The dust had barely settled on Onecom’s acquisition of rival Olive when news broke of another major swoop – this time two 9 Group companies.
The deal gives LDC-backed Onecom an immediate and propitious channel presence that CEO Martin Flick rates as his ‘biggest opportunity’.
On the back of two transformational acquisitions Flick unveiled a set of objectives and priorities that are as big as the organisation he now leads. The combined £165 million revenue business has circa 600 staff and added 5,000 more customers and 450 indirect partners with the acquisition of 9 Group companies. The Whiteley-based firm serves more than 500,000 business users with comms, connectivity and IT services and according to Flick the 9 deal means the best is yet to come. Here, he provides a step-by-step insight into his thinking, leadership priorities and post-acquisition strategy, and lays out plans to accelerate Onecom’s rise as a major force in the channel...
Why did you take the CEO role of the enlarged business?
Olive Communications was already on a journey of growth with an ambitious leadership team. The opportunity to bring that business together with our closest rival, Onecom, and to run the combined organisation was a compelling opportunity. It meant we could continue to develop our strategic vision, combining it with a business with much more scale, a much larger customer base and a new route to market via our 9 Group Partners community.
What have you been appointed to achieve?
I’m here to deliver a combined strategic plan that brings together Olive, Onecom and companies from the 9 Group acquisition – all very ambitious, high quality organisations that put customers at the heart of their proposition. Combined, they represent an opportunity that is far greater than the sum of their parts with clear routes to market that are now both direct and indirect. We are highly focused on delivering our services and solutions to a wide group of customer types and sizes. We will do that through a large workforce and a set of supportive stakeholders who are committed to delivering unified communications services and technology that deliver real benefits. Flexible, agile and remote working are now much more prevalent than they ever were and that is certain to continue. Organisations are looking to technology companies to continue to drive them on that journey of productivity and efficiency. Onecom can do that through innovation, and with the combined talent pool and the expertise we possess.
What does leadership mean to you?
I see the job of the CEO as being two things. Firstly, it is to execute the strategy as determined by the board, delivering successful and predictable outcomes from that strategy. The second is to work with my leadership team to make sure every single person in our business is motivated to be the best they can, every day, in pursuit of their own personal career development and the success of the company. I’m very people oriented and hands on. I love to get my sleeves rolled up, and love working with customers and our teams.
What is your first job to address as CEO of the combined group?
The biggest single item on the agenda for us in the short-term is the integration of the Olive and Onecom businesses. We are keeping 9 Group as a separate entity under a separate brand. Stage one of that process is to integrate the management teams. We’ve brought together two talented and ambitious teams at a senior management level and the first few weeks have been focused on creating an executive leadership team that is fully integrated and working in harmony, with commonly aligned goals and objectives and a shared sense of purpose.
Objective number two is to deliver that sense of purpose down through our respective teams of people and bring them together. People and their expertise are at the centre of our proposition and we need all of our people to be fully aligned with the purpose and vision we have agreed. So far, that process has been successful. I’ve been warmly welcomed, as have the inbound members of the legacy Olive management team. It feels natural already – the way we operate together, our peer-to-peer accountability and our shared objectives. I’ve always made it a mission to manage high performing teams, and I can already see that this combined team is more capable and has the potential to be more accomplished than any I’ve been part of before.
What are your longer-term objectives?
It’s going to be about leveraging the ingredients that exist within the combined business to maximum effect. We want to continue to help UK PLC to be competitive in what is going to be a challenging economic period. We are seeing political change through Brexit and the economic impact of Covid is yet to play out fully. For many people the future outlook is uncertain and that fluidity requires agility and flexibility, attributes our services can deliver in abundance.
Our objective is for Onecom to continue to equip our half a million end users and 450 channel partners to overcome the challenges ahead and expand their own customer bases. That means deploying technology that they can grow and flex without being hamstrung by significant up-front investment in infrastructure or hardware, enabling organisations to shift and change shape in line with demands of their own. In uncertain times some people will need to downsize and take cost out to survive, and some will find opportunity and will need to scale up quickly to meet that opportunity. Our objective is to provide solutions that enable that flexibility securely, cost effectively and quickly.
When did the notion of a deal first come to light?
Darren Ridge and I had known each other for a long time as friendly competitors. We have huge respect for the achievements of each other. Olive was focused on the mid-market, more complex cloud solutions, and Onecom had scale with a large base of diverse customers and strategic partnerships. Bringing the two together was an obvious thing to do. We had been talking about it informally for a long time but as businesses are leaning on digitalisation and transformation, it was the right time to bring our two very capable organisations together and harness the combined strength.
What were the main challenges in the transaction process?
If you’d asked me in April last year whether it would have been possible to bring two businesses of our size and complexity together, and make a third acquisition, all while working remotely in lockdown, I would have said probably not! Organising our respective teams of people – our M&A teams, advisors, consultants and lawyers – while working remotely were challenges but not enough to stop us completing a landmark transaction.
How are you tackling cultural integration and home working?
All three organisations are well established into the habits of agile working. We’ve spent the last year saying we don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive from all points of view, including productivity, profitability and the mental wellbeing of our teams. The similarities of culture and approach pre-deal have made the post-deal merging of teams effective already, and will no doubt continue. We are planning our response to the easing of restrictions and there will be a return to physical locations, wrapped up in an agile working policy, that of course follows government guidelines but also aids faster integration. Our philosophy is to use what we have all learned during the last year. We’ll have a mix of remote working and physical locations, and people will work remotely when that makes sense, and go to the office to collaborate with others.
How will the post-deal transition process take shape?
That’s an ongoing piece of work. We’ve got three businesses of scale so there are some quick and easy wins and there are some things that will take a bit longer. The transition is under way but will be carefully planned and not rushed, and as mentioned 9 Group will operate as a separate entity under its established brand, but with the benefits of our combined buying power and scale of supply chain.
What is your biggest opportunity?
To expand our channel offering, which gives us a route to market that we didn’t previously have. The channel is really important to us, and channel partners have got a crucial part to play in the market. That’s why we acquired 9 Partners. We intend to keep that as a separate operating company within the group and empower partners in that community to benefit from our expanded capability and product portfolio but do that in their own way. Channel partners are in close proximity to customer need, often localised, working in their own communities – they’ve got their finger on the pulse of what businesses need and for us that is a route to market with enormous potential for scale.
If you could transform any area of the comms industry what would it be?
A transformation that expands socio-economic, gender and ethnic diversity. The IT, tech and communications sector have led many trends over the years and we have a responsibility to lead the diversification of talent for future generations. We are seeing great improvements across businesses like ours with a more diverse range of people. I am looking forward to that having a bigger impact, in particular at a senior leadership level.
Protagonists in profile
Martin Flick co-founded Axxent Voice & Data in 1998 which was acquired by Azzurri in 2004. In 2012 he joined Olive and grew the company from a £10 million turnover mobile-only business to a £32 million cloud and telephony organisation with 130 staff. Onecom was founded by Darren Ridge in 2013 and grew to become one of the UK’s largest independent business comms providers. With funding from private equity firm LDC in 2019 Onecom kicked off an acquisition strategy. The combination of Onecom and Olive brought together two of Vodafone’s most successful partners.
Just a minute with Martin Flick...
Toto Wolff, CEO and Team Principal, Mercedes Formula One team. He has the innate ability to continually succeed year after year and develop his business at a rate that is always faster than those around him.
Tell us something about yourself we don’t know:
I have a smallholding where I breed pigs, and I’m a qualified tree surgeon.
What do you fear most?
Ill health in anyone I care about.
One example of something you have overcome:
Lack of confidence as a child and teenager.
The biggest risk you have taken?
Walking away from my investment in Azzurri. But it was a risk that paid off.
If you weren’t in comms what would you be doing?
Driving fast cars (probably into barriers!).
I would have started my own business earlier in life. I was 31 when I started and if I knew then what know now, I would have kicked it all off five years earlier at least.
Hardest decision you made:
Not joining the RAF when I was 15. I was in the air cadets and wanted to be a fighter pilot until I left school at 15 and started working in a sweetshop. I realised I didn’t have the aptitude for exams and my early taste for money outstripped my childhood dream.
Your main strength and what could you work on?
My strengths are clarity of thought in a crisis, loyalty and empathy. I think I could work on my patience and attention span!
Biggest career achievement:
Aside from being Onecom CEO, it’s watching people I have worked with grow into successful business leaders in their own right.