From little acorns mighty Oaks DO grow!

November 17th, 2011 3:01pm | Oak Telecom

After 25 years of success in delivering communications management solutions to businesses via the reseller channel you could forgive James Emm and Phillip Reynolds for relaxing a little and enjoying the fruits of their labours, but taking it easy is not currently on the agenda for the joint CEOs of Oak Telecom.

With a current turnover of £4m, zero borrowings , 47 staff and a quarter of century of profitable years behind it, Oak is one of the unsung success stories in the telecoms industry, but, like so many organically grown business, it had humble beginnings.

The roots of Oak go back to the late eighties when telephone call management was in its infancy. Working out of a ‘posh shed’ in Great Missenden in Berkshire, telephone engineer Chris Marsden  and his wife Sue were building and selling solid-state call loggers which could bolt onto all the popular telephone key systems of the time and give customers basic but valuable financial  information on the length and location of outbound calls.

Oak, so named by Marsden because the company was called Acorn Business Systems in its infancy, quickly established itself as a call management specialist, selling its own Mayflower Call Loggers and a software equivalent provided on floppy discs by a South Coast business called FDS, where Reynolds was a director.

At that time Emm had already established himself as a successful sales executive at the likes of Brother and Canon but in search of a new challenge he was lured to Marsden’s back garden after meeting him at a comms exhibition in 1989.

“I was then working at another call management business called Systems Reliability based in Luton.  I thought the concept of call management was brilliant and at that time very unique. The Oak products were way ahead of their time so when the opportunity came to join them as sales director I took it and bought some shares in the business, even though I was based in a shed and was on commission only!”

In those days, academics were renowned for making expensive long distance and international calls to fellow dons in far flung places at great cost to universities and further education colleges. These, as Emm recalls, became happy hunting grounds for him.

“I guess I had a lucky break in that my uncle introduced me to a College of Art in Kent who were delighted with the call logger we installed there and were happy for us to use them as a reference site. From then on we focussed on the educational market and the company took off. “

While Oak was finding its feet, Reynolds, a highly qualified IT specialist, was furrowing his own path in the call management business developing his own AllTalk call logging and voice processing business, having left FDS in 1992.

The discussions Emm and Reynolds had as competitors at numerous trade shows and business events formed the basis of a partnership which was cemented together in 1995 when Oak and AllTalk merged under an Inland Revenue approved share for share purchase scheme. The timing was good; the economy was strong and the expanding independent dealer market, fuelled by telephone system companies like SDX (now Avaya), Toshiba, Panasonic and Ericsson plus Least Cost Routing players such as WorldCom, Energis and Norweb was creating big demand for billing solutions and added value telephony solutions.

The first reseller Emm sold to was John Massey, now managing director of Actimax Universal.  Massey  was then running Callback Communications in Southend and he remains an Oak customer to this day.

“My first company, Callback Communications, sold a solid-state call-logger from Oak which we branded Kestrel in 1988,” recalls Massey. “It had a maximum storage memory of 1,000 telephone calls! Technology has of course progressed dramatically since then but my relationship with Oak has prevailed through all industry changes and remains as strong today.”

By 1997 Marsden had amicably departed the company, favouring a quieter life, but Oak was marching on, spending its profits on developing Windows based call logging and Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) products and, at the turn of the new century, purchasing Peterborough based Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) specialist Tiger Software and becoming an exclusive distributor of Tony Cook’s Union Street aBILLity billing solution.  Oak had also been successfully selling over 2000 ITS Vocall voice mail systems annually.

It was, as Emm remembers, an unintentional yet highly successful business strategy.

“When we took on all these products we had inadvertently done something extraordinary. We had instinctively implemented a process which was explained to me several years later at a sales conference. We had adopted the so-called magic matrix approach to selling whereby you position yourself to be able to offer more and more different products to your customers. It reaped rewards because a company that was buying call logging from us in the nineties was buying call recording, billing software and CTI solutions in the noughties.

Another magic formula has paid off handsomely for Oak : channel focus.

“In the last decade or so we have become 100% channel, “says Reynolds. “We realised that the indirect market was growing and that resellers needed added value products they could easily upsell to their customers. We made a conscious decision to advertise without a break in Comms Dealer and other publications serving the community and to support as many trade events as we could and still do. James is always at these events and still travelling throughout the UK meeting resellers on a daily basis. He’s a channel institution really but it’s that focus on reseller engagement which has put us in such a strong position.”

Both Emm and Reynolds are quick to point out that their success has also been down to great employees both past and present.  “The list of such employees is large,” says Emm, “but two significant contributors are David Rands – known so well in this industry – who was our MD for almost 10 years prior to retirement, and our current MD, Adam Bardsley, who has been at Oak since leaving College in the early 90s and who does a great job in between competing in Ironmen events!”

Oak is a family-based company, employing six family members in addition to Emm and Reynolds, and most recently has started an international subsidiary based in Canada with David Reynolds and William Emm at the helm.  “The UK was not big enough for the four of us,” quips Emm.

But, underling the importance of the Emm-Reynolds partnership, it is the latter’s focus on delivering quality to the channel which has put Oak at the top of the comms management solutions supply league.

“We have worked hard, very hard to make sure our quality procedures are watertight. We are  proud to be an ISO 9001:2008 registered company and we have an excellent record of consistently meeting the standard, including scoring 100% three years running which is quite an achievement,” says Reynolds.
We have a flexible, network ubiquitous product set which can function on the vast majority of platforms and there’s a whole raft of data resellers out there keen to add telecommunications to their portfolio which we are now targeting. So like any good Oak the channel can be assured we’ll be around for some time yet!
Add to this the fully accredited partnerships Oak has with, amongst others, Cisco, Siemens, Mitel, Avaya and Aastra and its becomes clear why Oak’s dynamic duo are keen to carry on whatever market changes lie ahead.

“We are still enjoying it. We earn a good living out of this business and latterly, with the introduction of our Comms Suite X which wraps call recording, call reporting, call monitoring and CTI into one complete package we have created the platform for another growth spurt which all being well, will take us to a record £4.5 million turnover this year,” concludes Reynolds.

“We have a flexible, network ubiquitous product set which can function on the vast majority of platforms and there’s a whole raft of data resellers out there keen to add telecommunications to their portfolio which we are now targeting. So like any good Oak the channel can be assured we’ll be around for some time yet!”