Exclusive – First Interview with Phill Robinson, New CEO at Achilles

It is a while since we covered Achilles, probably the world's leading and largest supplier information management firm. The genius of the Achilles concept was in building industry verticals (in Oil and Gas, Utilities and more) and then building supplier identification, verification and management systems and services around those verticals. The firm is much bigger than most realise, indeed, it is one of the largest solution providers in our industry globally outside the ERP giants. Annual revenues are not generally disclosed but as you will see below, we're talking about a $100 million+ size business here.

The firm was founded back in 1990 in Norway, although the UK is now the main HQ. After impressive growth, an initial investment in the company by private equity firm HgCapital was made in 2008. A new CEO, Adrian Chamberlain, came in during 2011 and Colin Maund, for many years the driving force behind the firm, first stepped up to Chairman then stood down altogether. But in the past few months there have been major changes. Chamberlain, who we interviewed here, has gone, along with several other board level folks. New appointments have been made, including that of Phill Robinson as Chief Executive, as well as a new CFO, Marketing Director and HR Director.

Perhaps understandably, given the wholesale changes, Achilles did not make any big public announcements at the time. But as fearless reporters on the procurement solutions world, we thought this was worth a look, so we were grateful for a recent call with Robinson -  his first public pronouncements since he came on board. We started by asking him about his background.

"I'm very much a software person, not a supply chain person. For the last seven years I've been CEO then Chairman of a software firm called Iris, who supply cloud-based accounting solutions to professional firms. Before that I worked for large software firms such as Oracle and salesforce.com."

You've been brought in by HgCapital, who are the biggest shareholders in Achilles?

"Yes, HgCapital were also a major investor in Iris, supporting our management buyout in 2011. Iris has been very successful, and I recently decided to pursue more of a portfolio or plural career so I became an operating partner at HgC, which means I work across a number of the firms they’ve invested in. When Adrian Chamberlain moved on from Achilles, I was asked to step in on an interim basis."

Might that turn into a permanent role?

"Probably not - that's not my plan. But it is really important that we get the right person for the CEO job, so I'm happy to assist with that and lead until we get the new individual in place and make sure it is the right person for Achilles."

So apart from you, Achilles has a number of new senior hires - Marketing Director, CFO, and others. Did you come as a team - have you worked together before?

"No! Last year, HgC got to the point in the usual private equity cycle where they considered divestment of Achilles or other moves to realise their investment. But they’re very positive about the outlook for the firm and decided to maintain control and trigger the next period of growth with more investment. Private equity firms tend to work on that 3-5 year cycle, and that also often triggers senior managers to consider their own futures - do they want to commit to that next cycle? So some of the Achilles senior team decided the answer to that was "no" and decided to move on - so we have taken the opportunity to bring in some new executives who we think are equipped to take the firm to the next level."

When you see big changes in the senior management team, it usually means some sort of change of direction or perhaps some issues? So this is that not a sign of company weakness?

"No, Achilles has continued to grow strongly and do very well, revenues are in the order of £70 million annually now, but we think that could realistically double again over the next few years."

Adrian Chamberlain seemed to be taking the firm in the direction of being more of a software firm and perhaps less services focused? So is that focus and strategy unchanged?

"There is not major change of strategic direction but I do have some views on the focus for the firm. I'm clear that the industry communities we support are central to our proposition and we have to make sure that giving those communities what they want and need is at the centre of what we do.   The quality of the data we have is amazing, real audited information, so my focus is on how we serve those communities. Perhaps we’re putting more focus back onto how we can better support our mature communities – the strategy is certainly not “software for software’s sake”.

More tomorrow in part 2.

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