s biggest challenge. “We get things wrong all the time. Sometimes we misjudge when the market is right for an innovation,” says Wade. He lists a few examples, but the whole company was actually on the brink of collapsing before it even began in 2002, as the market wasn’t quite ready for its main product at the time: ethernet. “We were knocking on doors, and people said: ‘What’s ethernet?’ […] And I thought: ‘We’re going to go bust!’ We only had a small amount of cash burn money, to last us six months.” So Wade tasked a PR company with getting Exponential-e and ethernet on the front page of a newspaper. “There’s the front page, on the wall,” he says, pointing to a page from ‘Communications News’ with the headline: “Service provider launch at ethernet WAN market”. The story was then picked up by the bigger papers. “So then when we called up companies they said: ‘Oh we’ve been reading about that!’ That newspaper headline saved our life.”

Innovation only works when it’s complemented by an educational aspect, Wade has learned: “Our success is based on the continuum of education we’re doing – roadshows, launches, workshops, PR – to let the world know what we’re doing, as well as training of our Academy people.” The Exponential-e Academy is a true passion project for Wade, who brings it up several times. The Academy is run in-house and anyone can apply, but they have to have three attributions: ambition, aspiration, and industriousness. “At the end of three years, you should have attained an earnings potential of £100k a year, and we succeed at this all the time,” says Wade. “I tell people: give it ten years and you can be on top of any industry you want. Think ten years ahead and you will get there! But you have to live it, breathe it, dream it, sleep it – you have to sacrifice many things along the way.”

Ambition, aspiration and industriousness
Wade describes himself as a workaholic, and as someone who’s not really interested in money. “I fear the end of the line – the company being world class. I fear it, because what do you do then? One thing that does get me out of bed in the morning … “ Wade pauses. “Going back many years, I’m an academic, I did my masters in econometrics at University College London. Our Academy is so successful at what it does. If I built another one over there, in its own redbrick building,” he says, pointing across the street. “It would have a waiting list. […] The thing the Academy is really selling is the confidence to face off to the captains of industry. To sit down and tell them where they’re going wrong, and how they can solve it. The Academy is probably what I’m most proud of in this company,” says Wade. “That’s really what gets me out of bed: imparting knowledge, and creating opportunities for young people. If I’m not doing that, what the hell is all this about?”

Wade (56) lives in Essex, and has five children. “One thing my kids were brought up with – like with the Academy – is how ambition, aspiration and industriousness will get you everywhere. My kids were never given pocket money, they had to earn it. It teaches you the value of money,” says Wade. “None of my children chose university. They weren’t interested in the slightest. In spite of my encouragement! But I never tried to push them into it, because I know university doesn’t mean everything. No one forced me to consider university either. I went to one of the worst schools in Britain, growing up in Hoxton.” Wade laughs, remembering how run-down the now-trendy area was back then. He gets up and walks over to a picture on the whiteboard. “This is Hoxton Square. That’s St Monica’s school and church, that’s the youth club I went to. This is the football team. That’s me there!” He points to one of the boys in the line-up. “Funny how time changes you.”

UK2 Group

UK2GLogoI blogged about technology innovation, the cloud and trends in internet life for web hosting company UK2 GroupSamples:

* Welcome to the Slow Internet
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* Is SnapChat pointing the way to the future of news?
* The disappearing internet
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* The case for emoji in work communication
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* Big Data: Why technology’s biggest hype is still the real deal
* What happens to virtual spaces after the people have moved on?
* Why simpler is better for technology innovation
* The secret to viral videos
* Comments are dead, but we’re talking more than ever
* The internet is saving the radio star!

Charles Nasser, founder and CEO of Claranet

Megabuyte, February 2014. Original article (£).

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 18.13.32The Megabuyte Interview: Charles Nasser
“I was in the south of France. I know exactly where I was, I was sitting on a bench with my girlfriend. I was peeling a tangerine.” Charles Nasser is telling the story of how he came up with the idea for Claranet, the business he founded when he was 26. This is how the CEO, now 44, tells all his stories: with lots of details and tangents, like he’s reliving rather than remembering. On the bench that day, Nasser had been bemoaning life as a consultant, keen to do something else. “So my girlfriend said, ‘Well you are good with technology and you can run your own business. What’s the most happening thing in technology right now?’ This was 1st January 1996 and the answer was the internet. So a resolution was set: by the end of the month, Nasser would create a business related to the internet. “It didn’t know quite what, but that 30 second conversation changed my life.”

It really was that simple, Nasser insists, but of course there’s nothing simple about building an internet business that not only survived the dot-com boom, but even thrived through it. Managed services provider Claranet is expected to pull in £124m in revenues this year, offering hosting, networks and communications services to European companies. Nasser and I have met in Claranet’s central London offices, where the CEO serves tea in company logo mugs. He’s tie-less in a plain white shirt and black trousers, with a watch fitting for a global circumnavigation; I wouldn’t be surprised if that was on Nasser’s list for the new year, now with the North Pole already checked off.

Relationships at the centre
The thing that strikes you first about Nasser is just how soft-spoken he is, to the point where you may even think he’s shy. But once he gets talking a different picture emerges: this guy’s just really smart. Some very innovative solutions to Claranet’s early obstacles is proof of this, but he’s also the kind of person who’ll write analytics software for the markets, not because he cares about finance but because “I was interested in chaos theory and neural networks, and I thought financial markets were the best place to analyse it”.

But back to Claranet. 2012 saw the arrival of cloud provider Star, small cell specialist Ubiquisys, and French hosting company Typhon; while the acquisition spree paused in 2013, this year they will probably add “a whole bunch” more. This is part of the long-term strategy, Nasser asserts: “Growing organically is going to be slow, and as there’s value in being larger in our business, acquisitions are a natural way of doing it. It’s an absolute cornerstone of the strategy, because the things we do are increasingly mission critical for our customers. … They want us to demonstrate a track record and that we will be around for a while.”

The desire to build a business with enduring client relationships has always been a core motivation for Nasser. When asked about his plans for Claranet, he skips past the stated ambition for creating a strong European hosting player and goes straight to the connections: “This was as much a personal goal as a business goal: to have something where a relationship matters and creates value.” Claranet was a consumer company at first, before moving on to businesses and then towards hosting.

But the customer has always been leading the way for the company’s direction, Nasser asserts. This is also the reason the dot-com boom, which came only a few years after the start, was “a non-event”. “We just saw our business doing this,” says Nasser, indicating a rising curve, “throughout the whole period. There was no before and after for us. … If you look at internet use, which is fundamentally what our business is built on, it kept growing throughout. We didn’t have [major] financial shareholders, so although expectations might have gone up and down, the fundamentals of the business didn’t. We just kept growing.”

The pre-pay adventure
He calls it “a lucky escape”, the fact that he was turned down by the venture capitalists back in 1997. “I was just too early. Six months later they would have all given me offers.” Back then, Nasser was looking for £1m for 25% of the business, but no one thought Claranet could compete with the major telecom players. So why didn’t he go back?

The short answer is that Nasser didn’t need to: “We racked our brains and invented something which became very common: pre-paid internet access.” Nasser gives me the long answer too, starting with how cheap long-distance calls were commonplace but no one had thought of using the same method to access the internet. “So I literally downloaded off the Oftel [now Ofcom] website, and I read the entire regulations to understand how cheap phone calls work.” He explains it: the pricing, the access agreements, who bills for what. “So I went to these guys and said, ‘I want to use your interconnect, but I want to put a modem on the end of it in.’ They all looked at me funny. Nobody had ever asked them that question.” BT wouldn’t even meet him, Nasser recalls, but soon it was done: Claranet started offering internet access for half the price of a local call. Customers pre-paid in £20 chunks, and this is how, in six months, Nasser raised £2m. He laughs: “Don’t need a bank!”

Nasser has stuck to the decision not to take money from private equity backers ever since, despite numerous offers. “That was a huge lesson for me: only take the money if you really need it, and make sure you explore not just financial but also commercial alternatives. It gave us a huge amount of freedom. If I had financial investors and said, ‘I want to go to France but it might take me five years to start making money,’ they wouldn’t let me do it.” Nasser won’t say exactly how much of the company he owns, but it’s a “vast majority”. But with the ongoing acquisition spree, will this have to change?

The short answer is no, because debt still provides all the funding Claranet needs. “Today we have people willing to lend us money, and we are on our fourth round of three-year facilities. Every time we borrow, we repay, we refinance, we borrow, we repay, we refinance.” Nasser keeps the financial leverage “quite low”, in recognition of his modest risk tolerance as the majority owner: “I want to be able to sleep at night. … We are taking some risk in acquiring companies, but we want that risk to remain in line with our customers’ expectations.” While Nasser says Claranet makes enough money now do do whatever it wants, he may well consider a float someday: “But I think we are too small for that yet.”

Professional loves
It’s very personal to Nasser, what happens with Claranet. He says this several times, describing how he’s always curious to learn, and how a fundamental value for the company is continued improvement: “You must always be humble and think there’s more to it, that we can do better. That makes life more interesting as well.”

Looking back at Nasser’s route to Claranet, exploration certainly seems to be a guiding principle. Nasser studied electrical engineering at Imperial College, before getting a diploma in accounting and finance. Then he started a PhD, but stopped when his supervisor left. This was when Nasser fell into consulting “by accident”, but his heart wasn’t in it. “When I quit my PhD I was completely disheartened. … I was working on hobby projects: designing computers, architecture, inventing chips, stuff in my bedroom that I found exciting but most people find very boring.” During this time he also did a finance degree at the London Business School, in the evenings. He’s still in touch with many of his professors there, returning sometimes to give lectures.

It all sounds a bit random, I say, meaning this in the best way; exploring options will often lead to unexpected good results. “Well it’s very personal for me,” says Nasser, pausing for a moment. “But let me make it clear: technology is something I will always love.” He describes how he, at 13, would programme computers with zeroes and ones, teaching himself just for fun. “At Imperial College I saw a different dimension, it went from being fun to being seriously complicated on an intellectual level. I found it extremely fulfilling mentally. … There’s still a part of me who finds that very exciting: the pleasure you get from something cerebral, from solving real life problems using your brain. What I do now is fulfilling in different ways, but [technology] is still my first professional love.”

About the discovery
This is also why Nasser didn’t follow the rest of his classmates into finance: that thrill of discovery and solving a problem that’s eluded you. “Maybe it’s like when explorers discover something nobody else has seen before. I think that excitement is what’s stuck me to technology until now.” Building a company could be another form of exploration, I suggest. “Yes. I like the unknown, I like the fact that you’re not following a trodden path. It makes life interesting. I really, really mean this: I still wake up every day excited to do what I do. I’m extremely fortunate.”

Speaking of exploration, Nasser has now visited about 94 countries, plus the North Pole. “Oh that was great!” He laughs. “Like a lot of the big decisions in my life it happened by accident. Circumstances happen.” Nasser tells me the story of how he ended up going, in detail of course, and how his travel mates included the first woman from Kazakhstan to climb Everest, and her brother: “The hardest man I’ve seen in my life. It was minus 40C and he would walk with all his layers open, his chest bare. I felt like the dreary guy in the team.” I try to object, as this is a story about the Arctic after all, but Nasser won’t hear it. “It was fantastic, I loved every minute of it. … I would be looking out the tent every morning and smiling from ear to ear, thinking how lucky I am to be doing this. It’s harsh, but it’s incredible.”

Next up for Nasser and his passport is Bolivia, but the travel schedule has slowed somewhat: he’s raising two children, aged three and five. “When they’re old enough we’ll strap backpacks on them!” I have no doubt. Expecting to hear one last detailed story, I ask my last question: Who is Clara? The girlfriend, the mother, or the cat? Nasser laughs, as there is no Clara. And for once it’s a short story: he needed a name for his new company, and one day he walked into his building: Clarabel House. “I looked at it and thought, ‘one day the business will be big enough to take up a whole building’. Maybe Clarabel Internet? But it’s a mouthful, so I shortened it to Claranet. That’s it, a very boring story.”

Chris Spencer, CEO of Emis

In Megabuyte, January 2014. Original article (£).

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 18.13.41The Megabuyte Interview: Chris Spencer
“I talk to folks and encourage them to understand the business. I don’t mind talking,” says Chris Spencer, asked what he’s up to in London today. Down from Emis’ headquarters in Yorkshire, the CEO is too nice to say it but some meetings are more glamorous than others: next up is Whitehall. “Those meetings are an important part of what we do, because we get most of our largest contracts from government sources,” says Spencer. “The NHS is a supertanker of 1.7 million people, with somebody standing at the front saying, ‘Let’s go that way.’ And it’s going that way. But not to think it will move overnight.”

Chris Spencer certainly does not mind talking though. Before our hour is up, the open and cheerful CEO has made me laugh and cringe, the latter at the story of his eye surgery which he shares as as an explanation how his company is working to solve some of the inefficiencies in healthcare. The conversation may be different over in Whitehall, but don’t we all have a soft spot for the NHS? Emis, the UK’s leading supplier of clinical software to primary care, and increasingly also secondary care, may be a public company, but everything it does taps into something personal. As Spencer says: “You don’t have to work too hard to get people motivated with the idea of the NHS.”

Linking up the chain
But what this means on a daily basis is that Spencer has a 1600-people-strong company to run. Last year marked a major milestone with the roll-out of Emis Web, and the company recently launched a series of apps, including one where patients can book appointments and get repeat prescription. It’s sounds simple but of course it’s very complicated; after all, the NHS consists of 200-odd organisations, all with their own ways of running things. “It’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it?” says Spencer, pointing to how we all can get money from any cash machine and the banks sort it out behind the scenes, seamlessly.

This is essentially what Emis is working on: making all the branches of the healthcare system talk to each other. An immense task of course, and one plagued with concerns over cost and security. “The NHS as policymaker want it to happen because it will be faster, better and cheaper for the public. It’s like ‘pick your own strawberries’: you’re getting the public to look after themselves,” says Spencer. “For a lot of patients the downside is around security and information floating around in the Cloud, so there’s an education piece.” Then in the middle there’s the clinicians, who have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to share information. “They might say, ‘It’s a record where I make all sorts of notes.’ You know, historically they might have made notes like DTS, for the fuller figure.’” Spencer leans forward, conspiratorially: “That means ‘Danger To Shipping’.” I laugh, horrified. Digital transformation, it seems, may have unintended consequences for bedside manners.

The healthcare universe
While only stepping into the CEO position earlier this year, none of these issues are new for Spencer; he has been with Emis for 14 years as Chief Administrative Officer. But how does it feel to be in the big seat? “It’s absolutely different, sure. Suddenly it’s you and only you, and you have the desk with the sign that says, ‘The buck stops here.’ … There’s an enormous sense of responsibility, but there’s also the freedom to push things forward.”

Spencer thinks he has a fair bit in common with Sean Riddell, from who he inherited the CEO post in February ahead of his permanent appointment in July. “We are both really quiet people. Wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose. But I think we approach things differently. I tend to go for a lot of fact-gathering, a lot of engagement with folks, and then I make the decision.” The other difference is that Emis no longer has the steely primary care focus of previous years, now aiming to tie in more aspects of the healthcare universe. “We’ve taken quite a long time to join certain things up historically. Take our pharmacy system, which has been with us since 2011. Is it as joined up as I’d like it to be? No! That’s because we’ve been concentrating on some other, really important stuff. But I want to encourage multi-tasking.”

This is where Spencer tells the story of his eye surgery: earlier this year the CEO needed immediate surgery for a detached retina. Having been transferred between hospitals with handwritten documents, a comedy of errors ensued where the new hospital got his name wrong, his bed was given away after surgery, he was given the wrong medication, and his prescription wasn’t prepared. They operated on the correct eye though, just about. Not long after this ordeal, in September, Emis acquired pharmacy and prescribing specialist Ascribe, meaning the new world is one where a joined-up EMIS and Ascribe will hopefully prevent this sort of muddle.

“Let’s look at that in the sort of world I think we should be in,” says Spencer, having re-lived the harrowing story. Ascribe is number two in A&E systems, meaning Spencer would have been transferred with an electronic record, for one, “and they wouldn’t have called me Spence all the way through!”. Ascribe is also number two in hospital pharmacies, meaning the prescription history would have been on hand. The bed management system would have kept track of everyone’s sleeping arrangements, and everything would have linked back to the GP, via Emis Web. “So you’re getting this virtuous circle, where information is flowing from one to the other.” Owning Ascribe will make this process simpler for Emis, however the group also has arrangements with competitors INPS and TPP to ensure data can flow through the systems: “You can now get 95% of data plugged in from the [joint venture] Medical Interoperability Gateway, even if it’s not one of our integrated systems.”

So all those big providers spent a decade cocking this up, and little Emis solved it? “Fundamentally, yes!” Spencer laughs. The secret to the company’s success, he believes, is not trying to do every system at once, and to not assume midwives, brain surgeons and psychiatric nurses all have the same needs. And to talk to the people doing the work on the ground and get them onboard, because it won’t work if the doctors don’t want it to.

“We engage with the various people who we think might be interested in doing things within healthcare. We have our national user group for Emis, which is for GPs and folks in the community, and we have our national user group for Ascribe. We’re engaging with users, and of course, … our own staff. They know a great deal about the NHS too, because they either use it themselves or they’ve got a granny or a child who’s involved in it. It’s a real personal thing.”

Professionally compassionate
Spencer’s path to becoming CEO of a healthcare software company may not be the most obvious: he was the General Manager at Markgraaf Patents, after founding software outfit Solicitec, eventually acquired by Lexis Nexis. But his first job, while reading law at university, was in psychogeriatric terminal care. “I learned most of my lessons in life on those wards. You’re dealing with real people who are going to die, some of them very soon. One of the things you have to do then, is to really care for them. And the other thing is that you have to toughen up a bit.” The first patient Spencer lost was a former chorister, and the two of them used to sing together. The piece was ‘Deep Harmony’. “When he died it nearly broke my heart. I mean, seriously. Did I ever get as close to a patient after that? No, because I couldn’t have done the job. So it started there with caring about healthcare, but thinking about it in a professional, compassionate way. Not to be hard or unpleasant, but you’ve got to have the right balance between the two.”

After becoming a lawyer, Spencer rose to the rank of partner in the Leeds firm where he’d trained, before going on to co-found his own law firm. He lectured law for five years, and then he ran a patent and trademark agency. “You may be saying, ‘Where’s the IT then in all this?’ At the same time as doing all that, while at the first law firm, I formed an software IT company where we ran systems to help lawyers do all the things we for medical purposes now,” says Spencer. This is where I have to put my notepad down, because on top of all this, Spencer also raised six children. “I don’t sleep, by the way!” He chuckles. “Well, four hours usually. It’s the just the way I work.” That’s just not fair, I exclaim, jealous of all his extra time. “I do crash out occasionally. During the Ascribe deal we had a few all-nighters, and after a time of really, really limited sleep I do need to crash out for 24 hours.”

Even so, Spencer’s impressive record of multi-tasking speaks to a certain ambition, one that is not immediately revealed in the Yorkshireman’s cheery, relaxed demeanour. He claims to be like most people though: confidently gliding along, while paddling frantically beneath the surface. But most people don’t end up being CEOs, I point out, and Spencer concedes: “In the main, people who succeed in doing things aren’t normal, be in in business, sport, art or sciences. You’re driven by something that makes you do things, which then results in people saying, ‘Why on earth would you do that?’ Well, it’s because I want to be the best I can be.”

The Basso Profondo
Spencer’s kids, now aged between 22 and 32, may have inherited some of this drive from their father: “One used to be a journalist and is now training to be a solicitor, bless him. We have barristers, a couple of teachers, we have a physicist who now does Quant software. They’re all under-achievers.” Spencer jokes, proudly. I expect him to say he doesn’t have time for hobbies, but of course he does: “I am a bass singer in a couple of choirs. Well, I had to cut it down to one. We just came back from Venice where we sang in St Mark’s. I am the Basso Profondo.”

Spencer, now 56, has no plans regarding how long he wants to keep the reins at Emis, just “as long as I’m useful”. He seems the type who needs to be busy, I point out, before Spencer chuckles that his wife probably needs him to be busy too; quite driven herself, his wife works for the government handling childcare cases against parents. After a day of business meetings, hearing stories from the frontline can be sobering.

Still, it’s the opportunity to make a difference that gets Spencer out of bed in the morning. “On a ward you can make a difference to maybe 30 people. At Emis I can make a difference to literally millions of people. That may sound slightly creepy, but fundamentally we’ve got at least 39 million patient records that we’re looking after.” That’s a lot of people trusting Spencer’s company with their most intimate information, I point out, but Spencer isn’t phased by this, nor does he seem phased by much else. “No, not really. I’ve seen quite a lot of things. I was a lawyer so it’s advocacy, isn’t it? You expect things to come a bit from left-field,” says Spencer. “You can’t make people like you. You’ve just got to be yourself and hope they do.”

Nick Bray, CFO of Sophos

Published in Megabuyte, November 2013. Original article here (£).

brayThe Megabuyte Interview: Nick Bray
“It’s a great place to be” – Nick Bray says this more than once about Sophos. The CFO is excited about the prospects, of pushing forward in the sweet spot of security software for networks and devices, servicing the mid-market. “It feels almost like a fresh start,” says Bray, referring to Sophos’ recent management changes where Steve Munford moved up to Chairman, Kris Hagerman joined as CEO, as well as new heads of marketing and sales. “I think we are taking it to a new level actually, with the team we now have in place. It’s the same strategy, but with a tighter focus.”

We’ve met in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in Sophos’ purpose-built headquarters. It’s one of the hotter days of the late summer, but Bray is in dark jeans and blazer over a subtly embossed white shirt. Walking me through the airy lobby he talks about the building’s green credentials, down to the lily pond out front and how there’s “quite big fish” in the water out back. Bray’s 2010 move to Sophos came after five years at MicroFocus, and while he’s quick to say he enjoys working with shareholders, he also admits it’s liberating to just get on with things in a private company. Not that Apax, which owns 70% of Sophos, doesn’t put pressure on the team, far from it: “They are on the board, but they have different questions to what an analyst or an investor would ask. It really is right into the heart of business, right into exactly what is driving the performance? What is the market doing? What are the customers doing? You have to be on your toes.” And this goes to the heart of what makes a good CFO as well, says Bray, listing it off: “Is he driving strategies? Is getting more engaged in the operations? But the heart of it … the numbers.” He stresses it: “You have to be in top of your numbers.”

The midfielder
So the stereotype of the CEO bringing the charisma and the CFO being the dry one with the calculator, is that true? I ask this hoping Bray will laugh, and he does: “Hah! I think CFOs can sometimes come across that way. But I don’t’ think I’m dry! But it’s the numbers, upside down, back to front, inside out. That’s for the seat at the table.” But, he adds, a bit of charisma is necessary too, because that’s how you get people to want to follow you. “I love being a CFO, it’s in my DNA. One of the things I pride myself in is knowing what I’m really good at, and knowing what other people can do better,” says Bray. “When I joined, Steve and I structured a great relationship which remains today. I also have that with Kris. Whether it’s a public or a private company, investors want a strong leadership team. I’m a big believer that a great CEO and a great CFO make a hugely powerful team. That´s what I enjoy doing: being in the CFO in the formula.”

After hearing this I don’t ask Bray if he wants to be CEO, but he tells me anyway: “It´s like saying to, let’s say Rio Ferdinand in his time: ‘Rio, do you want to become a great striker?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m one of the best defenders in the world, so why would I want to be a striker?’ The CEO is the striker but I think really great CFOs are the best midfielders in the world.”

A network of gadgets
Bray lives an hour’s drive away from the Abingdon site but spends a fair amount of time on the road; Sophos is a global operation employing 1650 people, with major outposts in Boston, Vancouver, Sydney and Tokyo, as well as a new office in Silicon Valley. Is that where this is headed then, I ask, to sunny Santa Clara? After all, the assumption that Sophos will float on Nasdaq is so widespread it’s hard to tell whether it’s a rumour or part of the plan. At first, Bray evades the question: “Who knows what’s around the corner?” But he can’t help but follow the logic through; the private equity owners will one day seek an exit, and that will mean either an IPO or a trade sale. “Personally I would love to float the company, as would the senior team and the employees. It’s probably more natural to go to the US to float, if that happens. […] But look, it´s down to us to keep control of our destiny. If we perform as a team, we’ll have a whole range of options.”

Regarding performance, Sophos is seeing good results especially in the UTM (Unified Threat Management) area, where the company has invested heavily over the last few years. The technical side of Sophos gets complicated fast, which is also part of Sophos’ selling point: to take something complex and deal with it on behalf of mid-sized companies who may have limited in-house resources. Sophos started out as a anti-virus company covering computers, before expanding to secure mobile devices. UTM security for networks is the latest addition, joining everything up: “We see in ourselves as really unique now. We can deal with both [mobile] end-user security and network security. There are plenty of companies that do either one, but there’s only us that do both.”

The network focus is a trend for the industry as a whole, as illustrated when Cisco bought network specialist Sourcefire earlier this year. Cisco and BT also published a study showing only 36% of companies have a BYOD (bring your own device) policy, representing a security headache as the word of work is moving away from being device-specific, to user-specific. Bray, a speedy talker at the best of times, picks up the pace when BYOD comes up: “How many devices do you have?” The gadgets in my bag provide a handy case study, as my smartphone and mini-laptop are constantly used via unsecured networks, accessing data stored mostly remotely. “In a corporate world, people now may have a desktop, a laptop, an iPad, an Android phone. We secure the user and the devices they use, rather than worrying about securing the individual laptop.”

The rise of BYOD
Bray believes IT security will soon become a core element for company boards to consider, along with corporate governance and the general risk register: “Any board, audit committee chair, or non exec who isn’t thinking about IT security really isn’t fulfilling their fiduciary duties. It’s that important now.” A company may have a plan for what happens if the electricity goes out, but if the website is hacked or customer data stolen, this could cause equally serious damage to the brand or customers’ trust.

But if allowing BYOD sounds like a prospect best avoided, Bray points out that it’s also a brilliant way to liberate company staff. Allowing for remote working is one thing, but also, a hugely popular initiative among Sophos employees is that they choose which gadgets they want for work, and the company provides them. “It has to be sensible and the right framework, but the more we liberate and empower staff to make good decisions, the better we all are.”

This ties in with fostering a culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction, as well as allowing people to learn from mistakes and do better next time. This applies to Bray himself too; he brings up his second marriage as an example: “Absolutely got it right this time!” He laughs. “Then there are things that went exceptionally well the first time: my kids.” Bray, 48, has four teenagers, making for an active family life along with two big dogs and a passion for the Basingstoke Bisons ice hockey club. Bray doesn’t play himself, but his wife Angela used to: “She is quite fit and feisty. A great skater.” Bray used to cycle to work at MicroFocus, but the roundtrip to Abingdon is a bit much, even for a cycling-nut like Bray who covers 60 miles most weekends. “I’m really pleased that Sophos takes part in the Prince’s Trust ‘Palace to Palace’ bike ride; last year we had 60 racers and this year we should have more,” says Bray, who joins in with this relatively leisurely ride, only 45 miles long.

Building a powerhouse
On the topic of MicroFocus, Bray is proud of the company tripling revenues during his tenure there, when the market capitalisation rose from £200m to over £1bn. “MicroFocus was a huge success. That was five years of organic growth, seven acquisitions. But more importantly, we turned around a company that was really staid, didn’t believe. It didn’t believe it could be a powerhouse, back when I joined with Stephen Kelly and Kevin Loosemore. It´s completely different now.”

So how does he feel about the way things ended at MicroFocus, I ask; Bray left shortly after Kelly’s surprising departure amidst some speculation about the goings-on. “Look, there was a bit of turbulence when Stephen and I left. Then Kevin took the reins, and absolutely full credits to Kevin and the team who stabilised the company. It’s back to a powerhouse it was.” Clearly having been quizzed on this before, Bray asserts things could not have worked out better in terms of his own career, as “the stars aligned” with the new opportunity opening at Sophos.

After all, for Bray there’s nothing more fulfilling than taking on a challenge and getting through to the other side. “The ultimate thing at MicroFocus wasn’t just the size of the company, but growing a company from 450 to 1500 people. That’s fun! That´s what drives me. How do you build great companies? How do you deliver great value? Ultimately that allows you to do the nice things in life. We can do the ‘Palace to Palace’, we can help, we can hire great people and give them a great career. […] I feel more positive about this company every single day. Sophos is the right company, in the right industry, on the right way forward. They are a great place to be.”