By Alex Evans, Editorial Director, National Business Awards

“Share price is often driven by investor sentiment about the wider economy rather than how the business is performing,” observes Scott Barnes, CEO of Grant Thornton, sponsor of the Mid-Cap Business of the Year. “If you can see a company is investing in the future, is clear about its market focus and where to expand then investors will derive more confidence from understanding its strategy for growth. Investors don’t want to see a company battening down the hatches; they want to see investment in the medium to long term.”

Cineworld, the only UK cinema listed on the London Stock Exchange, positioned itself to benefit from the surging popularity of 3D and some major blockbusters in 2010 and 2011 by investing early in digital technology — installing over 500 digital and 3D projectors across its estate.

Proudly boasting that it brought Bollywood to UK multiplexes, its policy of showing a range of films — from arthouse to mainstream — has expanded and diversified its client-base; which in turn has made it one of the most resilient players in its sector.

“We are as resilient in the downturn as any business can be,” remarked CEO Steven Weiner, whose paternal style of management and innovation around customer service has increased loyalty across the board — with a Save As Your Earn scheme for staff and loyalty card benefits for customers. “Without our customers we don’t have a business and we like to call them our guests,” added Weiner, who is rolling out a new bar-cinema hybrid for a key segment of its clientele.

Demonstrating excellence in e-commerce, Moneysupermarket.com and Rightmove have achieved market dominance in two of the UK’s biggest industries — financial services and property. Significant investment in brand means Rightmove has over 80% of the market out of the top four players, so it has focused on ease and speed of navigation to maintain engagement. Developing new features around mobile platforms such as iPads and Smartphones, Rightmove has ensured its site is mobile friendly to enable users who are on the move in every sense. Two years ago, one percent of Rightmove’s traffic came from these devices, according to Commercial Director Miles Shipside; now it’s 15%.

“Draw-a-Search is another key innovation,” added Shipside. “All websites used to just do a radius search but one’s property search doesn’t naturally fit within a radius; the area that you’re looking at is often a strange shaped catchment area, particularly if it applies to schools. Draw-a-Search means you can actually plot your criteria and save it so you get your own bespoke search which alerts you about new properties that come onto the market in that area.”

MoneySupermarket has innovated around customer experience by creating ‘intelligent renewals’ on car and home insurance, providing a ‘whole of market’ comparison where possible to help people renew in minutes, and ‘Smart Search’ service, where, working with a third party, allows consumers the ability to find the most appropriate credit card based on their own credit profile. “Smart Search is important because it doesn’t leave a credit footprint on a consumer’s record which might damage their ability to obtain credit in the future,” commented Paul Doughty, CFO of Moneysupermarket Group.

Listen to your customers

Proving that some of the best innovations are the simplest, Majestic Wine gained market share and boosted profits by simply reducing the minimum number of bottles per purchase from 12 to six. However, this strategically successful move was born out of innovation around customer experience. Staff are trained to become more expert about wine, even going on tasting tours around the world, while customers are invited to engage with Majestic in a variety of ways — from Wine Courses, Wine Walks and Wine Evenings to its seasonal wine guide, Grape to Glass, and the opportunity to post reviews and swap recommendations online.

“We compete with arguably the best retailers in the UK, the supermarkets, and the way we differentiate ourselves is through customer service - and Majestic Wine is essentially a customer service business,” said CEO Steve Lewis. “We recruit almost exclusively at graduate level, and heavily invest in training - in wine knowledge and customer service standards. We’re looking to recruit people who are articulate, charming and motivated and if we can train them well, then we can deliver a level of customer service that supermarkets can’t compete with.”

From the supply of specialist products to industrials and healthcare providers to specialist manufacturing, Renishaw — Grant Thornton Mid-Cap Business of the Year 2011 — is also actively recruiting graduates. “We’ve been recognised for our products, having just won our fourteenth Queen’s Award, but it’s great to be recognised not only as a business but as a manufacturing business,” said Ben Taylor, Assistant Chief Executive of Renishaw, accepting his award. “We want more students to recognise that engineering is a rewarding profession, and hope that this win will encourage more graduates into it.”

Described by judges as an “irreplaceable business” that exports over 95% of its revenue to over 30 countries, Renishaw has continually invested in R&D, not only designing and patenting new products but the processes to make them.

Exporting British excellence

Another Mid-Cap finalist that has boosted growth, and share price, through international expansion is SuperGroup, owner of the phenomenally successful Superdry clothing brand. Accelerating its European roll out with the acquisition of its France and Benelux franchise and distribution partner in February, this burgeoning brand is now sold in over 85 countries across Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. “It has to be growth in every territory, every part of the business has to be expanding, and has to be successful and be better,” ventured SuperGroup’s entrepreneurial CEO Julian Dunkerton. “We have so many avenues in which to grow, and where you were last year must not be where you are this year or must not be where you are the year after.”

Fidessa, a pioneer in Software as a Service (SaaS) and managed enterprise in financial markets trading, has achieved 30% compound growth since it listed in 2007 and half of its revenues now come from outside Europe. Anticipating the huge increase in regulation after the global financial downturn, its community-based solutions are enabling clients to better meet their obligations and understand them.

“It’s about staying away from our customers’ business models so we provide them with the technology, sit back and let them make money — we don’t try to interfere or compete with them in any way,” commented Steve Grob, Director Group Strategy, commenting on why it has been successful in its market. “All of our stakeholders trust that we can guide them through huge amounts of change, anticipate those changes, create products for them and, crucially, deliver them.”

Learning from its heavy exposure to the IT sector when the dotcom bubble burst, recruitment specialist Harvey Nash not only diversified its offering but also adapted its model to better align it with the changing economic cycle — focusing on quality contract and outsourcing services in recession and switching to permanent and executive recruitment in recovery. As a champion of its sector, Harvey Nash has innovated on service — keeping its pool of candidates live using social media — and is also transforming the way the industry is perceived by presenting itself as a professional services company first and a recruitment company second.

“The sector has reduced from over 20 companies listed on the Main Board of the London Stock Exchange to less than 10 today,” said Harvey Nash CEO Albert Ellis. “There’s a sense that recruitment companies are short term, and the sector hasn’t had the best reputation in terms of business behaviour; so over the last ten years we’ve focused on professionalism as a unique gap in the market. We’ve professionalised recruitment and become long-term partners to our clients.”

Transformational models

Another finalist leading transformation in its industry is EMIS Group, which is utilising the power of the cloud to join up healthcare services — reducing cost across the NHS by increasing efficiency. Developing its own software that has been written “by doctors for doctors”, it is enabling clinicians to provide better and faster service by allowing secure access to millions of patient records.

“If you capture the clinical side, getting clinicians to actually record the data as they’re seeing patients, everything flows and that is our differentiator,” said EMIS CEO Sean Riddell. “We’ve now mobilised the data into a central cloud model called EMIS Web, which has 25 million records in it, and we’re sharing that data between healthcare professionals but with the patient right at the centre. We’re delivering joined-up healthcare with benefits for the patient and savings for the health service.”

Transforming themselves, and the industries they operate in, the 2011 finalists for Grant Thornton Mid-Cap Business of the Year have all shown that a constant investment in R&D, customer experience and innovation can make you a market leader — and keep you one step ahead of your competitors.

“Those organisations that continued to invest in people and continued to innovate have prospered,” concludes Barnes. “This year’s finalists have demonstrated that well-managed businesses can thrive and prosper in challenging times.”

For more information on Renishaw, the Grant Thornton Mid-Cap Business of the Year, plus details of all of this year’s winners and video highlights of the Gala Dinner, visit www.nationalbusinessawards.co.uk

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