Chalk and cheese
by Antony Begley.
Arriving at the Warwick offices of data cleansing and suppression specialists UKChanges to interview the founding directors of the company, I wasn’t expecting to meet one of the founder members of the rock band Oasis.
“Oh yes, I was the bass player in Oasis back in 1980, and I’ve got recordings from BBC Radio Birmingham to prove it,” says Steve Day. “It wasn’t the Oasis with Liam and Noel Gallagher of course. No, we were a rock band based in Coventry and it was quite a few years before the Gallagher brothers took the world by storm, but we were called Oasis!” he laughs.
And so begins the interview with the two founding directors of the business. When I first discussed the idea of doing the interview with Day, partly to commemorate UKChanges 20th year in business, he was very keen to find out if we were prepared to bend the rules a little and make it not a One-2-One, but a One-2-Two. Mike Fox never gets any of the limelight, you see.
But bending the rules is very much in line with the pair’s approach and it turns out both Day and Fox are full of surprises. A former aspiring rock star that still occasionally picks up his electric bass and an oilfield engineerthat spent years abroad using data to find black gold, the pair are very quick to describe themselves as “chalk and cheese”.
“We first met at school in the second year at Kenilworth Grammar in 1971 and we both coincidentally arrived in the same week six months into the school year. By then all the other kids had already formed their relationships so we were the outsiders,” recalls Fox.
“We were chalk and cheese really but we just hit it off immediately. Steve was, and still is, the artistic and creative one, as he puts it, and I was the technical one, into science and maths.”
As Fox articulates that last sentence, half way through Day gently interrupts, almost under his breath: “I was more into doing stuff with coloured pens”; and over the course of the next hour or so it becomes clear that the pair are very used to being in each other’s company and often help each other finish sentences, but in a respectful, quiet way.
What brought the pair together, however, and what transcended all else was a shared sense of humour, described by Fox as “Pythonesque”. They ended up going through school together before Day left to pursue a career in a band while Fox, the seemingly more conventional of the two, headed off to Southampton to University to complete a degree in electronic engineering.
“I took the band stuff seriously at the time,” admits Day. “When I left school we set up a group called The Doris Kent Band and we used to play working mens clubs and so on, but we wrote our own stuff. Very heavy rock, which caused a few problems because you’d get these gangs of old men in the audience clearly expecting a middle aged female vocalist called Doris to appear on stage and taken aback when a lead singer that looked like Dennis The Menace started belting out heavy rock tunes.”
Day refers back to his days in bands often and with a clear sense of nostalgia and perhaps just a little regret. At one point he does claim that “in a way I’m glad I never made it in music when you look at the lives rock stars lead” but that final statement is not said entirely convincingly.
Even back then, though, the pair’s lives were intertwined with Fox acting as roadie and Day taking frequent trips down to the south coast to help his mate live it up in true university style.
“It took me ages to work out what I wanted to do,” says Day. “I started working for a car components company then moved into selling greetings cards for Hallmark Cards. I got into their national sales team and was the youngest ever guy on that team.”
Meanwhile Fox had taken his first job after university with Seismograph Service Ltd in Kent. He explains: “It was my first job in the oil industry and I was sent to the Nile Delta in Egypt very quickly to map underground geographic strata with a team of 10 ex-pats and up to 100 locals.
“It was all about setting off explosives to generate mountains of data that got captured on mag tape and shipped off to data centres to produce subterranean maps - hopefully of oil-bearing structures. It was enjoyable but not what I wanted to do with my life.”
So he left and joined global giant Schlumberger in 1980, this time acquiring and analysing geophysical data from oil wells in Tunisia. “We’d drop hi-tech $500k instruments down 3 mile deep wells which were up to 200C at the bottom and use explosives to cut old well-heads off at the sea floor – great fun!” Often working with explosives and radioactive materials, it was exciting times for a young man at the start of his career.
After three years in Tunisia, he was sent to Nigeria for a year - “an experience, often terrifying” – then back to North Africato run a project offshore of the Western Sahara before returning the UK, then heading to Geneva to do an MBA “with compulsory skiing! in 1988-89.
While all that was going on, Day was living the double life of selling greetings cards by day and trying to become a rock star by night.
He then left to join Amex as an area manager then onto BUPA via a short stint with a telemarketing company called Contact.
“BUPA was great because it was the best preparation,” he says. “I’ve been lucky in my life because the companies I worked with all had great sales training programmes. BUPA was so regimented and structured and process driven – and I’m just not.” A comment that causes Fox to laugh out loud. Chalk and cheese.
Day was then lured to mobile phone business Martin Dawes by a former Amex colleague who was now Operations Director there. “He told me mobile phones were the future,” says Day. “But I had a good job, I was married and so on but decided to go for it.”
It worked out well and by focusing on corporate accounts Day was able to shift a lot of phones, and perhaps more importantly, gave him the seed of an idea for a new business.
“We’d been talking on and off about some business ideas and were beginning to look at maybe buying a business,” explains Fox. “But at that point Steve had this idea that he put to his MD at Martin Dawes but didn’t get far with.”
Day takes up the story: “Back then with mobile phones you basically stored all your contact numbers in a 1 to 100 system, a number for each contact, but it was useless. Unless you had a fantastic memory, it was really hard to find the number you were looking for, so I had a piece of paper stuck on my sun visor to help my find numbers quickly. I used to write them on then wipe them off as I replaced them.”
So he called Fox and set him on to the task of working out whether better versions could be made commercially – which they could – and ultimately sold lots of them onto businesses like Vodafone, creating a “nice little business”.
Fox again: “That got us to thinking, could we make more of that? And at that point BT had just introduced fees for directory enquires. We then get to know a guy call Trevor Burke who had created some directory enquiries software so we agreed a deal to become a distributor for that”
The pair quickly discovered, however, that most clients didn’t want the hassle of buying the software, they just wanted someone to come in and do the work for them. Clients would hand over their data and telephone numbers would be appended and the data returned.
“We then drew out our ideal software package on some big bits of paper,” recalls Day. “then we got a guy to program it for us, naively thinking it was the only piece of software you’d ever need!”
The company had been set up in 1991 and until the late 1990s had been trading as Direct Select 192, much to the chagrin of BT who were very attached to their ‘192’ brand.
The business grew steadily, off the back of the burgeoning call centre market which had a voracious appetite for telephone numbers.
“Back then, the telemarketing industry was flying but clients either didn’t have telephone numbers or they had numbers without the local codes.”
In 2001 the company rebranded under the name of a small software solution that it already offered: UKChanges.The pair liked the name because, as the branding consultant explained, it’s a truism. The UK does indeed change.
As the bureau business developed, the pair became acutely aware of how important efficient matching software is. “It was a complicated, iterative process,” says Fox. “We developed our algorithms, tried stuff, saw how it worked, improved it and so on. But with software, when you fix one problem you create two new ones!”
But they got there with persistence and the business continued to evolve. Fox: “Actually, when we set up the bureau, we had access to the BT database but not in-house.It was access via a modem that could maybe run five searches a minute! We had to put search strings together from the name and address combined with the BT exchange area and the BT database didn’t have a field for the town. Mapping the whole country into exchange areas was a black art.”
In addition to the matches that came back from the BT database, Fox had to score all those and match them against input records again to try to match the telephone numbers. He ended up with a matrix with 3,500 entries in it just to establish whether he had a match or not!
He says: “At five searches a minute we really struggled if we got a big job in with, say 200,000 records. We had to literally go and buy new PCs and get new phone lines in with modems to process the records, running them 24/7 all week long. We had banks of them chugging away over night and we had to come in and check them in case they’d fallen over because we didn’t even have UPS then.”.
Data was often supplied in hard copy so the business quickly ended up with 10 data entry and manual search staff, running lookups.
“The next important development was the Telephone Preference Service which became law in 1998,” says Day. “The new requirement for TPS screening swamped the business with orders, big and small. We were besieged with mountains of files to run through TPS screening, usually supplied on floppy disks or via the modem. It was a manual process and the sheer volume of jobs, many of them tiny, meant we couldn’t make money on them and they took a lot of time.”
Which is where the innovative idea for UKChanges>online came from. The system was developed to churn through the basic stuff as a way of automating the process.
Fox explains: “It let the client upload the file, have it screened and then returned without effort on our part.” The service began as dial-up but evolved into true online over time and has gone on to be a major part of the business, the solution against which other solutions are judged.
At that point address processing was really coming into its own, quickly followed by the stellar expansion of the suppressions market. UKChanges flourished.
In the meantime, the business moved into purpose-built premises with some of the most impressive security facilities I’ve seen, though don’t get Day started on security...
“Security has always been key for us obviously, so when we built the new offices we built them to the cutting edge of security and consequently were able to get our ISO 27001 standard fairly easily. But a huge bugbear of mine now is that, despite having achieved that standard, we still get asked by potential clients to fill out 50-page questionnaires about our security procedures and processes, as if they don’t trust the ISO standard. It’s so time-consuming and it’s infuriating!”
Perhaps a little of the rock god righteous anger still burns in him today, after all.
Data hygiene is still the heart of the business and as the directors prepare for the celebrations of the 20th anniversary, the future certainly looks bright. UKChanges>online is now a decade old and has processed billions of records, and both Day and Fox are convinced that marketing budgets can’t be squeezed flat for much longer.
“We’ve got a good little ideas factory going here,” concludes Fox with a coy smile. “We’ve still got clients we had 20 years ago even though their business has changed dramatically and so has ours.” The UK does indeed change, but change with it and you’re onto a winner, as this chalk and cheese pair demonstrate.
14 Aug 2012: Is your CRM platform holding you back? Upgrade with MarketDeveloper, the hosted, multichannel CRM solution that combines class-leading marketing tools with strong sales and service functionality.
13 Aug 2012: With high quality, up to date, accurate data at the heart of what all database marketers do, there’s nothing quite as reassuring as a data provider that has a proven track record of being able to deliver for you first time, every time: step forward The Data Partnership.
Known to many as the man that made the Mortascreen deceased suppression file ubiquitous, Leeds direct marketing guru Martin Smith has a lot more strings to his bow, as Antony Begley found out.