It’s the classic journey for a successful British technology business: company is established, grows quickly, raises money, earns a stellar reputation – before being bought by a larger American rival. The British founders get a large cheque and everyone seems happy.
But last week the tables were turned. This time it was a British software company, Aveva, hoovering up a US competitor OSIsoft – not the other way round.
Aveva started out in 1967 at the University of Cambridge as a Government-funded research institute known as CADCentre, set up to promote computer-aided design.
Spree: Craig Hayman, Aveva’s chief executive, has just bought US rival OSIsoft for £3.8billion
But the enterprise, which was privatised by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and floated in 1996, has now grown into a FTSE 100 heavyweight.
The £3.8billion deal for OSIsoft has catapulted it to the top spot in the list of the UK’s largest listed software companies and transformed it into a major player globally.
Having worked in America for almost all of his career, Briton Craig Hayman, Aveva’s chief executive and the architect of the OSIsoft takeover, knows better than most how the polite, modest British approach to technology has often caused us to undersell ourselves on the world stage. The same, he says, was true of Aveva until he joined in 2018.
‘I would say my view on Aveva is that two and a half years ago it had phenomenal technology, phenomenal customers, phenomenal employees, but was perhaps a little embarrassed about being aggressive in marketing it,’ says Hayman in an accent that sways between English and American after 30 years stateside.
‘A few of our employees said ‘Craig, that’s just not what we do here. We would rather the world find us than us tell the world what we have.’ It was as though there was something embarrassing about that. Of course, to an American, it’s the complete reverse. They are unashamed in marketing and conveying the value of what you deliver to somebody.’
Aveva specialises in high-tech industrial software used to improve and speed up work on engineering projects and oil rigs, in factories and other industrial projects, which all require a simple way of managing complex systems and huge amounts of data.
It might not sound as cool to your children as running Google, but it is a huge market that the UK is at the forefront of. After the deal, Aveva is expected to turn over £1.2billion a year.
Aveva may not be a household name like Google or Facebook, but Hayman says he has helped the company make a noise and claims it is now the best in the sector at promoting itself.
He wonders whether other British tech firms such as chipmakers Arm and Imagination Technologies suffer from the same syndrome.
‘Maybe there’s some of that in some of these other companies,’ Hayman says, while admitting that in some respects ‘the technology speaks for itself’.
He adds: ‘There is of course marketing, but it’s mostly capability-led. However, if I get on my soapbox for a minute, I think you can do both. You can have deep capability grounded in great technology, great expertise and you can market it.
‘In the same way that you can be the best engineer, you can be the best marketer in conveying the value you have for others.’
While the coronavirus crisis has pushed many businesses in other sectors to the brink, tech companies are on the whole thriving.
And while Aveva is no online shopping service, Hayman says the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards digital – especially for the types of companies he serves, which are eyeing drastic cost savings and job cuts.
But is it a risky time to be doing such a big deal? Another major UK software company, Micro Focus embarked on a similarly ambitious expansion plan in 2017 buying the bulk of giant US business HPE, the software arm of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, only for the deal to backfire shortly afterwards.
Hayman argues that the OSIsoft deal makes ‘great sense’, adding: ‘We have an ambition for our role in the industrial world. You can be unbelievably prudent, you can be risk-averse, but you can also understand the strategic value of things. You can do both. ‘
Hayman was born and brought up in Sussex before studying computer science and electronics at Queen Mary University in London.
‘I was one of those kids building computers from £40 kits in the back of magazines in the late 1970s. I wanted to work for a software company in the UK, but there weren’t many in the 1980s, that’s why I moved to the US,’ he recalls.
Hayman began his career at the then start-up Seer Technologies, beginning a 30-year stint in the US that saw him spend 15 years at IBM, eBay, then software firm PTC as chief executive in 2015. Three years later he returned from exile.
‘When I had the honour to return to the UK and lead Aveva, I very much had a passion that I wanted Aveva to compete on this world stage,’ he says. Hayman’s aim was to bring the ambitious, risk-taking mentality embraced by US technology entrepreneurs to Aveva.
Channelling his inner American football coach, he says: ‘In sport, if you only ever play defence you’re never going to win. You have to play offence. You have to attack. If you don’t you’re only ever going to draw. You must seize the moment.’
Just before Hayman joined, the company struck a major deal with France’s Schneider Electric that trebled its size. And Hayman hints at more takeovers down the line once the ink has dried on the OSIsoft acquisition and the new subsidiary has settled in.
‘That’ll take 12 to 18 months, but as we work through that process we’ll be ready to go again,’ says the man with an ambitious plan for a UK technological pioneer.
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