Yeoman Group: Hugh Agnew

Hugh Agnewof AIM-listed Yeoman Group, explains how the company grew over 13 years to realise its consumer ambitions


It’s all very well aiming for the stars, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Hugh Agnew, deputy chairman of AIM-listed Yeoman Group, explains how the company grew over 13 years to realise its consumer ambitions

When the Yeoman Group started life in 1988, it was with the ambition of linking satellite navigation technologies to consumer needs. All growing businesses need a vision, but even I have to admit that we had set ourselves a huge target by aiming at the mass consumer market.

We initially launched in the maritime market, providing navigational hardware and software for all manner of boats from the largest custom made super yachts to small production boats. It was an ideal starting point for us owing to the obvious need for navigation and also a propensity to pay.

But to move towards our vision, we realised we would have to move from what is a niche market to producing satellite guidance technology with mass consumer appeal. The answer was technology that provides drivers with timely and accurate travel and traffic information by voice to any mobile device – a cost-effective in-car satellite guidance system. In order to put this technology within the reach of the average consumer, we needed serious money.

Developing new technology for global consumer markets is not cheap. We had previously raised small amounts of private money – mainly from existing board members and friends – but it was never going to be enough. Companies can be so reluctant to float on the public market, believing that the weighty regulations and increased number of shareholders will hinder centralised control of the company.

AIM market

Our solution was not necessarily the most obvious one, but it has certainly paid dividends. We decided to float the company on the AIM market. We felt that it was perfect for us – providing a mechanism for increasing our access to capital, while allowing the company to develop within a more flexible regulatory environment. We succeeded in floating on 13th December 1996 (which, incidentally, was a Friday), initially raising £3m. As a public company we have been able to raise enough money continuously, in both good times and bad, to develop the right products and services for the consumer market

With no single dominant shareholder controlling the company, the board has been able to focus on rolling out its vision. As a result, we have been able to roll out the technology at a steady pace and in a timely fashion to suit the market in which we operate. In January 2000 we announced our vision of traffic and travel services being made available direct to a mobile phone. In an admittedly overheated stock market, our share price soared from 60 pence to over 700 pence.

Strength to strength

We actually launched the full commercial service and product, TravelM8 and TravelM8active, in December 2001 and we have been going from strength to strength since. Yeoman may be only a small company, but we are now competing with much bigger outfits. In 2002 we signed channel agreements with the leading UK organisations in our field, such as the Carphone Warehouse, the AA, Vodafone, Hertz and Corporate 4U. The fact that we are now working with these brands is testament to how far the company has grown over the years, often in very difficult markets.

The combination of vision and capital is what has allowed us to roll out our plan conceived in embryo as far back as the early nineties in an orderly and controlled fashion. Vision is essential for an entrepreneurial company, but it is important that a company does not move too far ahead of the market when commercialising that vision.

Access to capital, and the potential to keep raising capital, has enabled us to pursue our vision with vigour and has given us the flexibility to make the best business decisions. However, owing to the less onerous regulatory regime of the AIM market, we have retained control enough to steer the company in the right direction. Now, analysts are predicting that the mobile guidance market is set to explode in the next couple of years and Yeoman is sitting at the forefront of this burgeoning market.

Vision is essential for an entrepreneurial company, but it is important that a company does not move too far ahead of the market when commercialising that vision.

A professional oceanographer and hydrographer by trade, Hugh Agnew was part of the team that conceived the original Yeoman technology in 1985 and was chief executive of the Group from 1993 to October 2002. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation in 1992 and became vice-president in 1996.

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