The path to business resilience

March 31, 2020

As much as investing in the North East is about attracting investment from outside, it’s also about celebrating those home-grown businesses that continually invest in their people and export North East culture and values around the world. One such company is business consultancy and IT firm Waterstons. Richard Dawson speaks to employee number one Ajaib Singh and CEO Susan Bell about Waterstons’ journey and what the future looks like with a new presence in Australia

In 1994, Sally and Mike Waterston had a vision of founding a business consultancy and IT company that put customer need front and centre. More than 25 years later, it’s proved to be a winning formula.

Waterstons posted turnover close to £14 million in 2019 and announced it was expanding into the Southern Hemisphere with a new office in Sydney, Australia. The move down under significantly expanded the Durham headquartered firm’s operational capacity and together with offices in London and Glasgow gave it a genuine international presence.

Now comprising a 200-strong team with expertise in everything from project management, mergers and acquisitions to data analytics, software and cyber resilience; the North East- based firm has an impressive track record of solving business problems using IT.

The range of services Waterstons provides has created a client base that is incredibly diverse. The likes of Age UK, British Library, Durham University, Gentoo, Home Group, Port of Tyne, Quorn and even Royal Dutch Shell all use the firm’s services.

Company director Ajaib Singh was Waterstons’ first employee, joining Sally and Mike after six months.

“I knew Sally because we had worked together in IT previously and we’d experienced varying degrees of poor customer service. Every supplier was offering bog-standard, out-of-the-box packages, he reflects.

“That was a big problem in the marketplace; people just weren’t listening to the customer’s needs.”

Seeing an opportunity to provide a different kind of service, Waterstons took its first steps with a business model of simply listening to its customers and working out how to solve their problems.

That emphasis on doing the simple things right is still very much a part of Waterstons’ ethos.

But what’s really allowed the business to grow through such an intense period of technological advancement is the ability to adapt to the growing needs of its client base.

When Waterstons was founded, the internet was still not widely available and if a company wanted to run email or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, it had to have physical servers to make it happen.

“Over the years, technology has brought people together to make more informed decisions,” Ajaib adds. “It brings the world a lot closer together.

“We started as a business consultancy using IT,” he continues. “That then grew because the number and size of our customers were growing and suddenly, we found our customers were asking us for other additional services.”

From 1994 to 2004, Waterstons’ headcount went from three to 54 and its services expanded from consulting on IT strategy to implementing infrastructure and technology projects, managing whole IT services, developing software and providing financial planning solutions for some of the UK’s largest companies.

Not to mention a string of accreditations and recognition, from first becoming a Microsoft Partner in 2000 to being awarded Investors in People Gold status in 2001, being recognised in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 in 2002 and the Deloitte European Fast 500 in 2003.

Waterstons has since been awarded with the Investors in People accolade four times and last year launched its own in-house training scheme – Waterstons Academy – which covers a range of key business skills, including leadership, risk management and communication.

That commitment to investing in the development of its people is what has allowed Waterstons to grow both its service offering and its client base. It’s also what attracted the company’s current CEO, Susan Bell, to the company back in 2011.

A native Northumbrian, Susan’s interest in technology came from an unlikely source. As a dairy farmer, her father was always on the lookout for ways of using technology to solve everyday problems in the agriculture business.

After graduating with a degree in business information systems from Hull University in 1992, Susan cut her teeth back in the North East as a graduate working for NHS Prescription Services before moving to Leeds to work for First Direct, which had recently opened.

“It was the first online banking or telephone bank of its time,” Susan reflects.

Like so many recent graduates though, the allure of London cast a long shadow and Susan left for the capital in 1999.

For the next 12 years, Susan worked in a number of different IT roles at Swiss investment bank, UBS. While there, she rolled out the game- changing technology that we know as single sign- on, which is the user ID access control you need to enter any computer, account or software today.

Through her work at UBS, Susan marvelled at the growing centrality of technology to day-to- day business operations, particularly in financial services.

She says: “IT and digital are ubiquitous nowadays. If we look at investment banks, they’re absolutely driven by technology. It is something that now goes hand-in-hand. From a business resilience point of view, IT is absolutely fundamental.”

After spending more than a decade in London and becoming a mother, Susan decided to move back to the North East to find a better work-life balance. She had also come through some pretty tough times working in the banking sector during the 2008 financial crisis and decided that the time was right to ‘boomerang’ back to the region.

Looking for a company that reflected her values and had plenty of scope for growth, Waterstons seemed like a perfect fit.

Susan recalls being captivated by how Waterstons felt like a family business with an inclusive and collaborative culture, different to anything she’d experienced before.

She says: “From my first interview, there was something completely unique about Waterstons. It was something that you couldn’t quite put your finger on – the behaviours, the feeling you get with the people that you meet.”

As CEO, it’s been Susan’s mission to cultivate that open, familial, collaborative environment and to drive the company forward in the North East’s growing digital space. For, since the late 1990s when Susan was finding her feet as an XDB programmer, opportunities for talented graduates to stay and work in the region have grown exponentially.

She explains: “I think in the past, and certainly when I started working, I thought that to progress, I needed to go to London.

“The great thing now, coming back to the North East and working for a company like Waterstons, is that we’ve created an environment where people don’t have to leave to have a fulfilling career.

“I’ve always been fiercely proud of my Northern heritage and I think the things that are happening now in the digital space here are absolutely brilliant.”

Waterstons celebrated 25 years in business by opening a new office in Australia, exporting North East culture and values to the other side of the world.

It was a gamble to invest in expanding the company’s presence so far afield. But as Susan reveals, the decision was made on the basis of customer need.

“Clients were looking to extend contracts with us over in the Southern Hemisphere and they
kept saying to us, ‘we need your type of customer service ethos for our teams worldwide’.

So, we took the chance. We wanted to grow with our clients, we didn’t want to get left behind,” she says.

A 10-strong team, headed up by managing director Charlie Hales, now works out of the Australia office and the time difference has allowed Waterstons to deliver a 24-hour service, without undermining its values.

“We didn’t want to compromise our culture with the 24-hour service,” adds Susan. “That’s why we took the opportunity to open the office in Australia – it means we don’t have to have people working 24/7 in the UK.”

If you had to summarise what Waterstons delivers for its clients in a word, it would
be resilience. Whether in terms of financial planning, infrastructure consulting, software development, cybersecurity or data analytics; all of the technology Waterstons deploys is aimed at increasing business resilience, which is so important in these uncertain times.

The widespread disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has been felt across almost all businesses, from those in the leisure and hospitality sectors to the travel industry and beyond. Offices across the UK are closed and those businesses who can operate remotely still have big challenges to face.

For Susan and the team at Waterstons, the key thing to do at this time is to plan ahead and adapt quickly to any obstacles that come your way.

“Given these uncertain times, I think a business that’s able to respond quickly to any disruption
is incredibly important now more than ever”, she reflects.

“It is quite sobering what we’re hearing. I don’t think anyone would have been able to anticipate the extent to which we may enter into some very, very choppy waters as businesses.

“Given the unprecedented place we are in as a country and as a world, doing the right thing and being kind is imperative and that should start at home, but at work and in the community as well,” she continues.

“We don’t know realistically what the fallout of this is going to be but what I do have a very strong sense of is that, as a company, we’re very well equipped to weather this storm.”


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