“We’re not just here to grow. We’re here to grow well.”
handl Group’s CEO explains the strategy behind enabling a team of market leaders.
Graham Pulford may not initially strike you as IT guru but his passion and knowledge is proving invaluable in the growth in handl group. That being said he’s not a devotee of tech for tech’s sake. In growing handl Group – now 15 insurance, legal and healthcare companies strong – his approach is based not on what the tech is, but what it enables.
“There’s got to be a better way”
“I spent the first 15 years of my career in IT,” Graham explains. “What I love about new tech is that it helps you challenge the status quo. I must say ‘there’s got to be a better way’ about 10 times a day. That’s built into me because I’m an IT guy. That’s not to say technology is the better way – but my IT career taught me a lot about process – about doing certain things in a certain way to get a certain result.
“A lot of people think they’re getting a process right but often they’re not thinking about it at the level and depth they need to.”
What does getting the process right look like? Graham swiftly picks an example from handl Group’s growing portfolio.
“When we acquired Speed Medical it had 150 staff and turned over £2 million. Now it’s got 200 staff but turnover is £30/40 million. That’s process. That’s looking at the right way to do things.”
“I need to believe we can help a business”
handl Group is a carefully constructed portfolio of connected companies. If the parts are impressive – bringing together claims handling, arbitration, medical reporting, digital and physical rehab and more – the sum of those parts are delivering groundbreaking new opportunities and approaches for the sector. So how does Graham select the next member of the team?
“Any new company has to complement the existing group,” Graham stresses. “That’s the first prerequisite.”
The second stage of the checklist? “It could be consolidation,” he says. “Within a vertical we might have various expert witness businesses, for example, and we may be open to acquiring more because we fully understand that industry and there’s more we believe we can do.
“Alternatively, there are holes in our strategy right now. I want a fraud solutions company in the group. We can see there’s a clear gap for that and an absolute synergy between that and our other businesses. Fraud is a big issue in our industry and during 2021 we’ll be looking to fill that gap.
“But if I look beyond that, the key for any acquisition is that I need to believe we can help the business. There are lots of great businesses out there. Some have reached the limit of their potential. Some have gone as far as they can with their current structure or ownership, but I may be able to see potential for them to grow further as part of handl Group.”
Opportunities can arise as successful companies reach a plateau in their scaling.
“Many businesses go from £2-3 million turnover with relative ease but that next step to £4 million can be really hard,” Graham explains. “Often that’s because owners can become too close to their business. They’ve been with it since day one. They have a set way of operating. They can’t see a new way of working or the opportunities that might present.
“When I know that I can help by buying it, that excites me.”
“We enable our businesses.”
An exciting proposition. Growth potential. A service that complements the existing handl Group portfolio. They’re all part of Graham’s equation in considering new acquisitions. But there’s one other critical factor: people.
“Look at Reach [the UK’s largest brain and head injury rehabilitation provider, which became part of handl Group in early 2021]. Heather Batey, the founder and MD of that business believes passionately in the work Reach does.
“When she needs marketing or to build her services or to connect with other clinicians, our scale and reach enable her to make the business bigger and better. She’s launching a head trauma triage service later this year and she’s got the full weight of the handl team behind her helping her launch that product to market.”
“This is the power of the group. You start with a great management team of the organisation you’re buying and you enable them to grow.”
It’s a repeatable process, but Graham is adamant it’s only repeatable with the right business. “We’ve turned away far more companies than we’ve bought,” he confesses. “That’s because we’re not just here to grow. We’re here to grow well.”
“Hang on, we’re quite good at this.”
In the two years since handl Group was created, has the strategy changed?
“Not changed; developed,” Graham clarifies. “We weren’t an especially strategic business then. Our initial acquisitions were opportunistic really. But we quickly realised ‘hang on, we’re quite good at this’. We saw that, with the creation of a management company’ to give the portfolio life we could stop being reactive and start being much more proactive and controlled.”
One thing is clear: handl Group hasn’t stopped growing yet.
“We’re looking for companies to buy right now. We want to make them challenge their market spaces. We want to apply technology and process to enable them to find a better way. And we want to enable each of our brands to deliver the sort of service that makes them a market leader.”
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