Progility boss Wayne Bos tells Michael Bow how he plans to take on the UK M&A market
In the late 1990s Wayne Bos, the Australian executive chairman of training provider Progility, had just helped complete the management buyout of a division from London blue chip ICI when the telephone rang.
It was a corporate adviser he’d worked with on the deal – and he had an interesting proposal.
“They said to me: ‘Can you meet this client of ours? Can you help him out?’” he says, speaking from his Chancery Lane offices. “They said it was Steve Outtrim.”
New Zealand-born tech entrepreneur Outtrim was the high-profile face of tech’s late 90s dotcom boom.
He had founded Sausage Software, and had captured the imagination of everyone from Bill Gates to Larry Ellison with his HotDog Web Editor.
But the dotcom boom’s fast cars and wild lifestyle had left his company in trouble and teetering on the brink.
“He’d already been on television leaning over his red Porsche and I said ‘no’,” he says.
“They asked me four times. So eventually I met with him. We sat down for four hours and he was one of the smartest young men that I’ve ever met.”
Bos was drafted in to shake up the loss-making company and within 18 months he had turned the loss into a profit, boosting revenues to $350m.
“We grew that business from nothing into a $2.5bn company,” he says. You need knowledge, courage and action – but you have to take action.”
If dealmakers are born and not made then Bos came fully formed, clinching around 200 acquisitions in the course of his 28-year career.
Now he’s in London to do the same with his new venture Progility, which provides a roster of services for its 11,000 customers and 300 top clients, which include corporate giants like BHP Billiton and BP and the UK’s HMRC. It trains 30,000 people a year, 20,000 of whom are project managers.
“We’ve got some lines of business where we’re getting great organic growth but even if you double organic growth that’s not enough,” he says.
“We intend to seriously take this vehicle and grow it and a lot of that will be from acquisitions.”
Bos has already inked four deals since taking over the venture late last year and is on the verge of doing more, including potential deals in the US, and plans to use Progility as a platform to overlay more businesses.
“You can do it in leaps. There’s time to make these strategic steps in or out of certain assets. Sometimes they don’t work but if you do enough of them you’re hitting the ball more than anyone else,” he says.
“We probably look at 50 deals at any one time and we’ve turned down a few hundred deals already in this business.”
Bos cut his teeth early. At 18 he decided to go into real estate but was more interested in learning how to run successful businesses.
“I was obsessed,” he said. “When I was 18 in Australia there’s a magazine called Business Review Weekly and I got the BRW Rich 200. I went around and I interviewed as many as I could get to see why these people were successful. I wanted my own business.”
He met with Australian businessmen such as rental car entrepreneur Bob Ansett to help learn his craft and was soon offering consulting services of his own.
“I was a good salesman and that helped,” he says.
By his late 20s following the completion of the ICI deal – which he helped orchestrate – he moved to the US to live for three years to help Sausage Software.
He eventually moved to the UK in 2008 and took over a small company called ILX Group in 2012 before transforming that company into Progility in September 2013.
“I could have stayed as the big fish in the small pond in Australia but in London you see everything and it’s much more international here than in the US and Australia,” he says.
“There’s much more open thinking here. The US is incredibly US-centric and you’ve got to be careful you don’t become too parochial.”
Progility has around 200 staff and offices in Nantwich, Bracknell and Dubai and its headquarters in Chancery Lane, overlooking the opulent Royal Courts of Justice, but its rapid expansion plans could change all that.
“The big benefit for me is to take an existing platform. That’s why I don’t do start-ups anymore,” he says.
“I like to walk in and take an existing platform that’s undervalued and take it and turn around and say, now what can we do with it.”
If Bos’ ambitions come true and he builds Progility into a global player, he looks set to add to his mountain of acquisitions.
CV WAYNE BOS
■ Born and raised Melbourne, Australia
■ Lives in Surrey with his wife and three children
■ Wakes up at 5am. Working day starts at his desk at abut 6:45am
■ Favourite film: Meet Joe Black
■ Favourite drink: Wine and beer
■ Favourite music: The Eagles
■ Currently executive chairman of Aim-listed Progility
■ Served as chief executive officer, director of Sausage Software between 1998 and 2000
■ Former chief executive of Nasdaq-listed nutritional supplement company Natrol between 2006 and 2008
■ Founded consultancy business Technology Business Integrators in 1986
■ Was director of Symex Holdings between 1996 and 1999