Travel: Deals to take off
Ryanair recently reported strong travel demand and a traffic rise of 74% at higher fares. However, many travel assets have been locked in for years following the perfect storm of Brexit followed by a global pandemic. Given that bookings also remain buoyant, many owners and investors will shortly be looking to exit – we anticipate deal volumes in the travel sector will significantly ramp up towards the end of 2023 and certainly by early 2024. That said, a healthy amount of caution around travel remains within private equity.
- Tour operators are in demand. Whilst the post-pandemic bookings bounce has faded, tour operators appear somewhat protected from the impact of inflation and cost of living pressures – recent surveys suggest a number of tourists plan to take the same (and in many cases more) holidays than they did in 2022. The macro environment creates favourable conditions for operators as holidaymakers want to make informed travel plans; many being risk adverse given a reduction in disposal income. A trend towards travelling during off-peak seasons can also help operators that are typically subject to high levels of seasonality manage their cashflow better.
- Sustainable travel is now a hugely important factor for many travellers; 90% of respondents from a recent survey (conducted by Expedia) stated they now look for sustainable options when planning a holiday. The impact travel businesses have on the environment is often tricky to quantify, but an important consideration for many customers (and therefore will need to be for potential investors).
- Technology enables personalisation, efficiency and service – exploiting the best software (be it booking systems or artificial intelligence) often enables operators to target customers more easily and enhance the consumer experience. Technology continues to be a key differentiator in the sector and appetite remains for investment and adoption.
There haven’t been many transactions post pandemic, here’s what investors need to look for:
- Destination markets and local expertise
Our recent work on Inside Travel Group highlighted the importance of end market destinations – is demand for these locations growing, and does the business have the local expertise to differentiate against other more generalist providers?
- The fundamentals won’t change
Cash is king and costs will remain high – what is the continued impact on the business? How do they manage this? Where will growth come from?
- Get your pricing right
Consumer surveys suggest that people are less willing to forgo their holidays and prepared to sacrifice other non-discretional spend. They expect prices to rise, not standards to fall. What is the pricing strategy? Can the sales team clearly articulate it? How well is the business managing the customer experience given the squeeze on resources and staff?
Getting and keeping the right people is still a key concern. Management teams will need to be able to present a clear plan of how they are addressing staff shortages now and in the future. What flexible working arrangements are in place? How is talent rewarded? What are the levels of churn in key roles?
Travel deals Armstrong has supported:
Click to read about our recent work with Inside Travel here.
Speak to myself or a member of the team about opportunities in the travel sector.
Jack Hibbs, Engagement Manager
+44 7883 296 346
Facilities management: Growth from solid foundations
How we use buildings has changed since the pandemic. What they need to do has not.
Whether for schools, city offices or new logistics sheds, we are seeing a continued interest in businesses servicing buildings. These can range from traditional full-service facilities management to niche engineering servicing and maintaining lifts. Whilst the business models are different, their growth plans face the same challenges.
Depth or breadth?
Barriers to entering the sector are high and customers will need reassurance that switching is worthwhile. Investors and management teams will have to decide whether specialism is an advantage or bundling of services to create a ‘one stop shop’ is more appealing to their existing and future customers.
A robust understanding of the market and opportunities will help determine the best route for growth. These are some of the questions to ask:
- What is the organic growth plan for the business?
- How much influence does compliance with regulation and insurance drive customer spending decisions?
- What opportunities are there to grow into adjacent markets, regions or take market share from full-service providers?
Talking to customers and prospective customers is key to understanding the viability of growth plans and steps needed to achieve them.
Technology adoption is increasing rapidly across the sector. The ability to manage, monitor and measure is giving customers more value and a better user experience. Some businesses are investing in in-house technology offerings (e.g. asset management systems, security systems etc.), influencing customers’ expectations of what FM services can be, and ultimately making their contracts more ‘sticky’.
There are different levels of adoption and businesses that navigate this well will have an advantage with their more tech savvy customers.
Buy and build
There are still plenty of small local businesses servicing buildings. They have the skills and local goodwill to be part of an attractive buy and build strategy.
Read our article on laying the foundations for a buy-and-build strategy here.
Some recent deals we have worked on in the building services sector:
British Engineering Systems two acquisitions in TICC
Find out more about some of these specialist areas:
Speak to a member of the team about your opportunities in facilities management.
Brandon Matthews, Senior Consultant
+44 7771 401 723
Matt McNally, Director
+44 7894 736 523
Tech: YFM Equity Partners investment in Resulting IT
Armstrong is delighted to have provided Commercial Due Diligence (CDD) to YFM Equity Partners (YFM) on its partial investment of Warrington-based, ERP consultancy, Resulting IT.
Founded in 2004, Resulting IT has established itself as a leading independent provider of ERP advisory services and project management support. A market expert in the leading platform SAP, Resulting IT is not aligned to one ERP and works with other packages such as Oracle, Workday, IFS, and MS Dynamics.
Resulting IT’s clients include Transport for London, Asda, Leeds University, and NHS 24 where it has developed a range of proprietary software tools and products to enhance service delivery.
YFM’s investment will enable Resulting IT to accelerate growth across the UK and diversify its services into a wider range of sectors without compromising the quality of delivery.
Armstrong provided full scope CDD including in-depth interviews with Resulting’s customers, as well as ERP implementation partners and market experts. Our commercial strategy work analysed Resulting’s proposition, its addressable market and potential expansion opportunities post-transaction. Our value creation workshops will build on the insights from the CDD and other DD workstreams to help form a coherent strategy for the next stage of growth.
Stuart Browne, CEO at Resulting IT, said: “Armstrong’s work will add a huge amount of value to the next stage of our growth. It has given me, and will give the team, a huge amount of pride that our hard work is valued by our clients. I’m really looking forward to evolving this into a firmer strategy.”
Laura Sisson, Investment Manager at YFM, said: “Mike, myself and the wider YFM team really enjoyed working with Armstrong on this transaction and would like to thank them for providing a comprehensive and insightful CDD report.”
Ifan Dafydd, Senior Consultant at Armstrong, said: “It was great to work with the Resulting IT management team and YFM on this transaction. The feedback from Resulting’s customers, summarised by a phenomenal NPS of 93.3, highlights the great work that Stuart and the team do for their clients in what can often be very complex projects and programmes. With support from YFM, we believe the business will continue to go from strength to strength.”
Please contact a member of the team to discuss opportunities in the Technology sector.
Ifan Dafydd, Senior Consultant
+44 7792 158 738
Mike Callow, Partner
+44 7894 594 500
Legal services: Investment opportunities across the value chain
Armstrong has been busy supporting investors across professional services deals including consultancies, accountancy and legal services.
In the legal services sector, we have worked on deals in high street legal, flexible law resource and tech-enabled law firm specialist areas like intellectual property (IP) services.
In 2020, we published an article with Clearwater on legal services with a useful framework for how to think about investment opportunities given the growing adoption of technology. One area where we are seeing attractive and scalable M&A opportunities to build tech-enabled law firms today is in the IP services subsector.
Large law firms have scale, experience and capacity. However, smaller IP specialists will continue to differentiate where their senior staff build close working relationships with clients based on their technical and legal expertise and understanding of their clients’ businesses.
Key commercial questions for investors evaluating opportunities in the legal services sector:
- What is the likely future demand for IP services in each host market, given the macro environment and key drivers? How international is the target company and which are the best expansion opportunities?
- What are the target’s differentiators and how sustainable are they? How deep are the firm’s specialisms (e.g. patents, litigation) and end-industry focus?
- How have client needs evolved and how has the target developed its capabilities to adapt to this?
- Has the target been able to deploy technology to change the way it delivers its services (e.g. automate lower complexity services) and free up staff to do higher value work for clients?
- How ‘sticky’ are client relationships? Which other IP law firms do clients use, e.g. by country or by service, and what does this mean for the growth strategy?
- Does the target have a pipeline of attractive acquisitions to help them build capacity and expertise in key industries?
- Is the target an attractive place for specialist lawyers to join and can management access enough talent to deliver their business plan?
We have been helping investors and management teams answer these and related questions on their transactions. Speak to Rupert, Simon, and the team if you would like to discuss opportunities in legal services.
Rupert Cookson, Senior Consultant
+44 7983 110 150
Simon Hemsley, Partner
+44 7957 340 534
Renewables: How private equity can contribute to the UK goal of net zero
The UK is aiming to reach net zero by 2050 and transition to an electricity system with 100% zero-carbon generation. This is expected to come from renewable energy – wind, solar, hydroelectric and bioenergy.
Renewables already play an important role in the UK’s energy strategy. In 2022 wind power contributed 26.8% of the UK’s total electricity generation; biomass energy, the burning of renewable organic materials, contributed 5.2% to the renewable mix; solar power contributed 4.4% to the renewable mix; and hydropower, including tidal, contributed 1.8% to the renewable mix (Source: National Grid).
Renewables have similarly been creeping up the investor agenda. 28 deals have successfully completed in the first few months of 2023 pointing to an upward trend. According to Pitchbook there were 165 deals in 2022 (up from 148 in 2021) suggesting an upward trend, and we think there is more out there. PE is well positioned to bring the funding, discipline and commercial experience needed to maintain the UK’s lead in renewables.
Do the due diligence
Saying that… forget the feel-good factor, proper robust due diligence is essential. This is a fragmented, fast-growing, complex market and you’ll need experts to help you navigate through it.
Here are some of the things you need to get comfort on:
Market demand: Is the end market growing, or at least stable? Is organic growth achievable? What impact will changing dynamics have on the market (e.g. new regulations, technology, adoption)? How easily could the business move into adjacent sub-sectors and/or verticals? Is this necessary to expand the addressable opportunity?
Resilience: Is this area of renewables resilient? Are other renewable sources likely to become more attractive, cheaper, more reliable?
Differentiation: How does the business differentiate, and how sustainable are its differentiators? How does its ESG credentials compare to competitors? How does it compare on customer service and price?
Operational model: How spread out geographically are the company’s customers, and what does this mean for access to services and staff utilisation? How does the company manage the risks in its supply chain (direct vs distributor)?
Technology: Is there opportunity for technology disruption in this area? If so, does the business have plans to develop their tech? How well developed are these plans? Can the business leverage technology to extend its service offering within existing customers, or to deliver it ‘better, faster, cheaper’?
Organic growth: How is the business going to grow organically? How difficult is it for customers to switch? What drives their buying decisions beyond price? Is there a danger of commoditisation?
Buy and build strategy: Many providers of renewable services are regional specialist businesses – it may make sense on paper to combine these niche services, but bolt-ons need a platform to grow from. Is the business suitable as a platform? What complementary services could be added to the business, or how could it extend its geographical footprint? Are the buy and build targets attractive to bolt on to a larger platform, and can management/PE focus improve them?
We have recently worked on deals in the ESG space including Stonbury, Anthesis, Cura Terrae and GEV.
Speak to a member of the team about opportunities in this sector.
Brandon Matthews, Senior Consultant
+44 7771 401 723
Business Services: Apiary Capital’s investment in First Intuition Limited
Armstrong is delighted to have provided sell-side commercial due diligence (CDD) to support award-winning education provider First Intuition Ltd in gaining investment from private equity firm Apiary Capital.
Founded in 2007, First Intuition delivers accountancy training to around 5,000 learners via centres in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, through online and hybrid courses. The company’s apprenticeship and commercial training both lead to qualifications and membership of four main accounting bodies with its apprenticeship provision rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.
Apiary’s investment will support First Intuition’s management team to grow the company’s apprenticeship and commercial training streams, continue its ambitions of expansion and pursue strategic acquisition opportunities.
Armstrong’s work included in-depth interviews with First Intuition’s clients, blended with an assessment of market demand and First Intuition’s competitive environment. Armstrong’s commercial strategy work evaluated the key growth drivers in the business plan to validate key investment hypotheses.
Rupert Cookson, Senior Consultant, Armstrong, said: “First Intuition is a high-quality business with an excellent track record, as shown by its ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted rating. Taking on investment will help the business to continue its growth trajectory, opening new sites across the country and growing share in a resilient market.”
If you are interested in talking to Armstrong about opportunities in the business services sector, please contact:
Rupert Cookson, Senior Consultant
+44 7983 110 150
Simon Hemsley, Partner
+44 7957 340 534
Financial Advice: Investment opportunities return
It’s been a tricky year for investors in the wealth management sector.
Last year we discussed what to look for and how to create value in financial advice businesses. You can read our article here.
Since then, there have been fewer deals, as a combination of issues made investors and management teams more cautious. But as things have settled down, deal volumes are now increasing.
Key issues for investors include:
- paying high multiples;
- justifying even higher adjusted EBITDAs;
- the difficulty of organic growth;
- AUM volatility;
- choppy new business inflows;
- how to retain key advisers post-acquisition;
- whether vertical integration is necessary;
- how to differentiate on exit; and
- the challenges of a buy-and-build strategy in a market with 30+ consolidators (higher prices and fewer targets).
Some financial advice firms have also cooled on the idea of taking investment or bolting on to a larger platform. They prefer to stay independent and/or can take on debt to fund their own buy-and-build strategy.
We have been helping investors and management teams answer these questions. Speak to the team if you would like to discuss opportunities in the wealth management sector.
Simon Hemsley, Partner & Head of Financial Services
+44 7957 340 534
Solomon Ishack, Senior Consultant
+44 7943 036 633
Tech: NVM’s investment in Leading Resolutions
Armstrong is delighted to have provided Customer Due Diligence (CDD) for NVM Private Equity (NVM) to support its investment in IT and digital transformation consultancy Leading Resolutions as part of a management buyout.
Based in Swindon, Leading Resolutions is an independent business and IT consultancy that focuses on delivering successful outcomes for clients, through Strategic Advisory, Technical Consulting, and Programme and Project Delivery services. Leading Resolutions is a trusted advisor to the boards of large and mid-sized corporates with an impressive list of blue-chip clients including Currys, The AA, Experian and EasyJet. Leading Resolutions has been named in the Financial Times UK’s Leading Management Consultants report across five categories for the past 3 years.
The investment will accelerate Leading Resolutions ambitions to develop services whilst bringing in additional skills and experience to the team. NVM has appointed David Rolfe and Charlie Pidgeon to join the existing Board alongside Geoff Neville as Non-Executive Chair.
Armstrong’s Commercial Due Diligence (CDD) looked at market trends and competition, assessed management’s strategy for growth, and provided a detailed overview of customer feedback.
Charlie Mundy, Senior Consultant, Armstrong, said: “Leading Resolutions is a high-quality business which has successfully developed a valuable digital transformation skillset. Leading Resolutions and NVM have the ability to grow organically and through acquisitions, and we look forward to seeing the further, successful growth of the firm.”
Charlie Pidgeon, NVM, said “We are pleased to have completed our investment in Leading Resolutions with the support of Mike, Charlie, and the Armstrong team. They quickly got up to speed with the core proposition and growth dynamics, which together with their extensive sector expertise gave us clear and useful insight to support our investment hypotheses.”
Read our recent article Tech Panel: scaling up a people centric business or contact a member of the team to find out more about opportunities in the Technology Services sector.
Charlie Mundy, Senior Consultant
+44 7853 430 630
Tech Panel: Scaling up a people centric business
We were delighted to host a tech panel recently on the challenges and pitfalls in scaling a people-based technology business. On the panel were Charlie Cannell (former Digital Director at Inflexion and non-exec at JMAN Group and Trilogy), Paul Henshaw (co-founder and former joint MD of Infinity Works) and General Sir Peter Wall (CEO Amicus).
The panel discussed the transition from start-up mode (founder led, creative, adaptable, ‘move fast and break stuff’) to scale-up mode that requires delegation, common purpose, defined roles, discipline, systems and process and ‘rules of the road’. The challenge is to build a structure without becoming rigid and losing the things that make the company special in the first place. All this whilst taking the workforce on the journey and attracting the talent needed.
Get this wrong and growth stalls.
Navigating the switch from start-up to PE ready scale-up
- There isn’t a direct link between change of ownership and what you’re trying to do with your people as the business grows. The step change is when founders let go; it doesn’t matter if that’s with 30 or 300 people.
- Commit to doing one thing. A good analogy for a start-up is a kids’ football team. They run around chasing a ball and have lots of tactical successes, but no sense of direction. It’s exciting but limited. Something will trigger the need to move to the next level – that’s when you commit to plans and must be willing to give parts up.
- It’s about resilience and refining processes without being too corporate too early. Loosen the grip on outdated processes to respond better to the competitive environment and client opportunities.
Introducing guiderails without stifling the growth process
- It’s a balance between influencing and introducing ideas and doing too much. A little bit of external advice is useful – as is a reliable deputy. You want to be able to test things and be comfortable saying ‘no’ before you commit. A ‘dual CEO’ role can be an effective way of doing this and splitting responsibilities to play to one another’s strengths.
- There are three preconditions for ‘letting go’ and giving trust to people you’ve recruited. The first is purpose – your common intention – and remember it needs to have emotional significance. Second is trust and respect, they go both ways. Finally, a shared consciousness of the methods you’re using (like IT, CRM) and these require careful design.
- The ‘just enough’ principle is important. The first few people joining a business won’t need a lot of management. They prefer working on a blank whiteboard. As the business grows and less experienced people join, the blank canvas can terrify them. They need some governance and structure, but just enough to guide them. You don’t want to scare off your first group.
- Accept changes happen quickly. If a structure lasts three months and then doesn’t work because you’ve hired more people or changed focus then be ready to rip it up and start in a different direction. When you reach a certain size and scale, people expect consistency (structure and guidelines). That’s another inflexion point.
- Once the initial spark dies down be ready to rely on the more structured people in the business to provide clarity.
Overcoming the natural resistance to change
- It’s about how you respond to the change personally. There is a need to pull back where delegation becomes essential. This will require governance and it may be the first-time external advisors enter the business.
- As we moved to the next phase, we had to get out of the operational day to day running of the business. It’s a different role, moving from leading by example to talking to people and giving guidance.
- Strongly encourage mentoring of senior leadership. It’s also about having someone you trust within the organisation to tell you when you make mistakes. Somebody you can share ideas with and helps you think more clearly.
Private Equity’s role in mentorship
- It’s one of the key reasons for committing to PE. We were looking for PE to help us achieve our ambitions. They helped us fill the gaps, step out of the roles we were doing, avoid pitfalls and address issues. We wanted to learn and were willing to take on new ideas.
- There must be alignment. You need to be able to challenge and find the very best fit. In a busy deal flow scenario that can be difficult. Understand the nuances of the management team and be creative.
- There is a tendency to defer to an investor view even when this might not be optimal for the business. Investor / management relationships require clarity and openness.
Bridging ‘ivory towers’ with messy reality of a people-based business
- There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to balancing running a business and wanting to be involved in the day to day doing.
- It’s important to manage expectations of the impact that a PE partner will have on the business. Senior staff need to reassure people that PE will give a sense of direction and help refine the plans they already had. They also need to be leaders, not doers. As a leader you no longer need focus on specific projects, you have 300 people in the business who can potentially do that for you.
Successful transitions for management teams
- The first rule of the plan is that it won’t go according to the plan. It can be very hard for leadership to adapt and let go of the business.
- Changing ownership/senior personnel is like changing DNA of the business and this comes with risks.
- When you start, you wear multiple hats – consultant, manager of the team, director of the business, entrepreneur/owner. As you scale you start losing some of these roles and even separating these can be difficult. You have to rid yourself of ego.
- Once you’ve clarity on where you want to go it’s about accepting someone else can deliver that plan, providing all the measurements are there. Being a founder is a very different skillset/mindset to an MD/CEO.
Scaling a people business, hiring ahead to meet future demand whilst limiting risk
- Don’t be afraid of having a bench. It’s not just about recruitment, it’s cultural. Internal training programmes, career paths etc. are all part of keeping people excited and motivated, they don’t need to be on live projects 24/7.
- Discipline and hygiene. Be prepared to bring cost in to replace yourself doing all the roles you used to do. Think about how to sell what you do slightly differently. To grow from 350 people to 500 people requires structure and support. It might be possible to do the same with 350 people sold more effectively.
- Hiring people brings opportunity, but it also brings problems and complexity. These can be distracting so do it properly. Give yourself time as a leader to understand the wider perspective.
- To professionalise your business, you need to bring in specialists earlier than you think. FD, HR specialists etc. It’s a hard sell to your team but it makes a big difference.
- It depends on what the plan is and who the partner is going to be. It needs some humility from leadership.
- Work out selection criteria, measure best internal and external candidates to allow for organic growth but send the message that you are looking for talent.
Speak to myself or a member of the team about opportunities in technology.
Ifan Dafydd, Senior Consultant
+44 7792 158 738
Charlie Mundy, Senior Consultant
+44 7853 430 630