Brendon Cross is the public face of STL, the energy behind the scenes and the driving force as the business builds on the twenty-five year-old foundations of its voice-based history and moves into IT based solutions. He’s also the founder of the phenomenal Twin Town charity event which this year will see cumulative funds raised for the wonderful SpecialEffect surge past £1 million. As STL enters a new and exciting period of growth, it’s also the perfect time for Brendon to introduce a new face to help the company really fly. Interview by Richard Rosser.
But rewind twenty-five years, I begin by asking Brendon how it all started.
“The business started in my bedroom when I lived in East Oxford, arguably at the wrong time when I had a new born son. The economic climate was challenging but I think in some ways it was a good time to start a business because you certainly had people’s attention. It was very difficult to borrow money from the bank so you started with everything you could scrape together and a credit card, the usual kind of things and you learn some lessons along the way.
“The two biggest lessons I have learned in business are that the banks are fair weather friends who only want to give you an umbrella when it’s not raining …. you don’t see them for dust when it is.
“The other, without being corny, is that profit is sanity and turnover is vanity. In the first seven years of STL we doubled the size of the business every year, but we made the same money every year. It could have been worse, we could have lost money, but we realised we were being busy fools…. why not go for 25% growth year on year and make more profit? And that’s what we have managed to and I’m now passing on those lessons to my twenty-five year old son, Jordan, who has just started his own business and is impatient and aspirational like I was, but I’ve told him to grow slowly.
“I’ve also learned that it’s all about people and not just delivering good service. I had a customer conversation with a long-standing customer recently who said, ‘the great thing about you is it always works. It just works. We never need to talk to you and I never need to call you’. I found myself thinking that was great, but not ideal…..we never get to prove ourselves, we rarely need to get our customers out of a hole, we sometimes don’t have that opportunity to cement a relationship or have any interaction. I suppose that’s where Twin Town now plays a key role in the business…it gives us face time with a huge number of our customers in a concentrated period of time which has a long term effect.” Some might say a special effect!
So did Brendon foresee a twenty-five years packed with growth back in 1995?
“The vision on day one was to create a service company in what was the old communications world. We sold phone systems, we would cable a building, we did lines, we did calls, we probably did mobiles and way back then we’d stick it all on one bill which was pretty radical, because no one else was, and away we went.
“I sold the original business back in 2004 when I wasn’t looking to do so, but TalkTalk came along and offered us a decent price for the business which was great as I got to check a few boxes in my personal life. I’d started a business on wing and a prayer and all of a sudden, I had the funds and the cash to build the business properly. Since 2004, that’s what we have done with the right ticks in the right boxes in terms of ISO 9001 ISO13001 and, shortly to be announced, ISO27001 for Information Security.”
In twenty-five years there have been plenty of highs and lows, but Brendon clearly draws immense pride from competing with bigger organisations with significantly deeper pockets.
“We’ve always managed to compete with organisations that were supposedly bigger and stronger than we were and we’re still very fortunate to hold our own in a very competitive industry. We never count our chickens, but we’re very, very fortunate to count a number of F1 teams as our customers, so we’re delivering technology to a bleeding edge sector which allows us to be really good at delivering technology to leading edge sectors.
“We were fortunate enough to deliver communications for the London 2012 Olympic Games, something that we weren’t able to shout about much at the time because BT were the main Communications sponsor for the Olympic Games and we had to go about our business quietly. There is no doubt whatsoever that David Cameron was very instrumental in creating a level playing field for us to compete and win that piece of business. We successfully delivered connectivity and voice communications in terms of handsets on desks and speech parts and everything to the main Olympic Stadium and to the backup which is a brilliant part of our heritage and our history.”
At a recent B4 event, Brendon spoke passionately about the iconic Twin Town event alongside Nick Streeter, one of the key driving forces behind SpecialEffect which has grown remarkably since Brendon’s first meeting with Nick. So how did it all start?
“I was lucky enough, eight years ago, to be invited to go and meet the guys at SpecialEffect. I went along for a coffee and ended up spending a day there and finishing in the pub with a beer…. I became completely captivated by everything the team did there, it was awesome!
“SpecialEffect have been on a journey and it’s now an established charity that has grown from ‘Witney to Worldwide’, a phrase which is used internally within the charity. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my work there and we have been able to marry that work, to interweave and to integrate that with STL so SpecialEffect is in STL’s DNA and has been for a number of years. But through Twin Town, STL is also interweaved with Special Effect’s DNA, so it’s a great marry up.
“Twin Town 2020 (this year’s event runs from 1st to 4th May) is certainly going to be the last in the current format, but we have other ideas about some things we might want to do to continue to give the charity an income stream.
“To be able to create some headroom to be able to do that is quite important for me, especially if I can do that with an STL hat on and retain that connection between the two. What you’re doing at B4 with NEXUS is fabulous, it’s actually fantastic and we want to be a part of that, it’s key for STL to be a part of Twin Town and initiatives like NEXUS.”
Brendon reveals that the effects of Twin Town go far beyond the bi-annual events. “Listening to conversations between the charity’s Dr Mick Donegan, Nick Streeter and Tom Donegan, Twin Town has provided a significant boost to the charity in that it enabled it to take more space and allowed them to address more people by taking on more occupational therapists. I’d like to think our involvement also changed the outlook of the charity in how they went about expanding. In terms of the financial impact of Twin Town, it will have generated £1.25 million pounds by the end of Twin Town 2020 which will go directly to the charity. Although the event is every two years, Twin Town revenue has accounted for around 10% of the charity’s annual income.
“The success of SpecialEffect is very much down to the personnel that drive it, but my immediate observation when I first went for that chat with Nick was that they needed to engage the local business community and that’s what Twin Town has done. I’d been involved with something similar on a trip to Budapest and Nick’s opening question to me – he’s a very clever guy Nick – was that if you did it again how would you do it differently. Within an hour we had mapped out Twin Town – we thought we’d raise about £30,000 for the first one but ended up raising £130,000 in 2014 and the 2nd one in 2016 raised £350,000. We did a third one in 2018 and raised £375k and we might go to £400,000 on this one, which will be quite staggering. But the cash raised is just one element of it.
“The secondary benefit or bounce is that because you’ve got seventy local businesses involved as teams, a number of them will engage with SpecialEffect as their charity of the year …. For some, SpecialEffect has become their charity of the year for multiple years, as with STL, and so the extended fundraising beyond Twin Town is huge.
“Our primary objective, as Nick and I used to say, was to make some friends and see what happens….. the rest has been beyond our wildest dreams.”
I explain to Brendon that what he and the hundreds of people supporting Twin Town have done has inspired the rest of us. It certainly inspired me to set up two fundraising bike rides, run three London Marathons and more and, ultimately, NEXUS was born out of the Twin Town example and interaction with the likes of Grant Hayward, Dominic Hare, Jayne Woodley, Mark Beard and many more. It just goes to show how Twin Town’s effect has reverberated around the local business community and set the benchmark for us all to follow and continue to set examples to inspire others. I put it to Brendon that for that reason alone, he must be very proud.
“I’m so, so proud. It’s funny, I wrote the foreward for this year’s event a couple of days ago, which will almost certainly be the last one. In previous years I have written something witty. Then you start to name check a few of the people that didn’t make it to the first Twin Town. Ironically the first person to ever sign up for the event passed away before the cars left Oxford – Bob Marchbank’s widow Maureen now presents the trophy every year. Cally Robson was part and parcel of the launch of Twin Town and helped me to get it going. Sadly, Cally didn’t make the first event either. We lost Nick Walker of Focus, a team mate of long term ‘Twin Towner’ Nick Jones, in 2016…..so I’ve gone from trying to be witty to being quite emotional and wiping away a tear or two for past friends.
“Twin Town has got to a stage where it has got so big … it could be massive. SpecialEffect is synonymous with computer games and that’s an industry we have only just scratched the surface of. But if it became bigger, would it be more corporate and less random…and that’s part of the success and the charm of the event. Although it is slick – we will have seventy-five volunteers with us this year, that random element is key. I touched on the volunteers…when he was in office, a representative from David Cameron’s cabinet office was working with some volunteers and wanted my assistance getting them to make a difference. I think he thought it was quite complicated but I said it was quite straightforward. I said if you take caring, compassionate people ask them to make a difference, then they probably will.”
Away from Twin Town and back to business, Brendon explains how STL has changed and is gearing itself for the next phase of growth.
“Today’s business now looks markedly different to the business that we started. In terms of service delivery, that’s never really changed. What we’ve really managed to do over the last few years is tilt the axis of the business, so we’re now very much an IT company having moved away from being a voice, capex business.
“We recognised that we needed to move on, we needed to be agile, and we needed to change so that vision and that service delivery has always been there, what’s not necessarily been there is the ability to scale a business in the way that STL now has an opportunity to be scaled. Before, whilst we did provide multiple communication services to a customer, I think having the right accreditations and skill sets and tools to deliver a full IT service to a customer opens up many doors for us and I know we now deliver a very reliable service to our customers across the region. Being able to take IT services into our customers, if we only sold IT services to 50% of our customers, we would be somewhere near to tripling the size of our business…… and that’s where Paul comes in.
“Paul (Ballinger) and I have known each other for 30 years. We both came into the same industry at similar times and took different paths, crossed paths occasionally and had a proper conversation 18 months ago, which has resulted in Paul coming on board as my Managing Director to help us take the business forward.”
Although I’ve personally known Paul for the best part of eighteen months, until now I hadn’t appreciated two things. First the plan for Paul to take on a more hands on role to allow Brendon to devote his time to strategy and (for the next six months certainly) Twin Town plans for May and the Twin Town ball later this year. Secondly, the bond between the two couldn’t be stronger. This is an excellent move for the team at STL and, equally importantly, STL’s twelve hundred plus customers who are getting a bullet proof duo to build on the unparalleled credibility and integrity of Brendon. It’s not quite Torvill and Dean, but it’s not far off. I ask Brendon how the relationship is working.
“We work so closely together and we speak every day. Many of our customers have been with us for so long that there is a lot of history and it’s important for Paul to be able to run things past me. Although he’s the one co-ordinating the team on a day to day basis, my number is everywhere on the website and I am still a go to contact for many of our customers and I get that, I want that. Nothing has changed to be honest, I’m still in the same office and I’ll be there most of the time, although I am spending a significant amount of time on Twin Town at the moment.
“My role in management meetings is to listen more than direct – I leave that to Paul – but it’s great when I’m asked for my advice….. I am genuinely touched when someone turns around and asks me a question. But ‘Bally’ is very much his own man, he is very strong and has skills that I don’t have and I think my softer skills complement his skills perfectly.
“I’m genuinely excited. I don’t think I have ever been more excited. I’ve always enjoyed running my business, I’ve always enjoyed what we’ve built at STL and what STL is all about, its DNA and what it stands for. We’re very much a family with a corporate outlook in terms of how we deliver and how we compete with our bigger competitors.
“There is huge opportunity for us to grow. We see that not just within our own customer base, we also talk to people every day that are keen to make sure that their IT support, their communications, their mobiles and everything connected comes through one supplier. In a world where people are trying to rationalise and trying to simplify and just try to try to make life easier, STL can play a huge part. We need a person like Paul to help us get to where we need to be.”
Paul will assume his new title on 5th April and Brendon will assume the role of CEO and will focus on projects agreed on between them and potential M&A activity. Before turning to Paul for his take on the his role and the future of STL, which we will look at in more detail in the next edition of B4, I ask Brendon what advice he would give to anyone in his position looking to take someone on board to help their business get to that next, vital stage in their business’s life.
“I’d start out by saying that, as a business, we’ve always been a safe pair of hands. We’re recognised such by our customers. Moving forward, Paul is also a safe pair of hands with a load of knowledge in the industry and is the perfect appointment to scale a business like ours and to make us even better than we are.
“Whoever you appoint and however well you might think you know them, you need to try and spend time with that person. Get them to spend a month with you…if they’re serious about joining you and you’re serious about taking them on, why would either of you object to that? They need to get to know you better and you need to see if the fit is right, with you and the team. The chemistry has to be right otherwise what you have built to that point could start to have cracks in.
“As a final word, I have the advantage of knowing Paul for a long time and it was without doubt evident then that he was a hugely capable and competent guy. We were young sales guys then and we didn’t know what we didn’t know, but Paul was very driven and I think anybody that now knows Paul through STL would say is a very driven guy….he drives himself and he motivates the people around him to do the best at all times I know he’s the man to help me drive our next exciting chapter at STL.”
“STL have been fantastic and helped us with every stage of moving to our new telephone system, and are always on hand to resolve any issues quickly and without fuss. Their friendly and knowledgeable team are a great support to us.” Blenheim Palace
“STL provide us with our office internet and cloud-based telephone system. The service with STL is always great and we have a dedicated account manager who is always at the end of the phone if we need to discuss anything. We are currently moving premises and STL will be cabling up the new office, as well as providing a new high-speed leased line and telephony. Again, I have no doubt the process will be smooth and well managed by STL.” Alto Energy
“STL make my life easier……they are responsive and get it done; A friendly co-operative approach to business.” Harwoods
“Being in a remote location, we constantly struggled with our broadband provider and after many frustrating years made the move to an STL dedicated lease line. It’s been a breath of fresh air, not only are we saving money but we are dealing with a company that really seems to value its customers – no more dreaded call centres! Queries or concerns are dealt with quickly and efficiently by a team of friendly staff. We wish we’d found them years ago!” HorseQuest UK Ltd
“We found STL Communications at a time when our company was going through big technology changes that we couldn’t keep up with. They came in with cool heads, extensive knowledge, amazing customer service, patience and kindness. Our business is now in a place to safely continue online, and STL remains our main contact for anything IT and communications related.” Annie Sloan Interiors Ltd
Facts & Figures
Calls connected annually by STL – 20.1 million
Minutes handled by STL Annually – 60.3 million
Telephone numbers managed by STL – 69,287