"Previously, I was running educational software company called Big Bus," explains Foyle. "It was an online content service for primary schools – curriculum-linked material to use in the classroom. But it was difficult to get a strong position in the school’s market."
As a new player in the industry, Foyle found that school’s were reluctant to choose his firm over established brands. "There’s a certain amount of inertia," he says, "Procurement managers know they’re not going to get fired for buying from a long term supplier."
But, being a typical entrepreneur, Foyle took this setback as an opportunity in disguise. "I knew that there must be a number of firms with a good name on the marketplace that were looking for a buyer," he says. "The pricing would be very competitive because the financial crisis was looming. This was at the tail end of 2007 – we could all see the storm was coming."
Foyle founded BLi Education (named after the Black Lion pub in Brighton where he conceived the idea) as an acquisition vehicle to begin scooping up businesses in the education sector, and conceived a smart model to make sure he parted with as little cash as possible.
"I’m a serial entrepreneur so I tapped all my usual suspects for a first round of funding. We put together a small war chest – it was more than £1m. But for a lot of our acquisitions, we negotiated a part equity deal, where the owners of the business took a stake in BLi Education rather than taking cash."
Foyle pursued companies in crisis to keep costs down. "We acquired two companies out of administration," he says. "And another two which were ‘going concerns’."
Once he’d brought the businesses into the fold, Foyle went about consolidating their assets. "Most of the firms had chaff to be cut out of their operations," he says. "A lot of them got lazy after running for quite a few years. When you’re consilating businesses, you tend to see a lot of duplicated assets. Take warehouses, for example. We only have one warehouse now. And we’ve cut out a lot of the finance functions in favour of a one centralised department.
"I haven’t been an axe-wielding nightmare," he continues. "But I have made some fairly heavy cuts in some businesses."
Having acquired five businesses in the last year, Foyle has turned around all the firms in his portfolio, bringing in a turnover of £7m with £10m predicted for next year.
"I’m not saying I’m Warren Buffet or the Sage of Omaha," jokes Foyle. "But I am pretty good at spotting opportunities."
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