Riding high on the deal

Colin White of Ortus Professional Search speaks to M&A’s Mark Dunne about making the transition from surfer to seasoned deal-maker

Colin White of Ortus Professional Search speaks to M&A’s Mark Dunne about making the transition from surfer to seasoned deal-maker

Colin White of Ortus Professional Search speaks to M&A’s Mark Dunne about making the transition from surfer to seasoned deal-maker

Colin White is not your typical managing director. He has just returned from a surfing holiday in Fuerteventura and already has plans for a trip to Cornwall. He has surfed since he was 15, but the sport is no longer just about the adrenaline rush. Riding the waves eases the pressures of White’s working life, which has swept him from being a recruitment consultant to leading an executive search company that lists deal brokering among its services.

White heads a team of six at Ortus Professional Search in Birmingham, which he established in 2004 with the backing of Pertemps Ventures, an investor in specialist recruitment-related businesses.

Ortus’ initial brief was to assist law firms to recruit a range of legal professionals, from assistant solicitors to specialist partners. But three years later, the company’s contacts and knowledge of the legal market are being sought by law firms to provide a range of additional services.

Ortus not only finds partners, provides strategic advice and researches new markets, it also brokers deals between law firms. To date the firm has worked on five such transactions and closed on two with the others ongoing.

“On day one, brokering deals wasn’t part of the specific business plan, but it is now and has been on the agenda for the past 18 months,” White says.

One of the deals Ortus facilitated and closed recently was for Thring Townsend, an existing client that wanted help to establish a presence in London.

At the time, White was working in the capital with client Lee & Pembertons, a 150-year-old one-office firm with a £3.5 million turnover and 33 staff. He quickly saw it as a perfect fit for Thring Townsends needs. “They were strong in the private client and agriculture sectors, which is why we identified them as a good target.”

But a deal between the two firms wouldn’t just benefit Thring Townsend. “We were doing some work for Lee & Pembertons in their private client team because there were issues they needed to address and I thought a potential deal with Thring Townsend would settle those issues.”

White admits that as he was working to bolster Lee & Pembertons’ private client practice its senior partners didn’t take much persuading that the deal would be a good move.

“The senior partner I was dealing with was realistic about the firm’s strengths and weaknesses and it made us able to identify quite early on whether this was something that was going to work because I already had a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of Thring Townsend.”

Once the parties agreed to discuss a potential takeover, White then project managed the deal, which included introducing additional advisers needed to complete the transaction.

He admits that the Thring Townsend acquisition proved easy to manage. “The more they met and got to know each other the less direct facilitation was needed. We looked at all the bits and pieces in the background to see if there was anything that we were not quite happy with then looked at ways to address them by consulting with both parties directly to look for solutions.

“If a solution couldn’t be found then we would have to kill the deal quickly so it didn’t waste anybody’s time. Fortunately, in this situation, we were able to handle what came up.”

The deal took three months to complete, surprising White by how quickly it was turned around. “I didn’t expect it to work quite that quickly, but I identified early on that there was potential and a will to make it happen.”

Making contact

He added that it was always clear that relationships made on the back of successful projects would lead to Ortus facilitating deals between firms. “The vast majority of what we do is at the senior end where we are talking to the people that make decisions on strategy for their firms.”

Ortus’ deal brokering work is continuing to gain momentum, with the company looking at a deal in South Wales in addition to three other firms eyeing a move into London as well as a transaction involving Central and Eastern European interests.

White puts the increasing number of deals down to moving the business away from the typical high-volume-and-quick-turnaround business model. “What we have moved towards is a low volume, but high quality operation,” he said.

“This means we aren’t the cheapest search company, but by paying a decent fee it guarantees that more time will be spent on the project and there is a better chance that it will be completed successfully.”

Growing the business

Expansion is firmly on the agenda at Ortus with White already looking at larger premises. “We don’t really foresee much change in our current business model, it is simply about expanding our capability,” he added. “We will continue doing exactly what we are doing, but we need to have a capability to do more of it.”

White’s plan is to grow the business so it will be able to deliver everything its existing clients want sooner as well as taking on a small number of additional customers.

It is not just expanding Ortus’ premises that could increase its capacity. White admits that an acquisition of another search firm from either the legal or accountancy sectors could be on the agenda in the next two to three years. “It makes sense because some of our best client relationships come from referrals through accountancy firms and the two sectors continue to grow closer to each other.”

White added that he is also working on projects that are more accountancy than legal, because a lot of firms need to deal with tax issues. “There is another search business that deals with accountancy work that we have referred work out to, because we have had clients that have been looking at tax capabilities.

“We are making a number of relationships within the accountancy sector, as in other professional services. Our networks are quite extensive beyond just legal. It’s a matter of pulling together the contacts that we’ve got and get more out of them, and accountancy is a fairly natural progression for us. Our business needs to expand to reflect what’s going on in the legal market.”

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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