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On the cover: Opportuni knocks

OPPORTUNI knows where the money is. Within five years, co-founder Tim Ward plans to redirect £225 billion per annum of government spend to small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) across the UK, US and Europe. It accounts for five per cent of government accounts and, he says, will have a significant positive impact on local communities and economies. And while fledgling company OPPORTUNI finds the deals and opens up the complex world of the tender process to SMEs across those regions, he also plans to radicalise the whole industry and tackle corruption. Contract opportunities aren’t hidden but they can be extremely hard to find and complex to win if you don’t know what you’re doing and what you’re looking for. After more than a decade unearthing contracts for businesses across the UK, Tim and business partner Bill MacGregor are expanding and devising ways to break down barriers and open the market to even more businesses. They made a billion for organisations in their first year and, as Colin Young discovers, the North East-based entrepreneurs are only just beginning.

Tim Ward has had enough of the procurement process.

So much so, the Hartlepool-born businessman is ready to turn it on its head.

After a successful eight years as the lead figure of Bid and Research, with wife Catie, Tim and his new business partner Bill MacGregor have set up OPPORTUNI, to match great companies with great opportunities, cut through the chaff, bury the red tape and help SMEs thrive on the tenders they didn’t even know existed, or were within their remit.

In their first nine months, they have generated more than £1 billion worth of UK contracts for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Their mission within five years is to redirect more than £225 billion worth of contracts across the UK, Europe and the US every year.

Yet at the heart of their mission, and a real driving force, is cleaning up the industry’s reputation, which a small minority have tarnished significantly through incidents such as the COVID-19 PPE contract scandal.

“The elephant in the room is corruption by the very people who should be shouting about the possibilities for SME businesses,” Tim admits.

“It’s an awkward subject; no one really wants to talk about it.

“We’re actively monitoring a huge range of metrics to identify and flag anything that looks suspicious – ensuring going forward that we can be certain procurement is a level playing field.

“A guy in Newcastle winning a contract to clean the Civic Centre windows won’t make the front pages, but a corrupt deal will, and rightly so.

“But 99 per cent of the cases are the guy in Newcastle…

“We’re here shouting from the rooftops trying to promote the 99 per cent of cases where great SMEs are winning contracts.

“We’re trying to change the industry, but we’re not going to do that on our own.

“We need others in the industry pushing in the same direction.”

Tim and Bill have purchased BidStats, the world’s most trusted tender website, which has the largest database of public procurement data and attracts nearly three million visitors a year.

The acquisition, and the historical data now available, can only accelerate OPPORTUNI’s owners’ aim for more transparency, and the right for SMEs to fight for contracts with big business.

Tim says OPPORTUNI is building a full eco-system to transform the industry, but the key focus now is offering a pathway into the procurement process, which is beyond most businesses, simply because they don’t know it’s there for the taking.

“We have a clear mission,” he says.

“I’d struggle if it was just about making money.

“It’s actually about making an impact and doing something we’re proud of that has an impact on people they can be proud of too.

“We’re trying to help local economies and make sure our taxpayer money is having the maximum impact in local areas, helping those companies hire apprentices, buy new vehicles, upgrade properties and reinvigorate local communities.”

When he was growing up in Hartlepool, Tim’s dream was to be a footballer.

He reached Pools’ youth team, but a knee injury ended his chances at the age of just 16.

After leaving college in the town, he studied architecture at Newcastle University before realising, he says, four years in and during his postgraduate course, “I was rubbish at architecture”.

“I wasn’t doing that for the rest of my life,” says Tim, now 36.

“I worked for a Darlington firm for a year, and it was basically designing extensions, which is a box with windows and doors – not exactly an outpouring of artistic endeavour.”

He joined Working Links, in Middlesbrough, as a temp, before moving to Manchester with the company on its graduate management programme.

It was here he first encountered the world of procurement and bid writing – and the realisation that there was money to be earned for all types of businesses, blissfully unaware of the funds on offer.

He says: “I didn’t realise everything
the public sector buys – felt tip pens in schools, new roads for the council, etc – has to go through a procurement process that most people just aren’t aware of, or don’t know how to get involved in.

“I played a very minor role – seconded to making cups of tea – but we won this £300 million contract, and it was just hugely satisfying thinking that kept
the team in jobs and helped grow the business.

“I got hooked on winning contracts and they made a permanent base for me in the team.

“The public sector in the UK spends £290 billion a year on procurement, a huge amount of money, and it’s anything and everything you can imagine for schools, colleges, universities, local councils, NHS, housing associations.

“The money they spend all goes through this process.

“I just thought, ‘I could build some skills, help people win those contracts’, and it was very exciting.”

After a brief time in London, Tim returned to his North East roots to work for Cleveland Fire Brigade CIC, the first fire brigade trading company in the country – a public sector body with a commercial and trading arm – winning a multi-million-pound contract to provide on-site emergency responders with profits reinvested into community fire prevention.

“That was very appealing,” he says.

“It was a hybrid between a charity and business with a purpose.”

He then joined Newcastle College Group, with educational tentacles across the country, and, working out of Skelmersdale, Lancashire, managed their bid team, winning significant multi- million-pound contracts in his first and only year.

“I really didn’t like being away from home,” he says.

“My wife was pregnant with our first child, and I remember thinking, ‘there is a good chance of me sitting in this hotel room while my first child is being born and I’m going to be bloody miserable’.

“So I quit two weeks before she was due to give birth, without telling her.

“I had a months’ gardening leave anyway, which was about the same as paternity leave, so I thought I’d take a month off and work it out.”

He was offered a job in consultancy with InTraining, a division of Newcastle College Group, the following day.

Demand for his bid writing brilliance kept him as a consultant for eight years, setting up Bid and Research with Catie, a nurse and researcher, to break down barriers in the tender process for small businesses, as well as assisting the bigger corporations.

“The thing I loved was not so much helping the big companies, because you’d work for them, win a contract and they’d say, ‘oh, we’ve won a £400 million contract. OK, great. Thanks, bye’.

“If you work with a smaller company, with the business owners and staff day-to- day, and win them the contract, you see the difference that makes to the business.

“A guy will tell you he’s bought three new vans, taken on new people, hired apprentices, upgraded facilities and he’s now going to manage and let his team deliver; to see that is amazing.

“That’s what it’s all about for me.

“You’d get these big companies coming along and we’d use that as cashflow because what we really wanted to do was help these small businesses and see that impact.

“There are so many great businesses we all know who should be doing the security at the Civic Centre, fixing the potholes, fixing school roofs, but they don’t know how to get into it, and I really got a buzz from helping those companies.”

He can reel off his favourite case studies from the North East alone faster than Paul Gambaccini recites the top ten from 1969 in his Saturday afternoon BBC Radio Two show.

Every company, every detail, every delight – like the IT company in Leeds, expanding after beating Accenture and IBM to a major contract – all etched in his brain and still making him smile.

Tim and Catie, who met on a summer course before then studying at Newcastle University, now have four children, Evelyn, Lydia, Oscar and Theodore, aged between two and eight.

Something had to give, and it came just before lockdown.

Tim says: “When we set up Bid and Research, I was bidding, Catie was researching and the two worked hand-in- hand quite well.

“I set up a new business taking an opportunity to make the most of the first real lull in workload for eight years – ten days before the first lockdown.

“Then we didn’t do anything for nine months.”

Tim set up the business with tech genius Bill, who has worked in major companies across the world specialising in machine learning, artificial intelligence and building scalable tech.

He says: “I explain the problem, he builds the solution.

“He has an amazing mind for what can be achieved and what’s possible – next level intelligence.

“But he’s also very much a private person, who sits in the background and sends me out to talk and have my photo taken.

“We’d talked about doing it for a long time and lockdown gave us time to pivot on something or go for it.”

Like many, they used the first nine months to take stock, enjoy time with family and assess the company’s chances as the world recovered from the first hit of the pandemic.

Between them, they devised ‘Tinder for Tendering’ – matching small and medium- sized businesses with realistic contract targets – and offering the online service through OPPORTUNI.

On launch day nine months ago, it was Tim and Bill hitting send and hoping; now they have 55 staff across the UK and Ireland, Europe and Canada, with many more to come.

Tim says: “The idea you have to be 30 miles from the office has gone out the window.

“We don’t care if you’re on a hill in the Highlands as long as you can do the job. “There are 3500 tender portals across the UK and it’s hard to find contracts. “The first step was to create a website where it’s easy to find the tenders and bring them all to one place and we built the solution we dubbed, ‘Tinder for Tendering’.

“We’re not saying a one-man builder is going to win a £100 million contract, but this matches your business with contracts you can win, and we can make it frictionless.

“And we have BidNow – an annual membership of £3500 with unlimited no- win, no-fee bid support.

“Historically, that would be one bid written by a professional writer – this is focused on your business with experienced bid writers focused on winning.

“And it’s only for SMEs.

“We want to make a real difference and support the most aspirational businesses.” The addition of the Teesside Tenders portal, he adds, is one part of a prototype for the “full eco-system”, which makes it easy to find every tender opportunity in one place.

Bill’s work on that project continues…

They won Tech Nation’s Rising Stars Award – “we submitted the application one minute to midnight and then forgot about it” – which opened a whole new world of investors; 27 from across the world.

“We flipped it on its head because we said, ‘we really don’t need the money, but what can you do for us?’

“And I think that worked in our favour.

“We have the solution, and you want to invest in it, but what value can you add?

“It is more than giving us money, can you help, advise, open doors?”

I’ve had an hour of Tim’s time – and he spent a good while in the photographic studio too – and I have never seen a phone so persistently inundated with messages.

He is a busy man, who is only going to get busier. And he couldn’t be happier.

There’s talk of surfing, and a joint fascination with the world-renowned waves at Nazare, in Portugal.

He has tried the surf and loves it – even, reluctantly, off Saltburn, “when you take your wet suit off, it’s colder than the sea. It’s a bit less grim in the sunshine in Portugal.”

“I love working,” adds Tim, after emailing me later to add reading business books to his interests.

“I actually love working and because we’re driven by a mission, I’m driven by that.

“I know I can switch off.

“But I never do, and I don’t feel I need to.

“It doesn’t feel like hard work because we enjoy it, and we can make a real difference to so many businesses.

“My life is filled with work and children.”

OPPORTUNI
@opportunitender