Ashley Whittaker, 34, tall and with a touch of grey hair, has set up Cevas Data Systems, his online accounts outsourcing business above the exotic smelling Middle Eastern shops and restaurants that line London’s Edgware Road.
Behind his office, technicians, accountants and salespeople work busily side-by-side, an arrangement he admits is somewhat unusual. ‘We’re a young team. But we all have a good understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, which is a measure of why I think this company will be successful,’ he says.
Succeeding, however, will tough. Web-based accounting services provider Ascot Drummond slipped into administration two weeks ago after failing to attract enough customers. But Whittaker says that GlobalExpense, his big idea, which launched in January after a year of development and planning, will work.
In fact, he says, it has been well received because the market is already out there. ‘Our clients are from all sectors of the economy – city, retail, engineering, telecom and hotels.’
Companies subscribing to GlobalExpense are charged by time, and do not require ‘multimillion-pound SAP-like systems’ to get operational. Employees log on from any location, submit their claims and have their expenses paid directly into their accounts.
In addition, Cevas deals with paper receipts and management reporting.
It can integrate expense claims into company accounts and monitor all VAT and tax implications at the click of a mouse. ‘It isn’t just about providing a client with software,’ Whittaker claims, ‘but includes all the processes that go behind this.’
ICAEW-trained Whittaker began working life as a junior tax inspector at the Inland Revenue in Southall. Recalling his time there, he says, with a wry smile: ‘You go in as a trainee inspector in a very hierarchical organisation. I found it amazing for such a young person – to have that much authority.’
‘The Revenue was very careful. It was a very structured environment. But there were considerable inefficiencies in the way they did things,’ he says. It was arguably the bureaucracy that inspired Whittaker to become an entrepreneur. As he readily admits, work at the Revenue did not suit his character.
But, before embarking on the road to Cevas, Whittaker felt he needed business knowledge. So, in 1994 he joined the tax division at Deloitte & Touche, where he spent four-and-a-half years, followed by stints in PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sotheby’s and at mining giant Rio Tinto.
At Rio Tinto his idea for Cevas began to develop. ‘I remember reading an article about Microsoft in January last year,’ he recalls. ‘They were thinking of putting their office solutions on the web. I thought it was a little premature. But it did set me down a path of thinking about outsourcing accounting.’
From then on, it was only a matter of putting two and two together. Whittaker took what he knew (tax and accounting), combined it with the need for an efficient, cost-effective expense claims system and added the latest ASP technology to ‘come up with a new angle’. That angle was Cevas Data Systems and its online expense claims tool. ‘Our technology base is ASP, but we have gone beyond that. We are what I call an OSP, an outsourcing service provider. Rather than an application, you are getting an entire service,’ he says.
Whittaker defines Cevas’s business succinctly: ‘Our aim is to provide high volume/low value services to the back office finance and HR functions of employers’.
As things stand, Cevas’s revenues are projected to reach an ambitious #1.5m by March 2002, and the plan is to grow them by developing products to service all payroll and HR functions and by forming partnerships with companies with complementary products.
Currently the e-business employs 25 people, of whom four are accountants; but four members of the sales team are currently undergoing training for an AAT qualification.
In the current climate, few entrepreneurs are embracing the internet with enthusiasm, but Whittaker’s background means he adopts a cautious approach to everything he does. ‘The web has not been an issue,’ he says.
‘Being a young company has been more of a problem, but that has dropped away as our client base has grown. In fact, we raised most of our investment in July, just after the Boo fiasco.’
Whittaker has a fresh outlook on the web. ‘What the web has done,’ he says, ‘is create a new series of opportunities for little companies like Cevas to compete with some very big names.’ He is happy with prospects, without being complacent. ‘And so are our investors,’ he adds, smiling broadly.
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