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August 4, 2008

Q&A with Glen Manchester, Thunderhead CEO

UK firm Thunderhead, established in 2001, has become a major global player in the document personalisation market. CEO and founder Glen Manchester discusses the company's growth strategy with Janine Milne.

By CBR Staff Writer

Q. What exactly do you mean by document personalisation?

A. When we set up the company we identified a niche business opportunity in enterprise communications and document personalisation. Large firms produce lots of business communications for customers, such as insurance policies or mortgage claims, and government agencies produce visa or benefits documentation.

The goal is to make each document unique to the individual, but most have multiple systems and many layers of complexity that make this hard. So although there are numerous technology solutions to help produce email communications, printed communications or SMS messages, the goal for large companies must be to have a joined up dialogue with the customer.

And although there’s a whole raft of technology for creating a single record of a customer through business intelligence and analytical CRM (customer relationship management), the actual communication with the customer is often through a legacy mainframe print mechanism. So in 2003 we launched an enterprise-class system designed to replace these legacy systems.

The IT department is delighted to have a solution that replaces old systems and is fully flexible and it gets them out of a chore. Companies often have IT people writing the content for documents because the programs built or acquired for the job are so cryptic that the business people can’t touch them. They are very supportive because it allows them to optimise their ECM (enterprise content management), BPM (business process management) and CRM implementations.

We designed the software to work across all industry sectors but we saw a gap in the over-the-counter derivative trading that were using proprietary systems that required lots of programming effort and therefore created lots of operational risk. So we built something for Deutsche Bank and then Barclays Capital, UBS and others followed and today 9 out 10 investment banks have standardised on our software and we’ve become the de facto solution in capital markets globally. Our next vertical was financial retail services and insurance and we’re now looking at telecoms and government.

Q. So where does it fit in the BPM, CRM picture?

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A. Enterprise CRM doesn’t have the ability to create transactional communications. BPM is good at orchestrating processes, but doesn’t manage document interaction.

It can involve extensive programming effort to produce personalised content and it often has to be created by IT people, but we can give that ability to the line of business person and let IT concentrate on infrastructure. We’ve made the product multi-channel, so companies can send out communication by web, print or a combination.

So we enable companies to streamline the process and replace legacy systems and exploit the investment firms have already made in CRM. It enables them to use intelligence from their CRM systems to cross or upsell.

Q. How did you set about entering the US market?

A. We’re an unusual phenomena, because most software companies come from the West Coast. We took the position that as we were having considerable success in capital markets to expand we needed to get aggressive in the US because that is the largest market. The traditional UK approach is to start in the UK and then go to continental Europe, but we decided to bypass that and head to North America, consolidating on our success in the UK and in Australia, which was our headquarters for Asia.

We incubated the US market for two years. We trained sales people and targeted key accounts and large firms extensively. So we put a lot of investment and management time in which resulted in us winning some significant accounts in that year such as Hartford Insurance. As a result of that success, IBM has come on board as a partner. We accepted that unless we went aggressively into the States, other software firms would build on our concepts and would eventually market that back into Europe.

Q. Has the turmoil in financial markets affected your growth?

A. So far our year is completely on plan and we’re expecting 50% growth this year. When we designed the software it was during a recession when software was a dirty word and nobody wanted to buy technology, but we felt that customer communication would be a big challenge for firms and we built software that has a strong ROI and we can often improve the process by 50%. We have a very strong emphasis on ROI and worst case the payback is in 18 months. Thunderhead is profitable and we’re debt free. I founded it and backed it and it’s growing very quickly.

Q. So could you sum up the business benefits of your approach for customers?

A. One of the main things is that you don’t need to use IT staff to be involved in the process. This brings strong cost savings in terms of there being no need for full-time support. The business users are happy because they get to control the process and what could have taken weeks or months to change can be done in hours. And then there’s the ability to multi-channel, using print, the web or social networks such as Facebook.

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