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Analysing Founders

Chris Tossell
Cofounder and Former Commercial Director at The Access Group

Learning outcomes

  • What characteristics and tendencies Access Group looked for in founders and managers of target acquisition companies
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Executive Bio

Chris Tossell

Cofounder and Former Commercial Director at The Access Group

Chris was a co-founder of Access Group, a UK-based enterprise software company, in 1991. Chris left in 1995 and returned in 2005 during a management buyout to lead M&A with a private equity sponsor. He led over 18 acquisitions during 2005-11 and helped the business grow in 2005 from £25m revenue to over £240m in 2019. Access is owned by TA Associates and Hg Capital and is valued over £1bn in 2019. Read more

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Interview Transcript

What was the biggest thing you learnt about dealing with people and looking for certain tendencies. Were there any techniques that you used to analyze people? You mentioned that Access is completely focused on people.

We never did anything like metric testing or anything like that on people. We took it on our own gut reaction to whether we liked people or not. When I think about it now, we didn’t do any health checks on people. Somebody could have a heart attack. Funnily enough, I did help somebody buy a business, a couple of years ago, and a month later, the guy had a heart attack.

Let’s say you’re at Access Group, you go to a meeting with a founder, when you’re speaking to the founder, what are you looking for? What tendencies or reactions are you looking for?

The tendencies and reactions that you are looking for, and asking, are how will you feel about working in a larger business? How will that affect you? You have worked for yourself, ever since you left school, for 20 years. How are you going to feel about it? It’s at that point that people will say, I’ll do it on my own; I don’t think I want to sell. Or some people will say, I’m really looking forward to it. What you’re saying to them is, if you carry on, at the moment, you are running your own business. You’ve had to worry about HR and payroll and administration. We’ll take all that away. All you have to do is focus on growing your business. All that admin that you never wanted to do in the first place, you don’t have to do it anymore. A lot of people go, wow, that’s amazing. That will just let me get on. And that’s what you see people do.

Or, as I say, some people will say, upfront, it’s not for me, working in a big corporate; I can’t see it. We’d say, you know what, try it, because you might find you like it. You get a good idea at that point.

So it’s about the integration of them into the larger business?

Yes, because we have to be very upfront about that. But there are things that we will always say to them as well, which is, look, we’re not going to change the name of your business, at least not at first. We bought People Planner and it’s got a good brand and all the rest of it. Why would we change that to something else? Keep the brand; it’s great. You like it. Customers like it. We’ll just put, ‘Part of the Access Group’ underneath. We’d say to them, what do you think about marketing? We’ve got this huge marketing department and they say, we’ve got this person and they’re really, really good and they’ve done my marketing for the last three years. We say, great; we’ll just integrate them into our marketing department. They can still work in your office, if you want. They might say, we’ve got a bit of a rubbish marketing person. Okay, we’ve got this fantastic marketing department; we’ll just put them to work.

People will ask about the future of their employees. We’ll tell them that the jobs at risk are administration because, obviously, we are going to do that centrally. If you’ve got an in-house accountant, ultimately, their job will be at risk. Marketing might be at risk, if they’re not any good. Apart from that, we will go to a meeting, immediately after the acquisition, with all the employees, where you present what you have done and we will be saying, please don’t start thinking you need to change your job. We need all of you to be here. Literally, we’re begging you not to leave, just because you now think something terrible is going to happen, because you’ve been bought. You just try, again, to establish rapport with the employees.

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