Stephen Newton on how he built Elixirr into an international consultancy

25 June 2018 11 min. read
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UK-founded consultancy Elixirr has gone from strength to strength since its launch, nine years ago. Over the years since, the firm has picked up awards and sustained a meteoric growth trajectory across its expanding footprint. Looking to distil the essence of the company’s success, Elixirr’s Founder and Managing Partner Stephen Newton sat with to discuss the philosophy behind one of the fastest growing consultancies in Europe and the US, where it hopes to continue its rapid growth.

Elixirr has always been clear about its vision, according to Stephen Newton; “To be the best consulting firm in the world.” While the task to achieve that might have seemed daunting for a firm which opened its doors amid the continuing fallout of the global financial crisis, Elixirr has certainly made quick progress toward its goal. Newton conceded that, “we aren’t there yet” to obtain such a title, however he was also quick to point out that, “I have never played to come second in anything – even table tennis against my son! I may not always win, but I play to win.”

Alongside co-founders Graham Busby, Andy Curtis, Mark Goodyear and Ian Ferguson, Newton – a former Managing Partner at Accenture (partner level) – has worked hard to instill that competitive streak in Elixirr’s DNA – alongside a belief that management consulting should be an intimate relationship between a firm and its client. This was something Elixirr’s founders saw the big players neglecting in favour of focusing on growth, revenue and sales, making the industry’s traditional consulting model ripe for change.

Newton elaborated, “The industry had lost its way a little bit. The large consultancies are great businesses, but they can be impersonal in the way they operate. Rather than finding tailored solutions for clients, having genuinely listened to their issues, they tend to say ‘I have a set of tools in my kitbag, which I want to sell you.’ That’s not to say that they don’t do good work – but because they focus on volume of sales, they often don’t take the time to listen to clients – so the important thing for me was to fill that gap in the market… In order to grow and compete, you need to provide a bespoke solution to clients. That’s our unique selling point, we get our hands dirty and build businesses in order to grow our own.”Stephen Newton, Managing Partner and Founder of ElixirrElixirr’s culture sees the firm currently branching out its offering in numerous ways, and since its 2009 launch, this has seen the company go on to become a multi award-winning, rapidly growing international consultancy. In 2014, the firm received Best New Consultancy at the annual MCA Awards, while two years on, the firm booked revenues of €21.5 million, at a growth rate of 424%, making it the third fastest growing management consultancy on the continent. Most recently, the firm has been awarded Best B2B Marketing Strategy by The Drum Marketing Awards, ahead of multiple creative agencies and financial sector giant Barclays.

Growing reputation

According to Newton, though, the firm’s growth has not been as easy as it might have looked. Starting out, he explained that it was initially hard work to source a broader revenue stream. In the first three years of the firm’s life, Elixirr depended entirely on work from his personal network – and, being mindful that one day in the distant future, Elixirr would need to function without his input – Newton set about working to diversify the company and its revenue streams.

Commenting on the difficult process behind that diversification, Newton explained that new firms all face a challenge in terms of industrial notoriety. “Coming to a smaller firm has its challenges. Many of our team who came to us from larger firms have found that one of the steepest learning curves to overcome is that you’re suddenly without the power of a calling card - a logo like Deloitte or PwC - you forget how much easier the name of the firm makes your life…. A lack of brand reputation is a very difficult thing to overcome - we’re getting there, but make no mistake, we still have a way to go.”

However, while there may still be work to do, Elixirr’s reputation has reached the stage where the firm has been able to diversify its revenues in the way Newton had intended. Now, he asserts that “not a pound” of Elixirr’s turnover comes from him. Admitting his pride in that fact, he said, “Over the past nine years, that is probably my greatest achievement, I think for that reason Elixirr will exist when I’m gone.”

A diversity of tactics have been employed in order to reach that point; tactics which the firm continues to employ. “Sourcing a revenue stream independent of my personal network was difficult without that reputation, so one of the key steps we took to overcome that was to build market recognition and invest in our brand. That’s why we hire great people like Ellie Duffus [Elixirr’s marketing lead], who can utilise the many channels available to help to amplify our brand. On top of that, awards bring us credibility, white papers thought leadership appreciation, and interviews like this bring us value.”

Into the world

In order to further enhance its global standing, Elixirr has also expanded into new markets across the world. In 2015, the same year the firm rebranded from its original Elix-IRR moniker, it also took the plunge into the world’s largest consulting market of the United States. Since then the firm has been recognised as one of the fastest growing consultancies in the US – mirroring Elixirr’s success in the UK.

“Undeniably the US is a massive opportunity for us,” Newton said, “The thing I love about the US is they are so entrepreneurial. Sales is not a dirty word there. Americans are very interested in doing transactions, doing deals. It’s so different to the UK and Europe, where people are much more sceptical. In Europe, there is more suspicion around selling products and services.”

As a result, the firm needed to attract local talent quickly. The sourcing of local talent has included the likes of Eric Rich, a founding Partner of Infosys Consulting, who joined Elixirr to lead its Stateside expansion, and Rob Holland, a former Capgemini digital practice lead who joined the Elixirr Partner team last year. Such appointments played a major role in negotiating the cultural differences between the US and Elixirr’s native UK market – and sees Newton optimistic about the firm’s future prospects across the Atlantic. While at present, he estimated that around 10% of revenues come from the US, Newton anticipates that in the near future this could hit 40%.Elixirr’s head officeElixirr has also significantly expanded into South Africa. Stephen Newton, who originates from Cape Town himself, explained that this was not an indicator that the firm would expand for expansion’s sake, however, and that arriving in South Africa had simply been a measure to work more intimately with clients there.

“We are reactive to our markets. People ask me when I will go to Asia, and when I say I don’t know they wrongly assume ‘you don’t have a plan’. If my client wants me to be in Asia, I will be in Asia. That is how Elixirr will work to build geographically. Otherwise, we are not in a position where we can simply say ‘build it and they will come’. The US wing of Elixirr grew out of our innovation ecosystem. Meanwhile, in Africa, Standard Bank [the largest bank in South Africa] was among Elixirr’s first clients – and as a consequence we spent a lot of time in Africa working with them. Because of that we ended up working for all the major banks in South Africa, and we became a well-known brand.”

Ferrari over Skoda

The firm’s growth plans do not neglect Elixirr’s home market, either. In the UK and globally, Elixirr is increasingly focusing on strategic partnerships. Recently this saw the self-styled ‘Challenger Consultancy’ sign deals with Kaizen to produce an innovative transaction reporting platform for financial services firms, and Thomas Cook, in order to build Thomas Cook Money.

“I can’t think of anything I’m more proud of right now than the deal with Thomas Cook Money (TCM),” Newton declared. “We have a few of those partnerships in the pipeline still to be signed off on, but the TCM deal is an example of the life-blood of the firm. To me it’s everything Elixirr stands for. We aren’t just advisors, we get our hands dirty and build businesses. We have agreed with the CEO of Thomas Cook that we will work with him to build a brand new company that aims to disrupt the holiday money market.”

He added, “We will share in the rewards, and we will share in the risk – a large portion of our consulting fee is a share of the new company’s profit margin in five years’ time. Our interests and financial rewards are therefore aligned, meaning we bring all our skills to bare to help the business succeed. It’s totally different to the traditional consulting model. This is putting our money where our mouth is, taking risks together with our clients, building businesses, ‘making s*** happen’.”

With Elixirr’s ambitious growth strategy paying off, this entrepreneurial ethos looks set to be an important part of ensuring that the firm remains unique from the biggest industry names it set out to challenge. Newton states “There will be an interesting point, when we may become victims of our own success; when we become large, we may start having the same issues as our larger competitors, because of our scale.” Elixirr’s Managing Partner insisted it is not at that stage yet – however, observers of the firm’s recent activity will also be aware that it has replicated certain trends of the world’s largest consultancies. The industry as a whole is keen to enter the digital and design space, and Elixirr has also been chasing this aspiration, as seen with the acquisition of design firm den, now Elixirr Creative.

“Elixirr is not a mass-market product, it’s a bespoke, high-value product. Elixirr is Ferrari, not Skoda.”
– Stephen Newton, Elixirr Managing Partner

Reaching a point where the firm may begin to struggle to maintain that personal touch with their clients, thanks to its explosive growth, may seem like the ‘best’ kind of problem to have for a consultancy launched under a decade ago, amid challenging economic conditions – however Newton pointed out that this would compromise the formula which has enabled Elixirr to succeed in the first place. “Elixirr is not a mass-market product, it’s a bespoke, high-value product. Elixirr is Ferrari, not Skoda. Skoda may sell more units – but Ferrari is known for being the ‘best’ in terms of performance and value.”

While he confessed Elixirr does not have a definitive solution to becoming a victim of its success just yet, Newton asserted, “when we get there we will give it a good go,” and that the hands-on business building culture fostered by the new wave of strategic partnerships the firm is involved in will play a part in keeping Elixirr on track.

On the topic of the nearer future, meanwhile, Elixirr is approaching its ten-year anniversary in 2019. While consulting firms typically enjoy marking ten-year milestones out for special celebration, for Newton the question is more complex. When asked if there are any special plans to highlight a decade in business, he admitted that he is torn by the prospect. For him, there is still much to be done.

He concluded, “Milestones are only as significant as we make them, and to me the job’s not done. Of course, I enjoy celebrating as we go, marking significant events. Ten years, you could say is an achievement, but to me the achievements are hitting 35% revenue CAGR, hiring 130 people who love working here, looking to grow the firm to two or three times its size in the next ten years, getting a great reputation for market disruption by doing more deals like the TCM partnership. I prefer to celebrate outcomes. At the same time, we will definitely think about it – it would be a good chance to reflect on where we have come from and what we have achieved as a whole.”