In the space of a year, Synergi IT has racked up an impressive customer base and healthy pipeline. MD Peter Joynson talks to Robert Gibson about changes in the industry, tempering sibling rivalry with respect and the importance of a creating a close-knit business culture.
To the outside observer, it must have looked like an extremely risky decision.
At the height of his career in IT, employed as a director at one the region’s best known firms, Peter Joynson packed it all in to set up his own business.
But a year on, it would be hard to argue he made the wrong the choice.
In its short life to date, Synergi Information Technology has secured 54 customers, ranging from local SMEs to global giants in industries such as food and petroleum. As to the financials: a first year turnover of £320,000, an order book bigger than that for the first quarter of 2015 and a pipeline twice as large.
With a Scottish office now complementing the work of the Gateshead site, the business is well on its way to reaching its target of £2m revenues within three years.
“We’ve done what we said we were going to do,” said Peter, who to this day, remains driven by advice he received from his father as a child: “If you’re going to a job, do it properly or don’t do it at all.”
Indeed, the 44-year-old - though remarkably grounded, given the success he’s enjoyed - exudes a quiet confidence when it comes to Synergi’s growth.
As well he might, given its the pinnacle of several decades’ experience in the industry - an industry, of course, that’s transformed beyond recognition during the time.
Having started out selling typewriters, he’s now working in the cutting edge world of business software, his company, a Microsoft partner, focusing on the likes of Office 365 and SharePoint - technology that can radically streamline the day-of-day operations of everything from tiny start-ups to multinational corporates.
“Everybody’s got an accounting system,” Peter said. “It’s now about how accessible, visible and usable you can make that information.”
To put it another way, SharePoint is the “glue” that holds an efficient system together.
“My business partner at Synergi, Justin Short, who’s someone with real technological ability in this area, describes SharePoint as being like a box of Lego,” Peter added. “You can tip it out an a table and ask: ‘What do I want to do with this?’ It’s a development tool that can do a multitude of things.”
It’s also, of course, closely linked to that IT buzz word of the day, the Cloud - which, in Peter’s view, represents a “real step-change” in the sector.
“What businesses now have at their fingertips, for between £7.50 and £14.95 a month, is unprecedented,” he said.
“Within the 365 business suite, for example, you’ve got enterprise level email - not like Hotmail or an AOL account.
“There’s also the ability to share common information and data from anywhere, without the need for a server in the office anymore.
“Out of the box, really, small businesses now have the same power that once only corporates had.
“Justin and I saw that and wanted to be in charge of our own destiny. We’d both owned businesses in previous years and felt the timing was right because of what was happening with this technology.”
Of course, the Cloud hasn’t been embraced by everyone and part of the reason for that, Peter says, is simply that some businesses are yet to recognise its transformational power.
For others, slow broadband speeds make it impractical - although Peter is a huge supporter of the Government’s connection voucher scheme.
In some cases, he adds, a “hybrid” option of old and new provides the best solution and, with a strong consultancy focus, Synergi can help such businesses work out what is best for them.
Are there also concerns about security?
Peter laughed. “The worst thing this could have been called is the Cloud. People think of fluffy things in the sky, floating around, which couldn’t be further from the robust security data centres are offering.
“There has been a huge take-up in Government, for example, and in large blue-chip organisations around the world.”
Fluffy things in the sky or not, its certainly a far cry from Peter’s first introduction to the business world, having left school at 16 to join his father Ray and brother Mark in the family firm.
This was before the PC explosion in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the company sold office equipment.
“That was about as exciting as technology got back then,” said Peter, who recalls serving his “apprenticeship” making pitches for typewriter sales.
Still, it was a thriving business and in 1988, was bought by Wilding, a well-known plc with a huge national shop front presence as well as a direct sales arm.
For a time anyway - eventually it sold its shops to Ryman, the stationers, and at that point, in the early ‘90s, the Joynsons bought back their old business.
“They wanted to sell a wider stock of products, but it wasn’t really what we were about,” Peter said. “We were business-to-business - solutions sales people - so it wasn’t a fit for us.
“The natural course of action was a back-to-back acquisition, with us taking back the direct sales engine of what we had.”
At that point, the company, Joynsons Ltd, switched its focus to Sage and Pegasus accounting systems, which were revolutionising the industry by making top quality technology both accessible and affordable.
The business, as might be expected, grew significantly and at the turn of the millennium Peter and Mark bought their father out.
“I think my dad was worried - he’d read too many newspaper articles about the Millennium Bug ending the world!” Peter said.
“Mark and I became 50/50 partners on first day of the new millennium - although the money was transferred before then... just in case dad was right!”
For the next five years, the company enjoyed continued expansion, having introduced full network infrastructure support to become a “total solutions provider”.
“We did very well,” Peter said. “It was a lovely family business and everyone who came to work for us felt that. They felt they belonged to something and they never left us.
“That was because we cared. It was very personal.”
Gradually, Joynsons became one of the top resellers of Pegasus and Sage products in the UK.
It’s not surprising, then, that in 2003, it was acquired by what is now TSG, a business launched by Sage founder Graham Wylie to provide IT services and support to SMEs throughout the UK.
“That was a very proud day for the family,” Peter recalled. “Mark and I were proud to be part of this new vision Graham had had and we went on to acquire other business across the UK.”
Peter stuck with the company for the next decade and remains impressed not only by it is offering, but its ability to maintain that personal touch he values so greatly.
Still, he hankered for the old family firm environment he was used to and wanted to set about recreating it himself.
With Mark still MD of TSG’s North East division, that wasn’t without its challenges, but the brothers’ respect for each other has rendered it less problematic than it might have been.
“We’ve had sibling rivalry forever,” Peter laughed. “But we love each other dearly and we’re best friends.
“We’ve always been competitive but we’re close as close can get and we recognise that its a big world and there are plenty of customers out there.”
Indeed there are - and, as far as Synergi is concerned, Peter says they’re happy ones.
“This is an exciting time for us and they can feel it,” he said. “They can feel that care and attention, the relationships and the rapport we’re building.
“Some of our customers I’ve dealt with personally for 20 years, but the lion’s share comes from new growth and word of mouth.
“I’ll get personal emails from MDs, thanking me, or telling me what a credit to the company a certain member of staff is - and it’s a long time since that has happened.”
Currently, the company is 12-strong, although it is on a recruitment drive and is currently seeking new premises to aid further expansion.
Part of that will include taking on and training up North East graduates, contributing, Peter hopes, to the drive to retain strong IT skillsets in the region.
“The skills issue is a concern, but we’re trying to do something about it,” he said. “We will go out and seek talent, whether its from the universities or colleges, bringing young talent in and put those individuals through training courses.
“The North East is a real hotbed for talent in technology and we’ve got to keep people here, rather than having them drifting off to London. We’re losing people out of the region, but at Synergi we can give people a great career.”
Having got off to a strong start, the business will be focusing its efforts in the coming months on introducing complementary products to its portfolio - in particular a “strategic asset management solution” that has been a hit in Australia.
For Peter, who lives in Ponteland, though, there’s a balance between work and family life to maintain - he and his wife Fran have three children together, including a one-year-old baby.
“Of course Fran was nervous about me stepping out of a really comfortable position into the unknown, but she’s been absolutely supportive of me,” he said.
“She knew I would make it work and she would supported me even if I didn’t. Above all else, Fran wants me to be happy - and I’m happier now than I have been in a long time.”