Academia’s hunt for a suitable acquisition target has so far taken in 25 firms, its owner said as he acknowledged the need for M&A to fulfil his ambitious £300m-£400m revenue goal.
Andrew Harman acquired the higher education-focused Apple reseller in 2020 via his Strive Capital private equity firm.
Organic growth has since been swift, with revenues for Academia’s year to 30 June 2023 defying the straitened backdrop and hiking 22% to £130m (following on from 32% growth in 2022).
Efforts to diversify its focus beyond Apple are also underway, with Apple and Apple device management vendor Jamf falling from between 75%-80% to 50% of sales.
Academia took on a team of former Computacenter staff at the start of 2023 as part of a push into the commercial sector, meanwhile.
‘We’ve talked to 25 companies’
But talking to IT Channel Oxygen, Harman admitted “frustration” at its failure to tie down the kind of strategic acquisition needed to fulfil the ambitions he set out when he invested.
“One of our disappointments is we haven’t locked on the right company yet, but it’s not through any want of trying,” he said.
“We’ve talked to 25 companies, some of which we’re still in discussions with.
“If we’re going to get to our goal of being a £300m or £400m-turnover managed services business, to help us achieve those targets we will definitely need strong acquisitions.
“We’ve got the firepower, we just need to find the right company.”
Harman, who previously built up and sold managed print and IT services business Annodata, revealed Academia had “come close” to agreeing a deal on two occasions.
“Having had the experience of acquiring around 20 companies in my previous life, I know what’s right and what’s not right. Some of those acquisition [targets] turned out not to be quite what we thought they were,” he explained.
“We’re not afraid to say no or back out.”
Upsetting the Apple cart
Even without acquisitions, Academia has been growing well ahead of the market amid efforts to expand beyond its higher-education stronghold with Apple.
“When I bought the business, it was pretty well Apple-centric,” Harman said.
“I wanted to increase annuity revenues, decrease reliance on just one main supplier and I was keen to spread the risk across different sectors. That’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of years.”
Academia has built a £35m-£40m-revenue software business with vendors including Adobe and DocuSign, Harman said.
It snared a berth on six Lots of the £12bn TePAS 2 framework in October, and also took on over a dozen staff from Computacenter’s corporate team near the start of 2023, Harman said.
“Customers don’t just jump from one [supplier] to another, but the feeling with Computacenter was it was not their market, and so we were able to onboard a number of those clients,” he said.
“We’ve also had people come on board from my previous life at Annodata and in the commercial world, which has enabled us to broaden our horizons across the SME market.
“And on top of that, we’re putting more services around our existing clients.”
Softcat and Computacenter in its sights
Growth was hard to come by for some volume resellers in 2023, with the world’s largest IT solutions provider – CDW – seeing revenues fall 11% in the first nine months of the year.
Academia is on course for “significant” organic growth in its fiscal 2024, however, Harman said.
“A lot of resellers are flatlining in the UK,” Harman said.
“But we do realise that we’re going to have to revisit [the M&A piece]. We can’t continue to grow just organically.
“If we can just complement [the organic growth] with the right addition, that would give us the strength to crack on and compete with the bigger players out there like Softcat and Computacenter.”
Strive Capital, which is focused solely on investing in the tech sector, is immune to some of the forces that have stymied private equity investment in recent months, he added.
“I think Strive is pretty different for two reasons,” Harman explained.
“Firstly, we think we’re quite appealing to the right organisation. If there’s a company out there that wants to do a buy and build or go on a journey as a management team, we have the experience to help them do that.
“Plus, the fund of money is coming from my private family investment plan, so we’re not reliant on the banks, which is causing a lot of the PE houses to do nothing at the moment. We think we’ve got the best of both worlds.”
Harman billed the growth of Academia’s management team – notably including the promotion of Mark McCormack to MD – as his highlight of 2023.
“I think the marketplace this year is going to be quite challenged, but in my previous life I grew my business successfully through recessionary periods. So I’ve said to my management team to embrace it, because I think we’ll find opportunities,” Harman concluded.