JBS Computer Services: Colin Boag

Colin Boag had to reinvent his company after a management buy-in of software firm JBS in 1999 but how did he get over the dot com collapse and an abandoned AIM flotation?


Issue 24, November 2003
Back in January 1999 I led a management buy-in at JBS Computer Services. The company had provided software to small and medium businesses for 25 years, but its co-founder and managing director Malcolm Jones had decided that it was time to reinvigorate the company in order to meet the changing market place with someone new at the helm.

The business was actually doing badly when I joined. It employed about 25 and had a turnover of £2m a year. Most interestingly, it had carved out a niche developing and selling its own software. Most companies of that size usually only sell another developer’s software. So the potential was there.

The most important change of focus came when we developed the new idea of allowing clients to buy computer systems on a pay-as-you-go basis. This let customers choose the model of IT management which best suits them, whether this is the traditional method of on-site systems and support or off-site delivery and support. It also let them pay according to their budget with the option of scaleable IT systems if they grew or contracted.

This didn’t happen overnight and it was a hard change to drive through the business. A huge initial task was refining the technology. We had to improve the on-screen appearance of the software and expand the applications on offer. This took an investment of over £1m and an acquisition.

But then we were hit by a massive set-back in the form of the dotcom bubble. This didn’t just cost us our planned AIM flotation just weeks before the intended IPO. In addition to the disappointment there was the disruption and the huge costs incurred by pulling the float.

At that point we had two options: give up or we could sell our way out of trouble. And as salesmen we chose the latter – and we’ve been selling our way to recovery ever since.

We had known one another for many years – I’d been his trainee when we both worked in IBM 20 years previously. Knowing each other so well, and both being from a sales background, has helped a great deal in changing the focus and fortunes of JBS. We worked well in synch, which is vital during troubling times. These shared beliefs helped us to sell the company’s new strategy both to our staff at JBS as well as our customer base. The division of labour is clear too. Wells concentrates on external communications and marketing, whereas I’m more hands-on in running the business day-to-day.

Recovery

Recovery did not happen overnight of course. We had to cut costs, set a budget, and then work with our sales team to sell enough to meet that budget. There were sceptics within the organisation, and we had to work hard to sell the new concept to the team at JBS. Naturally there was some resistance to the culture change that the new strategy required, and it took time and ongoing meetings and communication to persuade and educate the people working for us.

But it worked, and our enthusiasm and determination paid off. We’re now nearing our second year of recovery, and the business is firmly back on track. Revenues were up 20% to £3.3 million and staff numbers increased by 20% in 2002. We’re predicting a 15% rise in revenues for 2003.

The next stage for us is to accelerate our sales and marketing. The only limiting factor on our success at the moment is not having the resources to invest in a greater sales and marketing effort. But the more that we continue to recover financially and make money, the more capital we’ll have to reinvest so that we can spread our message even wider.

Colin Boag is managing director of JBS Computer Services, a supplier of enterprise software to small and medium sized businesses. Prior to joining JBS Colin spent 21 years working at IBM, where he held a number of roles, all of which were in the small business market place. These included sales management, sales training, marketing and brand management.

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