Information: Service that's a credit to Big Brother: CCN's databases provide a good living from selling other people's business - but not all of it is bad news

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The Independent Online
IT WAS welcome news for many small businesses when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced plans to reduce the regulatory burden on them by removing the requirement for a statutory annual audit.

But the move struck a different chord at CCN Business Information. 'We wish the Chancellor had talked to us first,' said David Coates, the company's sales director.

Mr Coates believes the Exchequer, in trying to help these firms, may actually have increased the burden on them: by reducing the amount of data available about these companies, the new rules threaten to take many out of the credit market. And it is these smaller enterprises that need such facilities most.

CCN can circumvent the problem by treating the companies that will no longer have to submit to the audit (those with annual turnover of less than pounds 90,000) as consumers, and using its databases to track their financial dealings. But not everybody is that well equipped. That is why CCN is coming out of the shadows and starting to tell the world something about its wares and operations.

Somewhat surprisingly for an organisation that knows a lot about other people, CCN is part of Great Universal Stores - the retail and mail-order group that, until recently at least, was one of the most reticent of all publicly quoted

companies.

A wholly owned subsidiary of GUS based in Nottingham, CCN is a group of companies that Mr Coates says sprang out of the parent company's involvement in mail order - particularly the huge database relating to consumer credit. Just over a decade later, it has turnover of nearly pounds 80m and six main lines of business.

The first is business information. Although other organisations - notably Dun and Bradstreet - are involved in this area, CCN believes it offers companies a special service through its analysis of the data.

The division is based on the acquisition in 1984 of the Manchester Guardian Society, which was founded as the UK's first business information company in the 1820s. But the company has built on those low-tech beginnings to give up-to-the-minute information on 900,000 limited companies, 5 million directorships and company secretaries and 1.2 million unincorporated businesses.

It does this by having on file everything that is in Companies House. Its Total Data 2000 system improves on the raw material by cross-referring it to other sources, such as the pan-European Internet, and analysing the information to make it more relevant to clients.

It is then sold in the form of credit analyses and status reports, either as a continuous on-line service or as one-off reports available in a matter of hours for a few pounds.

A second division concentrates on consumer credit. Of prime importance here is the Credit Account Information Sharing (CAIS) system that enables banks, retail companies and others with interests in this area to share data with a view to reducing the risk of bad debt.

Related to this is CCN Decision Systems, which provides credit-scoring techniques and models of the type used by banks and credit card companies to assess whether to give a person a card and what the credit limit should be. There are also methods of assessing the risk of doing business with particular companies.

The fourth dimension of the group is CCN Marketing, which - like a number of other companies - provides geo-demographic profiles to companies that want to use direct- selling methods to reach both industry and consumers.

The basis for this is the wealth of information that CCN holds besides company data. There are the 43 million names and addresses from the Electoral Roll, the 23 million household addresses supplied by the Post Office, as well as extensive records of county court judgments and credit searches.

These four divisions are serviced by a further two: an international arm that sells the various services around the world; and a technical company that develops the hardware and software which enable these services to exist.

But perhaps the greatest potential comes from the information on small businesses and directorships. CCN claims its data on smaller firms is unique, while the value of that on board members comes through being able to check up on individuals' past appointments at the flick of a switch, which cannot be done simply by going to Companies House.

And although credit-checking companies often arouse 'Big Brother' suspicions, Bruce Hennah, director in charge of the London office, insisted the information discovered was 'not always adverse'.

'The equipment is sophisticated enough to provide, for example, not just the fact that an individual was declared bankrupt but also the reasons for it,' he said.

'That is particularly useful as business comes out of a recession that saw many people fail through no real fault of their own.'

(Photograph omitted)

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