Top 50: Room for an overview

A company's success is often dictated by how well it keeps control of its expanding concerns. Office provider Regus turned to Hyperion's business software for help
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By any standards, the rise of the serviced-office supplier Regus has been a remarkable story. In just over a decade it has grown to the point where its centres are spread across more than 50 countries and employ well over a thousand people.

And in the process founder Mark Dixon has made himself one of Britain's wealthiest individuals, with a paper worth of several hundred million pounds. In fact, that fortune could grow still further if the company goes ahead with the autumn stock market listing that it said earlier this year that it was considering. Mr Dixon owns more than 80 per cent of a business that could be valued at pounds 1bn.

But the success of Regus is about more than one man's dream coming true. As Peter Jenkins, who joined the company as group finance director in March of last year, points out, "controlled growth is key". After all, he says, it would be easy for any company doubling in size every year to go off the track.

One of the ways in which the company has prevented this happening in the past is through having clear controls, so that managers in the field know what is expected of them both in terms of business performance as well as the uniformity of approach upon which Regus prides itself. As it has moved into an increasing number of overseas territories, it has put in place a layer of regional finance directors who, adds Mr Jenkins, act as "an important conduit" between the head office in Staines and the individual centres.

But one of Mr Jenkins's key acts since arriving from the industrial company Harrisons & Crosfield has been to introduce a business analysis system supplied by the software company Hyperion. Having used a similar package in his previous job to bring together the various parts of a conglomerate, he saw the potential to use it to give managers a better overview of a business that is growing so rapidly all over the world that the 157 centres in about 40 countries at the end of last year is likely to be 300 in 50 to 60 by the end of this.

Indeed, he suggests that he is this time using Hyperion's offering to "a much more developed extent" because "at the end of the day, we're running the same business in every separate country". Accordingly, the management can use the system in two main ways: first, it can run consistent reports for operational use in every country; and, second, it can produce reports and analysis comparing margins between one centre and another, and seeing where the inconsistencies are.

"We're running it as a management tool as well as a consolidating tool for its financial reporting properties. It's very important for control. I could see when I came in that this is what the company lacked," says Mr Jenkins.

The partnership can be seen as a fitting coming together of two organisations that have quickly established themselves as leaders in their fields. Hyperion, which is based in California, has in recent years established itself as a leading force in the supply of information technology designed to aid budgeting and other aspects of financial control. The company describes itself as giving "today's knowledge workers the `freedom to succeed' with software, services and partner offerings that help them understand and optimise their businesses". More than 5,500 organisations around the world, including more than 60 of the Top 100 companies listed by the US magazine Fortune and more than 40 of the Financial Times European Top 100, use Hyperion's "analytic application software", which includes packaged applications tools and tools.

However, it believes that many other companies are not benefitting from the revolution in information technology because, while research suggests that finance departments are becoming increasingly involved in business planning and analysis, they are failing properly to use technology to fulfill the demands of this new role.

Tony Speakman, Hyperion's UK marketing director, regards Regus as a case study in how to form the link. "Regus has been one of the fastest growing companies in the UK over recent years. It has achieved this growth by identifying a market sector, and moving quickly and aggressively to become the recognised market leader in that sector," he says.

"Part of the reason that Regus has been able to achieve the realisation of this vision is that it has underpinned rapid growth with careful business planning and management. This has been made possible through the use of the analytic solutions provided by Hyperion. These have allowed Regus to plan growth through sophisticated financial reporting and analysis of company performance."

In many ways, Regus was well prepared for the partnership with Hyperion. Part of its pledge to the blue-chip international clients such as Andersen Consulting, Coca-Cola and Microsoft it serves is a consistent IT infrastructure as well as a uniform style of office. Moreover, it had from an operational point of view always had a common broking and billing system - although there were complications arising from the different ledger system requirements around the world.

But with this difficulty accommodated by Hyperion, which has also helped get Regus's annual budgets on to the system, Mr Jenkins feels more comfortable about the company's expansion plans.

However, valuable as making greater use of IT has been, Mr Jenkins has also been paying attention to two other complementary factors that are crucial for growth plans.

The first is finance. Like many other fast-growing businesses, Regus started by funding expansion from its own cash flow and then - as it developed - began to enter arrangements with landlords that involved rent deferrals and profit sharing. Furthermore, Mr Dixon made such extensive use of leasing of equipment that essentially everything that could be was obtained in this way.

In fact, it was not until 1997, when a loan was agreed with UBS, that Regus arranged its first proper financing.

When Mr Jenkins arrived early the following year, it quickly became clear that the expansion plans being considered would require further finance. And so the way was cleared for Mr Dixon - who had remained in sole ownership of his business for much longer than the norm- to sell his first slug of equity.

In August 1998, a consortium led by Bankers Trust (now part of Deutsche Bank) bought 17.5 per cent of the company for $100m. Earlier this year, Mr Jenkins said this gave the company "a significant amount of cash to fund the business going forward". But the business is developing so fast that last month the company confirmed it was considering a float on the stock market later this year.

The second is people. Regus sets great store by the quality of its centre managers, since they are of great importance in delivering the uniformity of service for which the company strives. But - particularly as it expands ever further afield - it is concentrating on the calibre of what many term back-office staff.

Mr Jenkins explains that there are financial controllers in virtually every country in which the company operates and, in addition, there are 11 regional managers as well as the regional finance directors who "recruit, train and watch over and control people in the field".

The FDs are of especial importance since, as Mr Jenkins explains, "time zones make it difficult to control things from here in places like Asia".

Nor are they left to their own devices. As part of the internal audit department, Regus has set up a team of four who can be sent out "around the world making sure everything is OK".

So far, it has prevented the catastrophe that can befall a business that rapidly expands in a range of markets. And Mr Jenkins is confident that the company's backers see Regus as a great business to be in.

With the business community apparently responding to its message that it should leave the details of providing offices in its hands, it can hardly be blamed for - as Mr Jenkins puts it -opening "as many of these things as quickly as possible".

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