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Whittaker, 34, tall, slender and with a touch of grey hair, has set up Cevas Data Systems, his online accounts outsourcing business above the colourful, exotic smelling Middle Eastern shops and restaurants that line Edgware Road. Behind his office, technicians, accountants and salespeople work busily side-by-side, an arrangement, even 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.’

Success, however, could be hard to come by. Web-based accounting services provider Ascot Drummond slipped into administration this week after failing to attract enough customers sending out a warning sign for Cevas.

But according to the mild-mannered Whittaker, his big idea is set for success after launching GlobalExpense in January, following a year of development and planning.

It has been extremely well received because, as Whittaker says, the market is already out there.

‘Our clients are from all sectors of the economy – city, retail, engineering, telecom, oil industry and hotel chains. We have also tendered for government contracts.’

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 via the internet, submit their claims, and subject to approval from their line manager, have their claims paid directly into their accounts.

In addition, Cevas deals with all paper receipts, management reporting issues and is able to integrate expense claims into company accounts as well as monitor all VAT and tax implications at the click of a mouse.

‘Cevas is not just about providing a client with software,’ Whittaker claims, ‘but includes all the processes that go on behind this.’

ICAEW-trained, he 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 at what is a very hierachial organisation, and I found it quite amazing for such a young person – I was just out of university – to have that amount of authority.’

Revenue lessons
He says of the Revenue: ‘They were all very careful and it was a very structured environment. But there were considerable inefficiencies in the way they did things.

And it was arguably this bureaucratic inefficiency that inspired Whittaker to pursue his entrepreneurial ideas, as he readily admits that work at the Revenue did not agree with his character.

But before, embarking on the road to Cevas, Whittaker felt he needed the right business knowledge. In 1994 he joined the tax division at Deloitte & Touche where he spent four-and-a-half years, followed by stints in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ insurance arm, and work at Sotheby’s and 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 about putting their office solutions on the web.’

‘I thought it was a little pre-mature at the time. But it did set me down a path of thinking about outsourcing accounting solutions.’

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 an obvious 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 defines Cevas 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 complimentary products.

Currently the e-business employs 25 people, of which four are accountants, while four members of the sales team are currently undergoing training for an AAT qualification.

‘Cautious approach’
In the current climate, few entrepreneurs are embracing the internet with such enthusiasm as Whittaker, but his accounting background means he adopts a ‘cautious approach’ to everything he does.

‘The web has not been an issue for us,’ he says with confidence. ‘To be honest, 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 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 by providing outsourcing solutions.

And he is happy with future prospects, without being complacent.

‘…And so are our investors,’ he says, smiling broadly.

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