Dan Sandhu, CEO of ACIS
BACKGROUNDER: Dan Sandhu is CEO of ACIS, a Cambridge based technology business, which is the market leader in real time information technology for the travel sector. ACIS provides location-based intelligence solutions to customers across the UK, Europe, Middle East and North America, and partnerships with companies in the Far East and Australasia to deliver products to those territories.
Dan returned to the UK recently after a six-year stint in India as CEO/Chairman of Vertex (India). While in India he sat on the committees of industry bodies in the IT sector and remains an active member of the Indian Angel Network. He will be talking about his experiences and offering insights into establishing a business in India at the Cambridge Enterprise Conference, ‘Diving with Dolphins’ on September 23.
1. What are location-based intelligence solutions?It is about making information relevant for a geographic location – the right information at the right place at the right time. At ACIS we provide location-based intelligence that ensure that the travelling passenger has access to information instantaneously, where they need it. For example if you are waiting at a bus stop in Cambridge the intelligent signage will tell you when the next bus is coming. ACIS is a major UK provider of the technology that underlies this type of signage, as well as interactive in-home monitors, airport displays, websites, mobile devices and Digital TV. 2. ACIS sells its products internationally. What are your strategies for reaching new geographical markets?When I joined the company over 18 months ago, ACIS was a UK company with a small presence in mainland Europe. Now, we have international software and hardware development partners. We are rapidly becoming international and building partnerships to develop markets in Australasia, Europe, Middle East, India and the US.
My strategy is to use regional partners to build up an international network and then use their contacts and local knowledge to sell within the countries.
I am not looking to set up a satellite office in the Far East but I am looking for an organisation that I can partner with to tender for contracts, that understands the intricacies and the client requirements. We are doing this for the other countries as well. 3. You have a huge amount of experience in conducting business internationally. How important is this in your role at ACIS?I started out as an accountant with PWC but very soon realised that audit wasn’t for me. They responded well and sent me off to Hong Kong where I became more involved in business advisory work. I developed a real interest in this and when an opportunity arose for me to join Mitsui just as they were building up their UK operations, I joined them to become a commercial manager. This was an exciting phase of my life and involved travelling to Eastern Europe, the US and China.
I found that business is business wherever you go. You need to be aware of cultural differences and not be limited by them. The most important thing is to have an experienced team that you can trust and make sure that you communicate effectively with individuals. This goes beyond the language.
In Romania the answer is always ‘no’, whatever the question; in India the answer is always ‘yes.’ The trick in India is to ask how it will be done and this can reveal whether the request has been properly understood. To get things done you need managers to avoid the dangers of ‘going native’ and accepting local timeframes, you have to push forward. You need to have a shared vision and expectations and then make allowances for how this is interpreted at a local level. 4. You worked in India for several years. How does business there compare to doing business in the UK?I set up one of the first Indian outsourced service centres in Delhi in 2001 while I was with 7C which became Vertex. I set up the operation from scratch and although I had already done this in the UK, India was very different.
In the UK we had a good infrastructure, administration and connectivity, the problem was getting the right people. In India there were lots of good people, an abundance of office space but not the right technology or connectivity. Power and water could be lost at any moment.
To build the operation we gained a local shareholder – GE Capital – and created a joint venture. We took our UK clients out to visit and in three years we were employing nearly 3000 people.
The Indian business model is very effective. Although most of the big organisations are family-run they have a strong corporate infrastructure. It is possible to break into the Indian market; you need a good product, good vision, a bit of passion and you can do it. But above all you need to get out there and experience it for yourself. 5. What advice would you give to businesses considering India?India is a vast market and you can’t do it remotely. You have to consider if you have the capacity to manage this effectively. You need to work with UKTI and UKIBC (India Business Network) to get out and identify exactly where the business is and to build relationships. The cost base is very different in India and although the lead times are much the same you need momentum.
I have seen UK businesses be very successful for example a pump manufacturer that had specialised components within a compressor. They started importing initially from the UK and then trained up a team in India and set up operations there. Suddenly they became a domestic company with the same cost-base as their competitors and one, which could price accordingly. I think the main message is the value is in the idea – it’s the IP and actually where you put the box.6. Is IP safe in India?In India the debate is always going to be about IP protection. The model adopted by many businesses has been for software development in India and hardware purchased in China. The India legal system is more transparent. The system in India is enforceable but my confidence comes from the fact that that they see a greater benefit in building relationships with clients than taking my IP.
Providers in India are willing to share and have your participate in activities they are doing to maintain their security, including recruitment procedures and contracts with staff as well as international references. In India there is a lot of investment in education and many bright individuals and I feel this supports an environment which values IP security. 7. What do you see as your main achievements since joining ACIS at the beginning of 2008?We have all been working hard to refocus the business onto its core technology and use partners to leverage opportunities internat-ionally. New products are being launched and we are winning new business both in the UK as well as internationally. It’s all down to have a dedicated and passionate team.
We have grown our technology team in Cambridge and moved the head office operation here as well. 8. In what ways, if any, is the recession affecting your business?We have focused on our core business and invested heavily in technology as well as business development. The strongest comp-anies coming out of a recession are traditionally those, which have innovated. Over the last 18 months we have relocated a number of functions to Cambridge and thereby created savings, which could be ploughed into new product and market development.9. Is recession affecting India?Although the growth rate has dropped from the predicted nine per cent, the economy is still growing strongly and there is prosperous middle class. New phone subscriptions are among the highest in the world. The problem for India is that managers haven’t experienced a business cycle so the recession was a shock. IT companies are suffering as their clients in the UK or US have cut back.
The banking industry in India is well regulated. There hasn’t been an issue with bad mortgages and the mentality in India is of saving a lot. That is bearing fruit now, as people haven’t made silly investments.10. Is Cambridge likely to remain the headquarters for your operations?The workforce in Cambridge is very technically minded especially when it comes to product management skills. It’s a great place to recruit people, and it is good to be near the university. There’s lot of research centres, there is a great networking community, and all that makes for a good business environment.
We have good relationships with the Judge Institute and that has given us access to some good people as well as the ability to network with organisations such as Nokia, which has been very useful for us. You can create relationships, which are integral to business. So yes, we’re here to stay.