The magic dust of a Great Business Partnership

Published on May 5, 2020

The magic dust of a Great Business Partnership

Jobs & Wozniak, Gates & Allen, Laurel & Hardy, Sweeny & Warner? Well we haven’t quite reached their level of success, but I am often asked about the business partnership Tim Warner and myself have had and why it was so successful? why did it work so well? and why has it lasted 15 years?

So, on Tim’s departure this week from Accenture after the successful sale of Certus Solutions we both thought it would be an appropriate time to provide a brief insight on why our partnership has worked.

Believe it or not, it’s something we have never actually discussed before, let alone written about and then made public. However, we think there is value here and if we can positively influence and help someone then it is worth it. If nothing else, it allows me to say thank you to Tim for what has been one hell of a journey.

First Date – A little bit of history…

I first met Tim on HM Prison Service Shared Services Phoenix Programme in 2005. Today, many people know this as Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL), a venture now owned by Sopra Steria and the Cabinet Office, but we were proud to be part of a truly wonderful team of people whose commitment and diversity of skill under pinned one of the most successful Central Government Shared Services programmes conceived and who can really turn around and say “we built the place!”. Phoenix was also the origin of where Certus Solutions was founded.

Tim was working as a contract Solution Architect for the incumbent supplier, and I was working as the client-side contract Project Manager. Tim instantly made his presence felt on the programme through his expert product knowledge, which seemed to be absolutely endless, and his unique ability to work with the customer to find pragmatic solutions to the myriad of problems we seemed to lay at his door.

For myself, managing something as large and as complex as the HR and Payroll side of the Phoenix Programme (45,000+ employees then) with all its moving parts in a tough operational environment, I was grateful he was on the team. You can just imagine my shock and horror when, shall we say “diplomatically”, Tim had a contract dispute on the supply side which resulted in the supplier Account Manager walking up to me to tell me late on a Friday afternoon that one of our star players was leaving immediately as he didn’t fit their company profile and there was absolutely nothing he could do!?!?!?!. By Monday morning Tim was working directly for me client side and you can say the rest is history. (Who says Tim Warner isn’t a maverick?)

Many successful deliveries followed. Our view was simple, surround yourself with a small highly skilled team of the very best people and successful delivery will be the only outcome with a happy customer. Client advocacy is everything, and our relationship with the HM Prison Service, then National Offender Management Services and ultimately the Ministry of Justice just grew from strength to strength, simply because we delivered every single time on fast-moving complex Oracle back office programmes. We were straight talking, easy to work with, experts in what we did, and got the job done in the right way. Fundamentally we loved what we did, and everyday we felt we were contributing to the Public Sector. Quite simply by using us we minimised the delivery risk in the equation every-time. Projects didn’t fail when we were involved.

In 2009 we were presented with an opportunity that would cement our business partnership, and would see the second incarnation of Certus Solutions born where we would hold initially a 50% stake each, a deal which was done very quickly over a glass of red wine and on a handshake.

These were the days before G-Cloud, where major Government contracts were the domain strictly limited to the large SI’s and the concept of an SME bidding was frankly unheard of. However, with some highly creative deal shaping, careful positioning, and finding a financial backer in an AIM listed £100m market cap company, we came up with a differentiated value proposition and walked out with a £6.1m services contract from HM Government. Not bad for two boys from Guildford with a few power-point slides, but that is what real selling is like at the absolute edge. Seize the opportunity, seize the moment. But remember you have to always deliver on the promise.

Within hours of being given preferred supplier status the cry of “Avengers Assemble” was issued, and one of the very best contract teams ever assembled (you know who you all are!) then proceeded to work for 6 days a week for 18 months to pull off not just one, but two major Shared Services programmes.

From that we had the start-up capital to create the third and final iteration of Certus Solutions in late 2011, the original pioneers of Oracle Cloud SaaS applications in UK&I, that was eventually sold to Accenture in May 2018. We will leave the rest of that story for the book! (yes, it is still coming)

What’s the Magic Dust?

That kind of success is not down to luck. Far from it. You have to create your own luck, and it takes real ability to see business opportunity, a lot of hard work as well as a large appetite for personal financial risk. But without doubt there was and has always been a real business chemistry between us as we would always really listen to one another and think about what each other was saying. 

Between us we had what can only be described as “balance”, the “yin and yang” of business. In doing so we also found immediately that by pooling our joint resources and working together, our output multiplied. It really was a case of 1 + 1 = 3, or in our case 5, and when we recruited the Executive Team of Certus (Richard Atkins, Ian Carline, Mary Thethi, and Rob English), the extrapolation increased by many more multiples. Throw in the likes of Debra Lilley, Charlene Young, Ryan Jackson, Tom Mann et al with the experience of Peter Jenkins and James Ham, and you are seriously cooking on gas!

However, under pinning this for us subconsciously, we had the following ingredients which when mixed together create the so called “magic dust”. So, if you are looking for a business partner we would suggest you use this as a checklist.  

1.     Same Values & Integrity

First and foremost, we both shared, and still do, the same core values. We don’t make businesses overly complicated and our values are pretty simple:    

2.     Trust & Transparency

We have incredible amounts of trust between us; and that means we have always had to be completely transparent with one another. We never promise each other something that could not be delivered, and we always instinctively know the decisions we needed to make together, rather than alone.

This also means you have to have hard talks about money. We had some really tough times, we were nearly bankrupt with six hours from closing the doors on one occasion, albeit the root cause wasn’t actually down to us; hence my constant distain for high street retail banks when they say they are small businesses best friend. Trust us when we say, they are not.

3.     Agreed Vision – A Shared Goal

From the outset we agreed the vision and what the desired outcome was, and then planned the journey to reach our destination. Whilst the route constantly changed at times, we were never ever detracted from what we were trying to achieve which was “building a company of value” and achieving the end-game.

Value isn’t just financial reward, but real tangible things like working with people you like; seeing your customers succeed through things you do; seeing the people who work for you grow; providing new learning opportunities; being able to share the wealth generated amongst everyone and also by just having a lot of fun and a great time.

It’s really all about looking after the “family”, because if you do, the family will also look after you.

4.     Decide Who the Real Leader Is

Time to park the ego at the door. Regardless of business partnerships, Companies cannot be run as a democracy. My role from the outset was to lead the Company and set the direction, Tim’s role was to ensure there was the right amount of governance around me so that I didn’t screw up. By being the Chief Executive, I had a responsibility to report to Tim as the Chairman. This worked really well, it helped me to constantly focus on what I was doing, and also ensured that I always knew I had someone who had my back covered. It really did bring the very best out of me.

We didn’t agree all the time and would occasionally agree to disagree. Infact I can only remember us ever having two proper arguments in all the time we have known each other. 

Finally, we both recognised, depending on how the journey progressed, that one day one of us, or even both of us would not be the right persons to take the Company to the next level. Some people are always shocked when we say this, however we both know this is what experience and maturity looks like in practice. As a Company grows, different skills are needed at different times. “C” suite roles are not immune from this, and a hard fact is that the people you start the journey off with are not necessarily the same ones you end up with at the end. We were lucky in that respect as we did.

5.     Complimentary Skills Sets

Our technical skills sets were complimentary. Tim was the Oracle Product Expert and managed the Oracle relationship, I was the Project Manager and the Deal Maker. This gave us perfect technical balance. When the others Exec’s initially joined, we maintained this balance, on a technical practitioner level – 3 Project Managers (myself, Mary and Rob) with 3 Solution Architects (Tim, Richard, and Ian).

6.     Complimentary Styles

People who know us, will really laugh at this point. But it really is important. 

Our management and personality styles are very different. I know at times I come across as the “Boy from South East London” (Not Peckham, more Bexleyheath); but whilst I know some see this as a major weakness, I see it as a differentiator. Remember, when you are in a procurement competition, one Consultancy or Professional Services organisation can usually just look like another. Now in this day and age, people may consciously play around with the diversity and inclusivity mix just to be different but being different for me is bringing out your authentic self. I don’t “b***sh**” and I don’t expect it back, my time is just too precious. I just want to do great work and make happy customers. If you buy into me I will get you to where you want to be. Just play fair and I will be standing by you holding your hand every step of the way. 

Now that style will not always win the day. In-fact for some people it is a complete turn off. However, if your business partner is the opposite – a less extrovert personality that talks with a quiet confidence then that equally can be just as effective. Consequently, we would always discuss who was the right person to “front” something based upon who was sitting opposite us. It was at these times it didn’t matter who led, so long as we won.

Trust me when we say put both personalities together and you have the absolute best of both worlds. Certus would not have been the success that it was if we had had two Tim Warner’s or two Mark Sweeny’s.

7.     Empowered Decision Making

We empowered each other to make decisions. The ability to act really fast and decisively is a real game changer when dealing with an SME, you can absolutely kill the competition stone dead with speed. However, good governance is still required. So, we had pre-agreed rate-cards and deal levels, pretty much up to £250K we could do on the spot. Anything, larger would need a conversation, and even then this was done quickly. The checks and balances in running a business are really important, we cannot stress that enough.  

What’s Next?

We found each other by chance and we were not the best of friends who socialised together. We were business partners, who had and still have a high degree of integrity and trust with one another. Over time, we have become friends, and are always there for one another. 

Our values shaped the culture of Certus, and we lived and breathed them subconsciously and looked for those individuals that shared the same values as we did and were at or really wanted to be at the very top of their game. Work for us means it has to be fun, and the social banter in the office is something we both personally miss. Every morning we would both look forward to getting to the office just to be around the team. Also solving complex problems together is a lot easier than just doing it on your own. 

What’s next?, who knows?, but they say “The Phoenix has to burn before it rises”. As Tim enters semi-retirement looking over the mountains in Switzerland, I can only say we really did disrupt the market and thank you for being the best Business Partner ever.

Mark Sweeny

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

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