It’s hard not to be buoyed up by Stephen Kelly’s enthusiasm for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as his passion for technology. He refers to entrepreneurs as “heroes” and believes that, when it comes to tech, we are living in a golden age.
As chief executive of the Sage Group, the UK’s largest technology company, Kelly presides over a firm used by 53 per cent of Britain’s businesses to pay their employees. So when he says that Sage is “part of the DNA of the economy”, he is right on the button.
With a background in both the public and private sector (incidentally, something that Kelly thinks careers in general should encompass), he admits that the prospect of heading up Sage was an “intoxicating” opportunity. With, among others, senior roles at Micro Focus and the Cabinet Office on his CV, Kelly has now been working in technology for 32 years.
He tells David Buik, Panmure Gordon’s senior market commentator, and Simon French, our chief economist, that three key elements drive an organisation to success: clear leadership, alignment (a company-wide connection with the mission and a clear sense of purpose), and culture.
“Culture is fundamental, to have a vibrant organisation that moves quickly and really serves its stakeholders well. So what we were trying to do back in the government days was reconnect ourselves with the stakeholders – the citizens, the taxpayers, the ministers of the day. And every meeting, every moment of the day, just reconnect ourselves to how we make a difference to the stakeholders that we serve. It’s exactly the same with Sage.”
Kelly believes that Sage acts as “a real champion of small and medium business, a real voice of entrepreneurship in the UK”.
He adds: “In our job at Sage it’s all about getting technology to be incredibly awesome, totally intuitive, and allowing entrepreneurs ultimately to run their business from the palm of their hand so they’ve got all the control they need to grow and be successful.”
While Sage floated back in 1989 and is now a global company, working with more than six million businesses across the world, Kelly says that the firm feels like it’s at the start of a journey, with plenty of opportunity ahead. And, over its history, it has been very acquisitive.
“We would always look at acquisitions, we will always look at partnerships, as a real enabler to accelerate the strategy,” says Kelly. “And as we go forward we see ourselves looking at the marketplace and seeing what opportunities are out there.”
He goes on: “We are creating hundreds of partnerships every year and one thing we’ve built is something called the Sage Marketplace which is similar to the Apple App Store where if, say you’re a hotelier down in Margate, you can go in there and have a booking system, a reservations system, and it’s all integrated to Sage Live which is the accounting [software] which is the digital heart of your business.”
But how does a company like Sage marry up its legacy business with a desire to deliver growth?
“It’s really important that technology companies never become invasive to their customers,” Kelly says. “So a clear statement I made when I joined is we’d have no forced migration for customers. If customers are happy with their current system with Sage, then fantastic, we’ll continue to support them.
“However, we do believe there’s an incredible opportunity to give the very best applications to entrepreneurs on the move so they can run their business from their hand…We believe we can give customers a path from yesterday to today to tomorrow and do that in a very non-invasive way and make sure that we allow them to really focus on what’s important which is their business success and their growth.”
As far as technological progress in the UK and beyond is concerned, Kelly says that the last three years have seen more innovation than in the previous decade.
“This is a golden period. We are genuinely sitting at the ringside seat of history. We are very lucky. Fortunately for Sage we are on the stage creating that history.
For the UK, this is a golden opportunity. One and a half million people are employed in the technology industry in Britain. We can see that growing.”