As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Vivian.
Mark Vivian is the CEO of Claremont, the UK’s leading Oracle Managed Service Provider.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always been interested in IT and tech, and as a teenager, I built my own computers, wrote computer games and had articles published in the computer press. My education and formative years were instrumental. I was fortunate enough to have a state-of-the-art IT department at my secondary school, thanks to the sponsorship of a philanthropist named Mike St John, which fostered my interest in IT. I was equally interested in business, studying Commerce at school and one of my favourite computer games was a Company Management Exercise.
I decided to go to Manchester University to read Computer Science. Such was my passion to attend what was recognised as the best course in the country at the time, I put Cambridge University second on my UCCA form! Following graduation, and a year out travelling, I was lucky to be accepted into a graduate scheme, working as a programmer at Software Sciences. “Lucky” because I think in my shy early twenties, I hardly said a word in the group assessment exercise! I gained great exposure and worked on projects with clients like the merchant banks when the London Stock Exchange went through “Big Bang” and the European Space Agency. With the latter is when I was first exposed to Oracle software and was the point at which I decided I wanted to work for Oracle.
Having failed at my first attempt to join Oracle, I got a job in the Major Accounts division. I worked there for five years, starting as a technical team leader and later as a project manager. Not only was my time there great experience, but it also provided me with an excellent network of colleagues. I left to join a start-up called Fulcrum Solutions, which was founded by some senior managers from Oracle. From there, I moved on with a similar group of people to another start-up called Edenbrook, where I undertook my first Practice Management role. Finally, I joined Claremont a decade ago; first as Operations Director and then as CEO.
Since I took over as CEO, we have become one of the UK’s leading independent Oracle Managed Service Providers. We look to build long-term relationships with our customers, and help them to maximise their investment in Oracle technology. Claremont’s deep Oracle expertise and excellent service delivery have enabled us to attract an impressive portfolio of clients, including the National Trust, Stagecoach, Sony and the City of Edinburgh Council.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current approach? Can you share that story with us?
There wasn’t one “Aha moment,” more a set of experiences that have built up my business philosophy. We all make mistakes, but the important thing is to learn from them and move on.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Twenty years ago, I was working on an Oracle implementation project for a customer and one day, thinking I was sending an internal email, I replied expressing my frustrations with the lack of progress from the customer. Unfortunately, the client Programme Manager was also on the distribution list!
I realised what I had done immediately. Before the days of WiFi, you had to plug your computer into a modem, so my instant reaction was to pull the plug out before the message transferred, but it was too late.
After a sleepless night, I went into the office early the next day to seek out the client Programme Manager. Thankfully, when I apologised the next day, she was incredibly understanding about the entire situation and went as far as agreeing with the points that I’d made. The obvious lessons are responding to emails rather than reacting, but also to check the distribution lists! We’ve all made mistakes. As per my previous answer, the important thing is to learn from them and move on.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
As CEO of a service provider, it is always important to focus on the quality of the service you provide to your customers. Our vision is to be recognised as the best in our marketplace.
In delivering on that vision, it’s all about the people: We hire staff who have deep expertise in the Oracle technology stack, but also a passion for service excellence. We try to create an environment for them to develop their careers, and we give them the freedom to deliver.
As Richard Branson is often quoted as saying “If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.”
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
We have a set of values that we put together as a team some years ago. They aren’t just a set of words that sit on our website, we live and breathe them every day.
As examples: Part of our recruitment process, aside from assessing a candidate’s technical competence, is to assess them against our company values. We also use the company values in our career development process as a measure of performance and a framework for future development.
We are amongst 3% of organisations assessed globally who have achieved Investors in People Platinum accreditation, and living our values is one of the elements of this.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle, and what we strive towards at Claremont, is service excellence; that’s our raison d’être.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It’s not a straight line to success, so there was never one particular challenge that I faced. In the early days, we experienced some issues with projects not going well and the knock-on impacts of this to the wider business.
What gets you through, though, is determination and keeping the end-goal in mind. We want to be the best. While it may not seem like there is a solution to a problem, sitting down with the best minds and talking it through often reveals potential paths forward.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
The work that we’ve done to develop a strong people culture has been recognised in recent months in a number of awards: CIPD North East “Excellence in SME People Practice” and “Excellence in Leadership” and Channel Partner Insight MSP Innovation Award “Best Employer to Work For.”
Because of our focus on service, our customers know that they can trust and rely on us, which has been demonstrated by our excellent customer satisfaction scores, year on year. We’ve continued to hit new all-time scores in recent months, demonstrating our constant focus on service improvement. I think this focus on the client experience is something that larger businesses often struggle with.
What illustrates our success most, however, is the strong relationships that we have cultivated with our customers. Whilst we have had clients leave us if they decide to no longer use Oracle, in the last decade, we have never lost a managed service customer to a competitor.
All of this has fed through into financial performance. Building on strong foundations, we’re grown revenues and profitability steadily over the last few years.
Success isn’t rocket science; it’s all about consistency, the people-centred approach, and customer service which underpin Claremont.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Firstly, the most important thing for a CEO to consider when creating a successful business is the people. Whilst technical skills are essential in our business, having the right mindset and approach is crucial. If we give our employees freedom to deliver, then they will be able to create innovative solutions for our customers’ business problems.
Secondly, tied into this is the focus on service excellence. Because you are not selling a product, success is always dependent on understanding the priorities of your customers and providing relevant solutions; delivering a service that is better than your competition. Tools and processes can help support this, but great people are the essential ingredient.
The third point is that majoring on long-term managed services and hosting services and limiting the impact of the ups and downs of project work, ensure that you have predictability and security for your business.
Fourth: Do the simple things well, over and over again. By being consistent, you can stand out and above the rest of the field. Skimping or cutting corners leads to faulty solutions and, subsequently, weakened relationships, and lost business.
Finally, while this may seem counter-intuitive to my previous point, sometimes you need to be bold and listen to your market. A few years ago, everybody was running head-on at Cloud applications, but at Claremont, we decided to go against the tide and focus on our Oracle E-Business customers instead. We recognised that there was a market there that was underserved, so we chose to focus on supporting those clients. This strategy was ultimately vindicated, as Oracle itself has recommitted to continuing to support and develop Oracle E-Business in the long-term and is now funneling more resources into supporting its on premise customers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
As I previously stated, Mike St John’s investment into my school all those years ago was instrumental in helping foster my early interest in IT and tech.
In addition, I’m incredibly grateful for my early mentors at Oracle, who I followed to two subsequent businesses: Steve Anderson and Mark Robinson. Their support and wisdom in my career has been essential in getting me to where I am today.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d love for our politicians to put the adversarial nature of party politics to one side and genuinely work together cross-party to resolve the biggest issues that we are facing today — whether that’s the tackling the climate crisis, rethinking our national health provision or addressing poverty. I want to see some honesty back in politics too. I’d like to see politicians being punished for telling lies.
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