Winners are beginning to emerge from the recent shake-out and consolidation in mid-market accounting and ERP. One of them is Access Accounting, a privately owned British company focussed entirely on the UK SME market with its popular Dimensions and Horizons product lines. Far from feeling threatened by the arrival of SAP, Microsoft and Oracle in the mid-market, Access Accounting is thriving. Alistair O'Reilly, the company's CEO and founder explains to Gary Simon, FSN's managing editor, that there is more to competing in the mid-market than a global brand and multi-million pound marketing budgets.
The marketplace for mid-range accounting and financial packages has changed out of all recognition since Access Accounting was formed in 1991. In those days there were huge differences in the functionality and the technology offered by suppliers. Indeed, the company made early gains by being one of the first to offer a Windows based platform, and nailing its colours to the Microsoft mast. So it's somewhat ironic that fifteen years later Microsoft is, in some respects, a competitor. But how does a company like Access Accounting compete with global super-vendors or even a much larger player in the UK , such as Sage?
In broad terms the answer comes down to 'people' and Alistair O'Reilly recognised the importance of 'human capital' long before it became a fashionable phrase. "Our ability to compete effectively is all about people and a passion for making it happen" he says. At first, the answer sounds too convenient and trite but as the interview progresses it becomes apparent that there is real substance behind the sentiment.
The company does indeed have a unique culture and atmosphere. For a start it is based on the outskirts of a picturesque Essex village – a far cry from the corporate paraphernalia and gloss of London . Surrounded by farmland, it is not the most likely environment in which to find high calibre, software developers, engineers, support staff and trainers, yet Access Accounts is able to attract and keep the best.
"People like the village atmosphere of working here and we benefit from a strong and dedicated local workforce. Some have referred to us as ' Silicon Village ' or 'Silicon Vale', but drawing on the local community also means that we have to be a training organisation." The commitment to nurturing talent within the organisation and developing strong personal relationships outside of the company is a recurrent theme of the company's culture.
The organisation has an almost 'Branson-esque' feel to it. Staff are very well looked after. Any member of staff can attend training that is of interest and relevant so that they have some understanding of the products, bond with their colleagues and become "Access People". Others are sponsored through accounting and management training courses and "Come and Try it," sessions, ranging from poker, belly dancing and aromatherapy help to create a unique atmosphere collaboration. The Access campus is made up of a cluster of converted and extended buildings and the staff all know each other very well. O'Reilly frets that the latest expansion spanning more than one site may make communications more difficult.
But O'Reilly's respect for people also radiates out from the organisation. Even though the business receives around 8,000 telephone calls a month, the Board shunned the idea of an automated switchboard. "People want to talk to human beings and we think it's extremely important," says O'Reilly. Unbeknown to O'Reilly, reception was referring a call to support when FSN arrived. "This customer needs some assistance with a programme but doesn't know her customer support number – but I'm sure you can help her find it," said the receptionist to her colleague. How far would that customer have got with an automated switchboard or call centre?
"We welcome customers and dealers to come to our site to meet with any of our staff. It's important that they can meet with the people behind the organisation if they need to," says O'Reilly. The company also lavishes similar attention on its dealers who attend extensive product training but can also receive help on running their own businesses successfully, if needed. Informal dinners with Access' directors help to keep them in the picture on key developments and strategies.
The strong Access culture is a fundamental part of the company's competitiveness. "The market has changed and there is a clear need for a consultancy led sales approach," says O'Reilly. "Our people have to listen carefully and understand fully customers' needs. We have to understand their vertical market and speak their language. Whilst we aim to fulfil most of their needs with functionality straight 'out of the box', most customers these days are switching suppliers because they want to centralise on a SQL technology platform, or benefit from better integration with other systems or improved reporting. It's more complex and people skills are central to providing the range of business process advice and services that people need. That's why we do our own training. We have tried to outsource it in the past and whilst it helps with the volume of training effort it doesn't help with quality."
It is this obsessiveness about the mid-market that differentiates Access Accounting from the super-vendors. O'Reilly draws a straight line across an A4 pad to represent Microsoft's turnover and a very thin wedge to represent its revenue from accounting software. "It's not to scale," he says, "but if you now think how much of their income comes from the UK and then how much from our target market of £1m to £50m turnover businesses then it is tiny. We are probably bigger than Navision or Great Plains in the UK in our segment."
"The point is that for both SAP and Microsoft, their interest in our segment is a tiny strand of the whole organisation, whereas for us, it is the organisation," he adds.
"I think that SAP may find it more difficult to penetrate this market than they think and by the time they have rewarded the dealers I cannot see them making much money. It will be interesting to see whether they will stay the course in the long run."
On the other hand, Access Accounts has benefited from a long association with the Microsoft and is one of the few accredited Microsoft Gold Partners in the accounting field, based in the UK . "We have to jump through all kinds of hoops to keep our products accredited, but in return Microsoft shares its development path which allows us to plan our product strategy. By concentrating on a single platform we can evolve our technology much faster, it's easier to test and more robust."
So far the strategy seems to have worked. Access Accounts achieved its 2005 growth targets a year early and is powering its way to a target turnover of £20m in 2010. O'Reilly still gets a buzz from working in the business that he has built up with the help of his loyal staff. Characteristically, it is the people aspects that drive his enthusiasm. "Growing people is the most rewarding part of my role," he says.
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