Growing up on a farm in the middle of the Berkshire Downs, Matt Franklin might have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in the agriculture industry. Instead however, he has (metaphorically) gone from rags to riches and back to rags with a rollercoaster career in technology. A former winner of the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, today the 44-year-old is managing director of award-winning Roc Technologies, a Newbury-based technology business which is expected to turn over £14 million this year.
Born and brought up in Compton, Franklin’s early claim to fame was winning Young Farmers Tractor Driver of the Year, and his entrepreneurial spirit was already in evidence as he earned up to £30 a week selling eggs at the roadside. With aspirations to become a professional footballer, as a teenager he realised his talent didn’t quite match up to his ambitions, and instead pursued a business studies degree at Portsmouth University. Armed with a degree and a new plan to become a corporate lawyer, his intention was to go to Bar School after a season’s skiing. Fate took a hand however, when the team at Cabletron in Newbury, where he worked part-time, offered him an extra £500 to stay on. From there, Franklin went on to found Prime Business Solutions, which was acquired for £28m in 2004, after which he sailed round the world and invested in restaurants and the property market. A return to the industry with 2e2, the business that acquired Prime, was less successful however as, through no fault of his own, the business crashed and he was left to try and pick up the pieces. Along with three colleagues Mike Hockey, Steve Shirley and Sam Simpson he acquired Roc Technologies and began the building process once again.
What was your first job?
Growing up, IT was never my forté. I was encouraged to be involved in the Young Farmers and beef farming instead. When I was studying for my A Levels, I had a part-time job co-ordinating data in an IT call centre. As students, if we were well-behaved, we would be allowed to go to the executive carvery in a big mansion house and I remember thinking what a fantastic place it would be to work. Ironically, in 1999, when I had Prime Business Solutions, I signed a 15-year lease and we moved into that very mansion. During university, I had a placement at Xerox in Woking, working in operations and customer service, which was very good experience, and then went to Cabletron, which was my first full-time job in technology. Within three years I was running a sales team, spending time in the US and handling some impressive deals with large enterprise customers
How did you found Prime?
When Cabletron went down the partner route, together with some colleagues, I set up Prime in 1996 to demonstrate how the channel model would work. It was quite difficult as we had zero funding apart from a £10k loan from my parents, but we made it work. By 2003 our turnover was £35m and we sold the business the following year to a large integrator.
What happened next?
I was asked to return and run some other businesses within the group, which I did very successfully, helping them grow from £30m to £400m. The business was about to be sold but, unknown to the management team, things weren’t quite as they seemed and it crashed overnight. I tried to look after as many people as possible and continued to provide services to customers so they weren’t impacted by the collapse. After nearly a month, I had a wage bill for £300,000 but we didn’t even have a bank account and I turned to my customers for support. Because we had only been going for three weeks, they couldn’t help so that’s when we acquired Roc Technologies, to give us the trading record we needed.
Additional former colleagues came on board as the management team and our plan for the first year was to solidify our position and build relationships with our customers. Within a couple of months we had grown Roc from £100,000 to £400,000 turnover and within the first year we were at £4m, which doubled in year two. This year, we expect to turn over £14m in line with our plan to do £20m by 2018.
How difficult was it to start again?
We had to demonstrate we weren’t culpable and we literally started with nothing, I had to mortgage my house and used personal money to buy things like stationery and petrol and to fund the new website. It was a gamble but I believe you have to be prepared to take calculated risks.
The key thing was that people knew me and they knew my team would deliver on our promises. They trusted us with those critical projects because they knew we had done it for them before. They knew we could do difficult jobs and deliver them on time, to cost and achieve the benefits they were looking for.
Did you ever doubt you would succeed?
When you’ve lost everything you built up over the previous 15 years, you could sit down and cry into your drink or you decide to pick yourself up. I didn’t even think about it, for me it was about what I could do to help customers and start again.
Was there one standout moment when you knew you were on the way?
When customers such as the MOD and Tesco put their trust in us rather than larger and more established businesses, that was a big moment for us.
What have been some of your key achievements?
One is the way we’ve set up separate business areas – a former contact of mine established the business transformation practice with a view to helping businesses become more efficient and, since last October, he’s signed up 61 new customers, with big names including RBS, Daimler and GSK.
It’s also important to me to reward the good people who have stayed with you on that journey. We have put in place a John Lewis-style partnership model, so everyone from the receptionist to the management team has their own piece of the business.
What has been the secret of your success?
We’ve always tried to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. There are far too many failed IT projects, so we’re working with Oxford University on a joint venture project looking at how businesses can avoid wasting money on expensive IT projects which don’t work. The university is undertaking the world’s largest survey of projects and programmes and is using our proven methodology to look at 140 data points. From there, they will be able to produce reference-based forecasting to detail what a project will cost, how long it will take and other key elements. For us, it’s about continually trying to innovate and this is just one example.
Who inspires you?
I’ve met Sir Richard Branson twice, once when he was serving drinks on board one of his flights and talking about the grass roots of customer service. He said if you are ever in any doubt about something, you should just do it. The proviso was that you should be able to limit the consequences of it not working, otherwise, if you don’t try – you will never know.
What does winning awards mean to you?
Last year, we won Bayer 2014 Business of the Year, which was a real surprise. All the staff got a real lift from the win and for the executive board it was great to get the recognition and endorsement that you are doing some of the right things. It was a great barometer to see ourselves against other businesses.
How would you describe yourself?
Driven and passionate about doing a good job.
What does the future hold?
I believe in working with people you know and trust. Martin St Quinton, well-known to many as the founder of Azzurri Communications, has joined our board to support us with our strategy, so that’s very exciting.
Our plan is to grow the business organically over the next five years to £20m and at present we’re tracking within 1% of that, so we know it’s achievable. With Martin’s support there may be some strategic acquisitions, longer term, we want to grow to £100m, and at some future point there may be an IPO.
I fancy running a publicly floated company, but in the meantime, I’d like to be famous for doing a great job.
What do you do on your time off?
My family is really important to me, I have two sons, a daughter and a stepson who I enjoy spending as much time as possible with.
And finally, what’s your last word?
I’ve had significant success in my career but also have experienced how quickly things can go wrong. I went from rags to riches and back again very quickly and so personally, I would like to be able to demonstrate that the success I achieved first time around wasn’t a fluke or a one-off event.
At Prime, we were very focused on an exit and all the trappings that came with it. This time, it’s more about creating a great business that people are proud to work for. If, by doing that, we also leave a legacy for our staff, their families and for the next generation too, then that would be nice.