Sanderson sails a steady course

It’s been a tough climate for software ventures, but Christopher Winn’s Sanderson Group is one company looking as if it might outperform the market.

I’m certainly not a workaholic,’ chuckles Christopher Winn, executive chairman of software and IT services business Sanderson Group. ‘I do like to have fun – but only after I’ve got the business right.’

Few would argue that he can’t afford, at present, to have his moment of fun. Last December he successfully brought Sanderson to AIM at an issue price of 50p, raising £6 million of new money for the company. In terms of the immediate future, he seems to have his house very much in order and ready for growth.

But Winn is not the kind of person you would expect to rest on his laurels. He describes himself as ‘determined, straightforward, hard-working’, and his medium-term goal is to triple Sanderson’s annual sales from £16 million to £50 million over the next three years.

His targets, he says, are built on the reality of what the business can actually achieve, and not on any ‘ego trip’.

Steeped in business

Having graduated from university with a history degree, he started his career at Olivetti, before joining the ACT Group in the mid-1970s. His claim to fame there was launching and heading up computer maintenance business Apricot Manufacturing. From an initial investment of £400,000, the business reached sales of £15 million and an annual profit of £500,000 in its second full year of trading.

He also completed three small acquisitions between 1988 and 1994. These involved companies that had around a hundred staff and sales of between £3-£8 million, and he also took charge of a newly-acquired software business, BIS, in 1993. He joined then-publicly-quoted Sanderson in 1995, becoming chief executive shortly after.

The business grew both organically and by acquisition, and pulled through some tough times, most notably a downturn in the market and a £4 million write-off of software that was designed – but failed – to compete with the likes of SAP and Baan. Having taken Sanderson private and survived the vicissitudes of the last few years in the software industry, Winn is, at 54, keen to make his mark again on the public markets. His colourful past should stand him in good stead for the buy-and-build strategy he is embarking on at Sanderson.

A solid business

‘We’re a very solid business: well-established and profitable. We own our own platforms and IP and we make nearly an 18 per cent return on our turnover. We’re not in a high growth industry – growth forecasts for the next few years are between five and ten per cent. But it’s a very fragmented market, and that’s where our opportunities lie,’ he enthuses.

Winn is keeping tight-lipped about Sanderson’s intended conquests, suffice to say there are ‘some acquisitions in the pipeline,’ that he expects to be completed in ‘late summer or at the end of the year’. These will be paid for in a mixture of cash and shares; ‘it’s one way of keeping our existing investors motivated,’ adds Winn.

Sanderson’s other attraction lies in its strong and loyal relationships with its existing customers. In terms of new ones, there could be many, as it is targeting enterprises with sales of between £5 million and £250 million. At the tail end of November it announced a contract win with sandwich provider Food Partners. Another contract, worth £400,000, is in the bag and Winn is looking to add up to 30 new clients this year.

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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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