Many company acquisitions are seen as strategic in terms of the acquiring company gaining a different set of skills, expertise and service offerings in order to expand their business and bolster their ability to support and serve their customers.
This was certainly the case when Elite Group acquired MWL Systems in mid-2019. We talked to Matt Kingsley-Williams, who is now Elite Group’s Operations Director and was previously Managing Director of MWL Systems. Matt gave us an open, honest and, at times, emotional account of what it’s like to be involved in a real-life company acquisition.
A key part of the decision-making process for selling the MWL Systems business was to find the right company to buy us.
We had created and built up a strong-performing business spanning an almost 35-year timeframe and were proud of what we had achieved. Most of all, we were exceptionally fond and somewhat protective of the team we had recruited and nurtured over the years. Some members of staff had in effect ‘grown-up’ with MWL, having started working for the company immediately after leaving school or college.
When we initially set out on the journey of selling MWL Systems there was an element of cautiousness. As a company, including both management and our employees, we had always enjoyed being masters of our own destinies.
We were an agile, pro-active entity who had provided skilled employment for over 45 people for several decades. We were able to react quickly to changes in market demand and customer expectations. Best of all, we had a great team and company culture.
However, the majority shareholders – having worked tirelessly for the business since the company’s inception in the 1980s – naturally had the usual external aspirations. At least two board members wanted to retire, so the collective decision was taken to sell.
For the reasons mentioned – perhaps more so than with some business sales – we took our time when considering a prospective acquirer. We embarked on a rigorous and meticulous campaign of research and validation of potential buyers. As it transpired, taking account of some revisiting of thoughts and plans (understandable when taking decisions of such magnitude) this amounted to a period of years. However, the board was comfortable with this time frame in order to ascertain that the right decisions were made for the future of the company and its valued team.
We were determined to ensure that we would be purchased by the best possible company, not just in terms of pricing or value, but the best one suited to us as a team, the values and the cohesive culture we had built up over the years. We considered this to be the non-negotiable deciding factor which we knew would ensure our organisation would fit into the new business and our team would continue to thrive and be valued.
It had to be evident that the successful buyer could see the value of the business we had created, our team, expertise and experience. Also, of course, the valued customer base we had built up over the years, many of whom had relied upon our support over several decades of technological and industry change.
To help with the process, we engaged with a third-party corporate financier and they brought us several companies to consider under NDAs. We met with prospective buyers, up and down the country, to get a feel for their businesses, who they were and if they were the right fit for us in totality. We then narrowed down our selection to just three companies.
From purely just a personal, instinctive feeling, Elite Group was always the front-running company for us. Our personalities seemed to click and marry up straight away. There were also many synergies in the way our organisations were being run – with people, teamwork and customer satisfaction being overriding priorities. What we particularly liked about Elite Group were all the perceived similarities in cultures and what we, collectively, wanted to do and achieve in the future as a business.
For Elite Group, MWL was a strategic acquisition – it wasn’t just a bolt-on for extra revenue and stripping out costs. The acquisition of MWL formed part of Elite Group’s long-term plan and strategy and you could see that Elite valued our people and their skill sets. We saw this as a major positive, not just for us as a business but for our valued staff. I’m really pleased we took our time over the decision and chose Elite Group.
Choosing when to tell your employees about selling your company is always difficult. Having worked within the business for many years, I had in fact ‘grown-up’ with some members of staff myself and considered many as close friends. This made the decision even more challenging.
However, by involving all key stakeholders, we managed the communication professionally and succeeded in striking a balance between being as open and honest as possible without disclosing too much too early or at any given time. We were obviously mindful that this could have potentially caused unnecessary concern. It is important to remember that until the final deal is complete on any business sale – just like when selling your house – anything can happen on either the buyer’s or the seller’s side, and so things could potentially fall through at any time. It’s therefore a case of juggling balls, judging the situation and finding the best balance.
It is usually most attractive for the acquiring business to have the experience, continuity and overall benefit of taking key members of the management team over into their business as part of the acquisition deal. For me personally, it was key to have had that strong management team so that the knowledge of business processes and customer experience could be transferred efficiently and effectively into the acquiring company – in our case Elite Group. This is especially relevant if it is in a sector of the industry which is relatively new or different to the acquiring company’s existing portfolio.
The fact that I was asked to take a role on the board with the senior management team of Elite Group worked well for all parties, as it meant that I was able to fully participate in the whole integration process. This started with clear and transparent team communications, organising staff briefings and one-to-ones. Being able to conduct joint communications sessions with Rob Sims, Alex Cliffe and the team was extremely beneficial as it gave the MWL Systems staff at Wrexham the comfort-factor that although change was afoot, Elite Group as a company was just as concerned about their well-being, their continued employment and careers and allaying any of their fears. We created structured Q&A sheets and held open and honest sessions addressing the most common queries. We ensured that everyone felt they could voice their concerns and were as comfortable as possible moving forward with the acquisition.
This carefully thought-out, two-way communications process continued further into the integration process. Even when the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020, thanks to the technology and the willingness of Elite Group’s team of managers, we maintained the positive communications programme. We held virtual one-to-ones, group meetings with staff and kept our Q&As and written communication going, so that everyone was up-to-date and knew they continued to be valued members of the organisation.
Now, as we are approaching the two-year anniversary of the acquisition, we are fully incorporated into Elite Group and the integration process has been completed successfully. This is a remarkable achievement, especially given the fact that the pandemic affected us and the rest of the world less than nine months post-acquisition. We are now working truly as ‘One Elite’ and the opportunities for the development of our employees within the larger organisation are being realised.
We have a whole new suite of IT, technology and communications services and products which we can offer to our collective customer base and they too are reaping the rewards of our aligned organisations. Our complementary skills capabilities and experience are all helping our customers – existing and new – to run their own organisations more successfully and profitably. And our teams are being given the opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills by working across the different disciplines and sectors.
For me personally, I’m delighted that I have taken on a new role within Elite Group’s senior management team. I’m enjoying working with my new colleagues and teams and I am continuing to make a positive contribution to the business going forward.
Also, it’s nice to be providing a familiar face and that ongoing continuity and conduit for the ex-MWL staff moving forward. Helping them and my other team members develop and flourish within Elite’s organisation now and into the future is my goal.
James Dawson who is now Elite Group’s Head of Software Development, added: “When news of the acquisition was first breaking, the MWL Systems directors were quick to communicate and inform staff of the decision and how the process would be carried out. Their proactive approach allayed any fears for the team and removed any worry and unnecessary stress.
“From the very beginning, it was clear that the MWL Systems management team had ensured that the choice of Elite Group for the acquisition would be a positive move for MWL’s employees, continually noting the similar cultures and ‘staff-first focus’ of Elite Group.
Elite Group’s top team provided timely information, were open and transparent and clearly demonstrated that they prioritised staff and valued our technical abilities. It was clear that they were relishing getting us into the mix with Elite Group’s existing talent. It was great to know we would really offer something new and different to Elite’s existing portfolio and we would receive the benefits of working in a larger organisation.
both the MWL Systems and Elite Group’s management teams communicated clearly and effectively to make sure that people really felt welcomed into Elite’s organisation. Because of having such similar cultures, it almost felt like we were just reconnecting with old colleagues and new members of the team!
message is clear and something we at MWL had already embraced – as our collective priority is working together for the customer’s benefit, the overall team’s goals and also prioritising individual’s development and personal growth. Relationships between ex-MWL and Elite colleagues and departments formed very quickly and easily due to everyone being so friendly. We really did feel part of the team straight away.
“In many ways, it now feels like nothing has changed and that we are now just part of a “bigger MWL”. Together, we have gone from strength to strength. We are very much looking forward to our exciting future in one of the world’s key industries.”
If you are considering selling your business, make sure there are synergies with the new company in terms of ethos, values and culture. Elite Group is constantly looking at opportunities for expansion and if you are interested in finding out more, please visit our M&A website page at Elite’s Successful Acquisitions