The Scotsman talks to Webhelp UK’s CEO about the acquisiton and how he kept calm when the news leaked early.
After a year in the making, well-laid plans were in place to release news of one of the biggest transactions in Scotland so far this year, writes Kristy Dorsey.
Some 6,000 employees of the country’s largest call centre operator were due to be told last Wednesday that they were now working for French group Webhelp, in a deal finalised just 24 hours earlier.
It didn’t quite go to schedule. By Tuesday morning, alerts out of France were flagging up the fact that an agreement had been signed and in the Falkirk headquarters of what was previously known as Webhelp UK, chief executive David Turner and his team scrambled to put things in order.
For Turner, this meant hastily pulling forward four-and-a-half hours of sessions to brief 300 staff at the Central Business Park HQ. Thousands of other employees at eight further sites across the UK also had to be told, and official details of the deal were quickly fired out to the media.
“You need plans to keep on top of things. We had a plan for Wednesday, and all we did was bring that forward by about 18 hours.”
Despite the upheaval, Turner calmly shrugs his shoulders while describing the scene two days later. He has spent the last five years driving growth at what is now Webhelp UK, with a keen focus upon staying ahead of the curve in a rapidly-evolving market.
“You need plans to keep on top of things, but can you be agile within that plan – that’s the key,” he says. “We had a plan for Wednesday, and all we did was bring that forward by about 18 hours.”
Originally set up in Rothesay in the mid-1990s with just seven employees, TSC had grown to a headcount of 2,000 when Turner took over the running of the company in 2008.
His arrival followed hard on the heels of a £40 million deal by Indian motorbike conglomerate Hero Group to take over TSC.
Turner – who had worked with TSC in his previous role as a customer service efficiency consultant with Trinity Horne – was asked to come on board and expand the business under its new ownership.
This he did, with revenues doubling over five years to £82m as the headcount trebled during the same period. However, events back in India would come to bear on the Scottish firm. A long-standing partnership between Hero and Honda had allowed the groups’ jointly produced Hero Honda motorbikes to grow over the years to a dominant 60 per cent share of the Indian market.
But even though the joint venture was a clear success in Hero’s home market, it limited the company in terms of expanding abroad. When the venture split two years ago to clear the path for international growth, Turner knew that the needs of the call centre operation – whose latest revenues are now approaching £100m – would take back seat to the parent group’s manufacturing business.
“They are very good at making motor bikes,” Turner says. “But when they have a $3 billion business to concentrate on running, it is very difficult for them to focus on the investment decisions we have to make to run our business.”
“As a CEO, you are always researching the marketplace – you need to know what is going on.”
Turner arranged a meeting in November 2011 where he laid out his thoughts on what the call centre business needed for the future. As far as he was concerned, competing with the likes of international services companies such as Serco and Capita would require more focus and investment than the present owners were able to give. His bosses at Hero agreed, and the search officially began for a new partner from the contact centre sector.
“In truth, I had been looking before that,” Turner admits with a slightly cheeky grin. “As a CEO, you are always researching the marketplace – you need to know what is going on.”
Paris-based Webhelp emerged as the most suitable candidate, and in March last year the companies entered into what Turner describes as an “engagement” that culminated in last week’s £77m “marriage”.
Turner is chief executive of the new Webhelp UK, and will also join the main board of the new parent. With up to €130m (£112.7m) available for further deals, he is understandably enthusiastic about the prospects for the combined group, which is now Europe’s largest independent call centre operator.
“The strategy for the group is that the UK will be the first of many acquisitions around the world to expand our global presence,” he says.
Backed by London-based private equity group Charterhouse, Webhelp is seeking call centre operations in Germany and Spain to complement its presence in the UK, France and other French-speaking areas, such as Algeria, Belgium, Morocco and Romania.
The addition of a Spanish-language service will also boost prospects elsewhere. “When you look at countries like Columbia, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, there are big opportunities for this company,” Turner says.
Any acquisitions in the UK will likely involve digital and multi-media operations to aid Webhelp UK’s expansion beyond its traditional telephone services, which accounted for about 90 per cent of last year’s revenues. However, Turner points out that Webhelp will immediately be able to supply much of this expertise, as the French group’s origins lie in providing assistance to those navigating the internet.
And this interlock with the Scottish group’s telephony heritage is not the only piece that makes the deal a good fit.
“Webhelp not having a footprint in the UK makes it much easier,” Turner says. “It is not as daunting, not as much of a challenge, because they want us to grow the business in the UK, and we won’t be stepping over them in doing that.”
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