Stephen Newton and Graham Busby on Elixirr's quest to be 'the best'

27 January 2020 8 min. read
More news on

UK-founded consultancy Elixirr has gone from strength-to-strength since its launch in 2009. As the firm continues to pick up awards and sustain a growth trajectory across its expanding footprint, co-founders Stephen Newton and Graham Busby sat with to discuss the philosophy behind the challenger firm’s early success.

Elixirr has always been clear about its vision. A year ago, Managing Partner Stephen Newton told the firm’s ambition is “to be the best consulting firm in the world.” Twelve months later – and following the firm’s 10th anniversary celebrations – nothing has changed.

Joined this time by fellow co-founder Graham Busby, Newton confirms, “If you look at his LinkedIn photo, Graham’s taken his next to the statement in our office that reads 'to be the best.' I think that shows that for both of us, the goal is to be the best consulting firm in the world. That isn’t a slogan; it’s an authentic desire. When I think of what I would like my career to stand for, it’s to build a modern-day firm that embraces the new world of innovation, disruption and entrepreneurialism, in order to be seen as one of the world’s best.”

Newton goes on to add that the firm is built around these “more philosophical terms over commercial terms” as its founders are keen to avoid being blind-sided by economic success, and subsequently “not offering up excellence”, in other areas like customer experience. According to Busby, this ethos has already led to the consultancy – which is still young compared to the likes of the industry’s stalwarts – being talked about alongside some illustrious competition.

Stephen Newton and Graham Busby - Elixirr

“We recently had some external advisors do a benchmarking exercise with our clients,” Busby explains. “Over four weeks they independently selected and interviewed around 70 executives from our global client base… They asked who respondents see as Elixirr’s competition, and around 90% said MBB. For us to be held in that esteem with McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and Boston Consulting Group – as a firm of just 10 years – it was quite humbling for Steve and me.” 

For Busby, who is the firm’s lead Partner for Retail and Business Banking, the last 13 years have been something of a whirlwind. The former consultant from Accenture Strategy was working in the firm’s London office when he first encountered Newton on Stephen’s first day at the company.

Looking back on the journey he’s undergone since, Busby recalls, “We randomly met in the lift. I remember going from the second floor to the ground floor in the Old Bailey [Accenture’s office] and this guy gets in at the same time, and suddenly I’m facing this quite ‘non-London’ etiquette as this guy starts talking to me in the lift! In this country, that’s quite a weird thing, but we get chatting anyway. It was his first day at Accenture and I happened to be on the way to a month’s end drink with the Strategy team, so I told him to come along and meet some people.”

Birth of Elixirr

The pair started working together shortly afterwards. At the time, Busby was an Analyst and Newton a Partner. Busby recalls that a “big client” of Accenture’s had just terminated a contract, with Newton being placed in charge of negotiating its withdrawal from the contract.

“One day, he swung by my desk and said, ‘Are you busy?’ When I told him ‘not particularly’ he said, ‘Well you’re going to be for the next five months!’ We ended up working on that project for what turned out to be eight months, and then together for the following couple of years whilst I went through the ranks of Consultant and Manager. In the latter part of our Accenture careers, we were part of Accenture’s global mega-deal team, on planes a lot going around the world, and as we did, we began thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do our own thing?”.

Eventually, the pair would decide to give up a “comfortable, well-paid job” at “one of the world’s leading companies” in order to explore that idea further. At a meeting around Newton’s garden table they started to plan what they should actually name the company, what they were going to take to potential clients and who those clients might be.

According to Busby, some of those initial clients have been with Elixirr ever since year one. As a result, they have witnessed how the firm has matured as a business – and how it has helped them in different ways – as that proposition has developed. A number of the companies were represented at the consultancy’s anniversary celebrations – something else which both Newton and Busby “found quite humbling.”

The sky is the limit

As is characteristic for Elixirr – which has consistently cultivated a reputation for being an innovator over the last decade – its celebrations were not just confined to conventional events, though. Coinciding with the firm’s milestone, Newton – who is also an EASA and FAA Instrument Rated pilot – took to the skies in the company of the founders and CEOs of some of the world’s most innovative and disruptive companies to interview them for their TV show, Airtime – which is now available on Amazon Prime.

According to Elixirr’s Marketing Lead, Ellie Duffus, Airtime will return for a second season, and apparently has even more guests lined up for its next run. When it is put to Newton that perhaps this increase in uptake is because potential interviewees have seen him actually flying in the ‘pilot’ season, he says in a way this might also sum up the attitude that made his first cohort of passengers so successful in their business ventures.

“If you think about the human dynamic of deciding to come and fly with me, in a way it is a risk decision,” he expands. “It says something about the individuals… their mind-set, and willingness to take a calculated risk. Actually, for the same reason I think there’s also something to be said about firms run by pilots in general. Firms with CEOs who are trained pilots tend to be more innovative than their competitors; they are more interested in high-experience engagements, which can challenge them continuously, and give them emotional interest. It has an element of risk, but it is managed risk, and for that same reason, flying with these entrepreneurs provided a marvellous analogy for what has helped make them so successful.”

Newton added that Airtime also has an altruistic purpose behind it. He hopes the series will inspire a new generation of business impresarios, by providing them with a set of worthy role-models. Newton worries that for every Elon Musk, who becomes famous for their entrepreneurialism, there are hundreds of Kardashian-types who are “glorified”, despite it being unclear “what they actually do for society.” 

Now, he hopes that by promoting the likes of Alan Barratt, co-founder and CEO, Grenade – whose journey took him from £27 in a bank account to building a £72 million business; Dale Klapmeier, co-founder, Cirrus Aircraft; and Michel Feaster, co-founder & CEO, Usermind; he can help young people identify with – and emulate them. Busby shares Newton’s ambitions for the programme and is also excited for the strength and depth of talent coming forward to be part of Airtime’s next season.

“We want 10 out of 10! We have to keep going until we are clearly the industry leader, and that is what is continuing to drive our ambitions.”
– Stephen Newton, Managing Partner, Elixirr

Looking forward

Coming back down to earth, the duo’s attention returns to the future. Having just appointed former BT CEO Gavin Patterson as the firm’s global chair, Elixirr’s latest set of results look set to be extremely positive on all fronts, with its co-founders noting that it is “20-30% up again this year on revenue,” and stating that all its key indicators look strong.

“We are getting more and more long-term commitments from clients due to the value we add,” Busby explains. “We always start out doing ‘smaller’ projects for new clients – that’s the nature of consulting – but what we have done well is to turn that into long-term, trusted partnerships. In the US, we’re finding now we’re having more than a handful of these clients, and it’s allowing us to invest. That means we are accelerating our growth there – and while the US already makes up 25% of our revenues, we anticipate it reaching 35-40% in the near-future.”

But to have set a target of being “the best in the world” means that while they are happy, Elixirr’s leadership are not satisfied. Commercial performance and client satisfaction are both firmly in positive territory, but the founders believe their mission is a long way from completion.

“We are not going to rest on these laurels,” Newton concludes. “In the satisfaction survey our clients scored Elixirr 8.6 out of 10 for overall performance – the MBB group got 6.5 out of 10. So, despite being 32% better, that, to me, is a job half-done – we want 10 out of 10! We have to keep going until we are clearly the industry leader, and that is what continues to drive our ambitions.”