Russell Horton, CEO, FluidOne, talks to Comms Business about taking the company to new heights and his ambitions for the future.
FluidOne has been quietly executing the strategy that it set out back in 2018, when Russell Horton came onboard as CEO to lead the company to a new phase in its journey. In Horton’s first year, former owner Rigby Group sold FluidOne to Livingbridge for an undisclosed sum. That project was what Horton was hired to do, and he delivered it swiftly.
He said, “I thought it would take me two years to change the business enough to get the backing but, within five months of joining, people were biting my arm off for the plan. They loved the plan. They loved the quality of FluidOne, and the FluidOne network and the uniqueness about it.
“We had over 50 [private equity houses] interested, and we did a shortlist of 10. Livingbridge was the strongest in the market, with the best understanding [of what we wanted to achieve] and the best support for the plan. Then we went into a full [due diligence] process and by February 2019, the management team, backed by Livingbridge, brought the business. We did what I thought would take 24 months in 11 months.”
Horton has been able to stick to his initial plan for several reasons. He explained, “When I was approached for the role, I knew of the business. I’d been a customer for four years, and a friend of mine had been a non-exec director here. I’d been looking for a vehicle like this for years. With digital transformation driving the convergence of IT and voice over data, I [wanted to] put those pillars together to offer a joined-up service for customers. I wrote out a strategy paper in January 2018, and it’s the same strategy I’ve got now.”
The company’s core technology was also already in a great place when Horton joined the company. “FluidOne [already had] a strong foundation for a good quality business, with a good quality network. I didn’t need to reinvent the product: the product was in a great place. Sales and marketing wasn’t in a great place; brand and the channel wasn’t in a great place. But [those things were] much easier to fix than [if I had had to] fix the product and the network.”
Building the team
In his early days at the company, Horton had identified that Chris Rogers, one of FluidOne’s co-founders who now serves as COO, and his product team could have a huge impact on the future success of the business.
Horton said, “I recognised that he and his team were the key to the business. Before I would accept the job, I said to Chris, ‘I’m only going to come here if you agree to come on the team with me.’ He had sold the business, he was working his earnout, and he’d already made a big exit. And he agreed to reinvest and come on the trip with me.
“I also brought external people in with me to have a mix of internal people with skills and knowledge of the current product set, and people [who can help scale the business].”
Horton’s background meant he was uniquely positioned to help FluidOne reach the next level. “I had done similar things with entrepreneur-owned businesses where I’ve come in as their number two.” He explained that those roles with entrepreneur-owned businesses didn’t give him the same freedom or financial backing to do things “in the way you want to do”.
He wants FluidOne to help businesses connect the dots between technology and the underlying infrastructure. He said, “The plan was to take the best quality network and then acquire capabilities in unified comms including contact centre, IT managed services and cyber. We can now do everything between end user and application. I call that the connected cloud.”
Horton explained that his vision was always to be “the best quality connected cloud solution provider to UK businesses”. When he first came to the business, external messaging focused on FluidOne’s strength as a network aggregator as that’s what the company could offer partners and customers at the time.
Yet even in those early days Horton was clear there was a need for FluidOne to bring in complementary technologies that would bolster and broaden the company’s core proposition.
After Livingbridge came onboard as investors, the next year was about “putting in some organic growth and then starting hunting for the right [acquisition] targets”. Horton explained, “I had several targets lined up in the first quarter of 2020, and then Covid came. Covid has probably slowed us by year, but the plan is still the same.”
FluidOne has been busy acquiring extra services and capabilities that it can add to its core connectivity. One of those acquisitions was SAS Global Communications, a provider of SD-WAN-enabled global hybrid networks. That acquisition was announced last month and was designed to enhance FluidOne’s service offering to mid-market and enterprise customers. Last year, FluidOne made a strategic investment in dedicated cyber security specialist, Cyber Security Associates, to add connected cyber solutions to the company’s portfolio. In addition, back in 2020, the company acquired PSU Business Technology Limited (PSU), adding IT managed services, Mitel UC, connectivity, mobile and telecoms services.
Horton explained that the connected cloud will stop businesses and organisations being hampered by one thing in their technology stack falling over, as well as adding much needed accountability. He said, “I see that as a real market advantage over other MSPs because if your voice quality is poor, or your app is slow, is it your connectivity? Is it your LAN? Is it your IT stack? Or is it the end app?
“If you only do part of it, the customer has got to chase two or three different suppliers and try and work out which one is at fault. We can do the whole thing end-to-end. Without connectivity, there is no cloud.”
Horton explained that adding connectivity to FluidOne’s network aggregation capabilities is a powerful combination. “By doing the connectivity as well, you can get a joined-up service, you can see the cause, you can control security better.
“The idea is to give you unified comms and IT over connectivity, but with a cyber wrap around the whole piece. I’ve now got all of those pieces in place, and then the next bit is to offer two or three market-leading products in each area.”
Depth of skill
Horton highlighted the benefits of becoming a bigger player in the market. He explained, “When you’re small, you need to focus on one technology or one vendor to have depth of skill, but that vendor might not meet all customer requirements. As you get bigger, you can afford to have more vendors and offer two or three per space.
“Using SD-WAN as an example: we were strong in Fortinet and we began the journey with VMware last year, but we’ve now acquired SAS who are really strong in Cisco. We’re big enough to have teams that are expert in all three. Cisco won’t fit every scenario, and VMware won’t fit every scenario, but I’ve now got all three – so I can be a trusted advisor and have enough scale that the depth of engineering to be good at all three.”
The role of the Channel
The Channel will continue to play in vital role in Horton’s strategy. “We were offering just connectivity. We can now offer connectivity, IoT, 8×8, and cyber to the Channel. Some of our biggest leads at the moment are partnering with IT MSPs with cyber. Picking these products up in the direct space allow us to also have the expertise to then offer them to channel.”
Horton explained how the company keeps its direct business and the channel in harmony. He said, “Most of the big players have direct and channel and make them coexist. And the way you make it work is: if there’s ever a joint bid, and a channel player is in it, the channel always wins.
“You must keep the trust in the channel, you can’t undermine it, but you can have direct and channel coexisting.”
“We’ve got some massive opportunities in the partner space. We’ve got 200 partners, and we look after them, but we view around 30 partners as strategic, and we’ve taken on five new strategic ones. This is typically where they’re offering a stack of services over the top of the connectivity. Rather than just being individual lines, they’re doing an IT stack or a voice stack, or a combined service – and we can help them on large, combined sales.”
To illustrate how this works in practice, Horton pointed to one partner that recently won a significant public sector contract by offering their own over-the-top services supported by FluidOne’s connectivity. He explained, “They’re being the connected cloud provider to the end customer, and we’re doing the connectivity part.”
Now he has the right foundations in place, Horton is optimistic about the future. “I’ve got an ambitious plan going out to 2030. Our job is to help the IT team either not get noticed at all, or to only get noticed for the right things. Because it just works.”
This feature appeared in our February 2022 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.