We’re delighted to share the last episode in series one of ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses” in which we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. In Episode 7 we chat to Peter Sweetbaum, CEO of Content+Cloud, one of the UK’s leading technology services, solutions and support providers, about the role of digital transformation in a post-pandemic world, the importance of creating a compelling culture as part of your M&A strategy and his top advice for CEOs looking for investment.
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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. I’m Fiona Evans, and this is actually our last episode of our first ever series. So thank you so much to CEOs who have joined us, and those who have listened to and hopefully enjoyed it. Today, for this last episode, I’m delighted to welcome Peter Sweetbaum, CEO of Content+Cloud, one of the UK’s leading technology services, solutions and support providers, helping organizations grasp all that technology can offer. Hi, Peter, welcome to the podcast.
Peter: Hi, Fiona, how are you?
Fiona: I’m good. Thank you. So, it’s fair to say that Content+Cloud had had quite a busy last 12 months given the demand for digital change. What do you think the role of digital transformation is post-pandemic? And what’s Content+Cloud’s role in that?
Peter: I think, frankly, that the pandemic has shown how important digital transformation is, to be able to continue to operate and trade effectively, whether that’s through bringing business processes and back office online or engaging with customers digitally. I think the reality is that the trend and expectation of internal users of technology as well as customers, is not going to change in the post-pandemic era, whenever that officially starts.
Fiona: Yes, optimistically it’s hopefully soon! But what was it like at the start of the pandemic, because you must have had so many clients and organizations who had to really rapidly change what they were doing? How was that for you as a business?
Peter: Yeah, I think it was obviously a busy time. But equally, I’m pleased to say, because we have taken most of our clients on a Microsoft journey and into the cloud, that the vast majority of them were able to work pretty seamlessly moving into a pandemic context. But clearly, there was a lot more activity, a lot more calls, but overall, it was entirely manageable, both for us internally and for our clients.
Fiona: And I suppose there’s been a lot of other things to focus on, with it sounding like Content+Cloud had quite a busy year, regardless of all the digital transformation needs of its clients. That included acquisitions and a rebrand. Do you want to just tell me a little bit about that rebrand, and what it means for your business?
Peter: Sure, it has been an incredibly busy time, there’s no doubt. The rebrand was something we obviously wanted to do pre-pandemic, but we took the decision to continue to do it despite the pandemic. It was an important part of our journey. We’d been through a buy and build process, acquiring a number of companies, and what we wanted to do is be able to have a brand that we can all get behind, and that also told our customers what we actually do. There’s a couple of reasons we chose the name Content+Cloud. One is, most importantly, it tells customers what we’re there to help them do, which is basically take their content, which is their system, their data, their processes, and help them, really leverage them in the cloud. Obviously, even more prescient now with digital transformation and the pandemic era.
Secondly, when we thought about the name, we wanted a name which could resonate and wasn’t a made-up name, or a Latin or Greek name, for instance, where we had to build brand awareness and brand knowledge. We acquired a company called Content and Code in 2018, and that had a well-known brand. So, it made sense to keep the benefit of the brand equity, but also tells customers what we do, and was something that already had some great traction in the market.
Fiona: And I think one of the great things, like you mentioned, about the rebrand is that it brings all those different entities and different capabilities into one group that everyone can recognize. Content+Cloud completed, I think, five acquisitions, since ECI’s investment. How has the business itself changed as a result of those acquisitions?
Peter: Massively. In pretty much every way you can think of. I think overall, if you step back, we’ve used these acquisitions to broaden and deepen our capabilities, particularly in the Microsoft Ecosystem. But I think the overall change that that drove within the business is far more profound than that. We reshaped the business entirely. We implemented a new target operating model across, the company at the time was, I think, 700 people, to build a very strong coherent organizational design for the business that could continue to scale. What we really did is we reshaped it to combine the best of all the components of the group, and use it to build a platform that can grow. That work is ongoing, but also extremely well advanced. And it’s really exciting to see it come to life. What we’ve actually got now is a great platform which we can build, and it’s really designed for the future and for scale.
Fiona: And what has it meant for your clients? Because you mentioned that those acquisitions added a lot of extra people, which I’m guessing also means a lot of extra capability. How does that transform things for the organizations that you work with?
Peter: For clients, I think it’s been incredibly valuable because clients want their provider to be able to help them get the best of their technology environment. And the Microsoft Ecosystem is particularly impressive. It’s deep, and it’s broad, and it’s highly integrated. Therefore having a provider who understands all the components of the Microsoft Cloud Architecture, and the three clouds, as they call it, is really important because you don’t want to have a fragmented supplier base, where people are stepping on each other’s toes. Really what you want is expertise, and one of the things we say is we invest in Microsoft so our clients don’t actually have to. So that’s been really powerful, and to bring the capabilities that we brought into the group as a result of not only the acquisitions, but also the internal product and servicing capability development has been really strong and resonant, particularly in last year.
Fiona: We recently hosted a webinar with Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential plc, who was talking about how to create a successful M&A strategy. And one of the things he mentioned was the role of culture and how the CEO needs to lead from the top. In terms of creating a culture that brings all those different acquisitions together, how do you, as a CEO – given that there’s lots of different capabilities, you’ve completed a number of acquisitions, the size of business has scaled so much in the last 5, 10 years – how do you create that compelling culture from the top?
Peter: I think the first thing is openness. We’re very transparent with the team. My view is very much, it’s their lives, too. We’re all in the same canoe, as I always say. That’s really important to build trust, because I know what they’re hearing is the honest position. I think, secondly, we’re collaborative. So, the input into where we’re going, what we’re doing, is not just the top team setting that direction. We have a huge amount of respect for the capability, knowledge, and the people within the organization. It would be incredibly silly not to leverage that. I think, thirdly, before we even did any of the deals that we did do, one of the things that was really important was to confirm that we had the same shared vision of where technology was going.
So, at least the kind of destination of fundamental beliefs were aligned in the first place. The rest, honestly, is about mutuality of respect, seeing how it all fits together, and creating opportunity for the company and everyone in it. And I think if you can stick to those principles, everybody can get bought into the journey. Clearly, we were buying Microsoft-orientated businesses, at least that was a tick before we even started. But I think it’s just about respecting people and bringing them along with you on the journey.
Fiona: In terms of those values around openness, collaboration, and respect, how has that been impacted by the pandemic? Because on one hand, there’s been a need to be more open and communicate more during the pandemic. But also, it’s a period of rapid change and you’re not in the office together necessarily. How have you seen that kind of culture change during COVID?
Peter: Yeah, it’s interesting as people started talking about the future of working models and working hybrid, working remotely, not coming into offices and things. My fundamental view is, the only reason this worked in the first place is because we had a very strong culture and strong bond before the pandemic, so it made it functionally possible. But I think as time goes on, that will become strained. You’ve got new starters who don’t build relationships and need to learn. You’ve got groups of people that you just don’t see, and you don’t really engage with. So, it’s really been important to make sure that we’re communicating, and we’re thinking more about the individuals.
One of the things that I’ll be talking about to the company very shortly, is the fact that the lines between work and home have become incredibly blurred. Therefore, not through being asked by the company, people are working harder and are struggling to distinguish how to break that dynamic. So, I think it’s incumbent upon the company to think what’s actually going on in the team, and their mental and physical wellbeing? So, you know, that’s certainly an increased responsibility that we take really seriously.
Fiona: That’s definitely something I found during the pandemic is that it’s hard to have that separation between work and home. Was that something you found personally as well?
Peter: Yeah. I’m not going to lie, as CEO of a private equity company growing very fast, it’s probably a hard distinction to make anyway. But that’s my choice, and of course it’s harder, particularly in the winter when it was miserable and it wasn’t like you could go out and do some things, take the dog out, etc.
Fiona: So, if we go right back before of world of tech and being a CEO, what was your first ever job and what did you learn from it?
Peter: My first real job was as a legal assistant at a corporate law firm and I was incredibly lucky because I got put on to, on day two, a £700 million hostile bid for a public company. And working on that deal for a whole year, it was extraordinary. That was like the most amazing and unique start you could ever hope for. That was the first real job, but I had a whole bunch of jobs. I worked in a Mexican restaurant for my first job. And I can tell you that what I learned is I definitely don’t want to work in Mexican restaurants.
Fiona: Did you learn what you should and shouldn’t order in a Mexican restaurant?
Peter: Yeah, and how much you shouldn’t drink. Yeah, exactly. Probably shouldn’t go into the rest of it. But it was not a fun job.
Fiona: Do you think having been involved in law and having been a lawyer, do you think that’s changed how you approach work now?
Peter: Yeah. I guess as a background, I was a corporate lawyer and then went into investment banking. I think it’s just an accumulation of skills that are relevant to what I do. We’re a buy and build, so being able to bring those capabilities into what we do every day is really helpful. Our Chief People Officer said to me a couple days ago, “I don’t know how a CEO could do what you do without your background.” And I think it’s an interesting point, I think, for CEOs who don’t have that background, it’s a challenge, because it’s a complex process to buy and build. But yeah, I use what I’ve learned every day.
Fiona: And I guess it gives you quite a unique perspective, because having been in law, investment banking, now a CEO, you’ve seen both sides of the coin on the M&A process. Was there anything that surprised you about private equity, having gone through the actual investment process?
Peter: I would say a couple of things. One is, there is a difference between private equity houses, and you’ve got to get under the skin of them and spend time with them to understand the differences. I think the other thing is, the pace is unbelievable. It’s like running a marathon and a sprint at same time, because if you think about the shareholder objectives and private equity cycle, to create that much value, you got to be prepared to keep an incredible momentum up.
Fiona: And you mentioned getting under the skin of private equity houses. What advice would you give in terms of how best to do that? Because often, if you’re a CEO, you’re meeting lots of different private equity houses in the process. For some of them, they might look and feel the same. What advice would you give in terms of finding out those fundamental differences?
Peter: I think two things. One is to speak to people. Obviously speak to people who are not interested in the process, who’ve got experience, speak to other advisors, try to get a view. Certainly speak to the former investments that that private equity house has made. If they’re no longer an investment, they’ll probably be a bit more frank in their advice and thinking. But equally, I think the best advice I ever got from somebody was a guy called Glenn Elliott. Glenn is well known for having built a company called Reward Gateway, and he’s been through multiple private equity rounds. Before we were going through our PE round, we were just starting, he gave me the best piece of advice ever, which was, “Whatever you do, don’t forget to be yourself completely.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’ve got to spend four or five years with these people. One of the things that happens in a sale process obviously, is you want to put your best foot forward, they want to equally do the same thing. If you can’t be completely natural with who you are and how you are in those situations. There’s no way we’re going to keep that up for four or five years.” So, make sure you are yourself, and they understand who you are before they invest.
Fiona: Like people who fib on a first date. It’s all going to be revealed.
Peter: A little bit, yeah. I think a little bit.
Fiona: And then, as I understand it, you actually knew ECI prior to the investment process, because actually, you’d introduced deals to them as the role of corporate finance. Is that right?
Peter: Yes, and when I was a lawyer, so I actually worked with ECI on some deals, which was great. And then obviously, when I was in investment banking, spent a bit of time with the team. So yeah, I have a long-standing history with ECI.
Fiona: You worked with the Cabinet Office back in 2012. What did you do there? And what did it teach you about the relationship between technology and politics?
Peter: Firstly, it was an incredible experience. I worked directly for the UK Government’s CIO. I was his first hire when he came into Cabinet Office. My role and the team’s role was to work with central government departments to do a couple of things. One was to transition from the big, monolithic black box systems integrated contracts, where they controlled everything in a government department, to create a much more agile and flexible technology, vendor, and partner model. That way they can get flexibility, and transparency.
The second thing was really to drive digital transformation off the back of that flexibility. I got to be involved in some of the biggest programs of government, which was an amazing experience. I think what it taught me about the relationship between technology and politics is ultimately that the government is there to serve citizens, right? That’s their primary role. To do this, they need to think about the user and the user need. What’s abundantly clear is the average user does not want to write letters, doesn’t want to wait in call queues. They want to do things online in a simple way, and they want to do things digitally. As a result, it’s incumbent on government to remove all those blockers. Whether those blockers are process, whatever they may be.
Fiona: I think it’s quite easy to get frustrated, because often when you’re involved in these processes, it’s normally at a frustrating moment, you’re getting your driving license or whatever it is. I think sometimes we don’t realize how much has actually changed over the last decade in terms of how we interact with public bodies through technology.
Peter: Yeah, absolutely. What you’re referring to there’s the DVLA, which is something I was heavily involved in, funnily enough. And that’s absolutely right. Government has really picked up the mantle since that era to understand that it is better to deliver a citizen service through digital transformation, digital technologies, and online. It’s also more cost effective and more flexible.
Fiona: What do you think is next in terms of the next decade for government and technology? Do you think things will change dramatically?
Peter: Yeah, I think they have to. I think the speed of transformation will continue to change. I think government is much more open to making things work, and when I talk about work, I’m talking about things like data sharing policies, which enable shared services across government departments. So, they become a single supplier to a single citizen much more effectively. Certainly, I hope that’s the case. Equally, particularly post-pandemic, with the amount of government debt that’s in place, the government has to do things more cost effectively. Therefore technology is going to be absolutely critical in enabling to do that.
Fiona: You mentioned Glenn from Reward Gateway had given you valuable advice about being yourself. Is there anyone else who’s given you valuable advice during your career?
Peter: Not totally dissimilar to his view was, understand yourself well enough to be able to have the confidence to make the decisions that you’d want to make. I think that I’ve had a very varied career between legal, finance, government, tech, and it’s been great. I think the willingness and ability to explore, move laterally, and build, I guess, a portfolio of skills has been brilliant. I had that advice from one of the partners that I used to work with at a law firm.
Fiona: And actually moving laterally is something that I think lots of people find really difficult, because it’s quite a leap of faith to suddenly change careers and believing what the right next step is for you. Did you find that hard at the time when you were moving between these quite varied roles?
Peter: There was definitely a transition phase in each case, but one of the things I found is the more and more I did it, the more I had to bring to those scenarios. I had the other experiences, so it became a little bit easier, if that makes sense.
Fiona: Is it something that you would look for when you’re hiring now, for example, into your senior team, those different perspectives and backgrounds?
Peter: Yeah, definitely. I think our senior team is a really good representation of that. The sense that we do have an incredible set of complementary skills across the senior team, really enables us to be more effective. That openness and mutuality of respect has been really fundamental, because we know who needs to do what, who can do what, and who is best to do what within the business. That’s been really powerful, because it’s enabled us to do so much more as a result.
Fiona: And what do you think the hardest lesson you’ve learned during your career is?
Peter: The hardest lesson I’ve learned during my career? I think, ironically, that personal challenges in your personal life will always be far more important and be the thing that should ultimately give you the emotional stability that you need. Work should always be something that inevitably will be interesting, will be compelling, will be intellectually challenging, you work hard. But it’s a different part of your life.
Fiona: Is there anything that business success has taught you about yourself as a person?
Peter: I would say that, for any CEO, truthfully, that it’s about the team, and the criticality of the people around you to be really aligned, to be motivated, to be engaged, respected because your success is entirely down to the team around you. I think if you hire the right team and you people are motivated and driven, then success will come from that.
Fiona: And if you hire the right team and everything’s going well, it’s fun. It’s really fun.
Peter: Yeah, absolutely. That is one of the things that I’ve definitely learned, is that I love operating. I love working with the team to collectively build the business. I did have a career in law. I did have a career in investment banking, and I totally respect those industries and those professions and use them, but I think running something is a lot more fun.
Fiona: And if you were giving advice now to CEOs who are maybe at the beginning of that journey that you’ve been on, what advice would you give to them?
Peter: Loving what you do and believing what you do is critical. I know that sounds like a fairly obvious statement and a bit glib, but I think truthfully, the essence is if it doesn’t excite you and you’re running as a business for business sake, as opposed to what you think that business is achieving, for your customers and people around you, then you’re probably in the wrong space. So, reflect hard. The other thing is, always look forward because industry changes so quickly, particularly our space in technology. You need to be able to read the market three, four years ahead, to really understand what’s going to be coming and be ready to continually evolve and be agile.
Fiona: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s great to hear about how Content+Cloud is supporting businesses making the most of technology, especially at the moment when it’s so key to business growth. And thank you to all those of you listening. Please do subscribe to find out more about our upcoming series, too. Thanks, Peter.
Peter: Thanks very much, Fiona. Take care.