When Tom Burnet was appointed CEO of Lo-Q (now accesso) in October 2010, he was given a very clear and deceptively simple brief by the Board to ‘go for growth.’
Since then the company’s share price has increased from around £1 to £7 a share and there have been two strategic acquisitions to date. It would seem that things are going according to plan.
Blooloop caught up with Burnet to discuss the secrets of making and implementing a successful strategy.
Lo-Q was founded over a decade ago when Leonard Sim was inspired by waiting hours in line for a theme park ride to invent the Q-bot, and with it the concept of virtual queuing. With queuing solutions now becoming an accepted part of the theme park model, there are few parks that do not offer visitors some kind of option to beat the queue line.
Lo-Q enjoyed some success with a multi-million pound turnover and a listing on the London Stock Exchange. However, when the development of the company slowed, the Board took the decision to re-assess both strategy and leadership. Burnet was appointed as Lo-Q CEO in October 2010, bringing to the role a wealth of business experience with which to steer the company through the next stage of its evolution.
Burnet’s strategy to transform Lo-Q from a successful start-up to a mature business with strong foundations prepared for growth had three strands.
The first two elements of his plan were to improve the firm’s corporate governance and advisors and then focus on the operational performance of the business. The third phase was to push hard for growth.
Prior to joining Lo-Q, Burnet had worked in technology, with his most recent role as MD of Defence Services at Serco with a team of 5000 people. Burnet says that one of his first impressions of the attractions industry was that at the top of the market, a large number of theme parks, water parks and other attractions are controlled by a relatively small number of companies. Importantly, however the supply chain is fragmented and therefore there has “enormous potential” for consolidation.
Burnet has made two strategic acquisitions so far, accesso (the company from which the new enlarged group took its name) and Siriusware. Both are US based technology companies that allow the group to extend the range of services offered to customers. However, they also open up opportunities for the group to sell the combined portfolio of products to a wider geographical market, and in the case of Siriusware to a new market – ski resorts.
Talking about the potential to engage with customers outside the theme park industry, Burnet says, “With mobile, the market has exploded for us and every other vendor. Operators can engage guests before they get to the gate with ticketing, queue line management, content and information and games. There’s tons of stuff we can do and not just in the theme park industry, we already serve a bunch of zoos, museums and other attractions and we can see that continuing to expand out. As one of my execs said to me, ‘OK, so you want to help operators engage with people where they hang out when they’re not at work.’ So places where there’s a gated attraction, a show, a theme park or even a ski field – that makes sense to me.”
Making the wave break
What started with a handheld queuing device, hired at the theme park, has now developed into a mobile enabled service which covers more of the visitor experience online, encompassing the whole guest journey even before entering the park. Adopting mobile technology early and applying it to the whole guest experience has been crucial to accesso’s survival and success. So what are the risks of not investing in IT research and development?
Burnet notes the change in attitudes to IT in the corporate world: “For me IT used to be something for the geeks and boffins in a back room. The general public weren’t consumers of it. Think how that’s changed over the last few years; the smartphone has completely changed people’s expectations of how technology can impact their lives. In our industry for the first time it’s not just the IT director who’s thinking about IT, it’s the CEO and the President and the guy running support and the kid who’s operating the ride. They’re all using IT all the time every day with their smart phone or at home on their pc, and they understand it and see the value that it brings.”
For a company founded on technology, Burnet says that it is vital to be at the cutting edge: “making the wave break rather than catching up because things are changing so fast. Unless you’re absolutely pushing it then you’re miles away from the action in three years and probably trying to catch up with the wrong people with the wrong skills and mind-set, and focusing on the wrong devices. Leave it too long and you’re gone. You can see it even with huge names in industry like Blackberry.”
God bless Disney!
Burnet cites Disney’s investment in MyMagic+ as trail blazing and set to raise consumers’ expectations. But how to keep up with consumer demands without Disney’s super-sized resources? Many operators will be looking to enjoy the economies of scale in R&D that dedicated technology companies like accesso can offer says Burnet:
“I know that every operator we are talking to is thinking about how they can do as much or more for less, harnessing the technology that guests already have in their pockets with their smartphones.
“God bless Disney for the investment they’re making in technology; they are being very thoughtful about what they do and will no doubt make a massive success of it and I wish them every good fortune, but actually very, very few others in the industry can afford to make the investment that Disney has made. So that operators are now thinking, ‘OK how do I react to this?’ 145 million people a year are going to Disney and experiencing service and technology that blows them away.
“We’re spending into double digits millions in R&D, flying ideas and trying new things. If I can do that and spread that cost across multiple operators I am hopeful they can get a much better ROI and guest experience than sitting in isolation and trying to do it themselves.”
Always keep your promises
As CEO of a publicly traded company, Burnet is well aware of the need to be extremely careful when making public statements. The markets have responded favourably to the way that he has set out his strategy and delivered on it to date.
Burnet recalls advice he received early in his career which has stayed with him: “I was told a long time ago that if you set out and say you’re going to do something you MUST do it. At the time I was running a little tech company and I went to see the senior partner at Cazenove Merchant Bank. I told my story about my e-commerce software company that we were growing up and he said to me, ‘You know Tom the one thing that you have to do is to always keep your promises!’”
People are always the most important thing
So what is the fundamental secret of success in business? Burnet says, “People are always the most important thing in my view. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it’s the people that execute the strategy and bring it to life and make it successful.”
“It’s about hiring great people and then being very distinct and clear about what you want them to do and then giving them the room to go and do it with all the help and coaching you can. But mostly it’s about hiring the best people you can possibly afford, and in fact sometimes hiring people you can’t afford, to move it on and not having an ego about it.”
Maintaining employee job satisfaction during rapid growth can be challenging, but Burnet is keen to stress the benefits to individuals in an enlarged group: “The opportunities for individuals have grown as we grow as a business – to expand roles and grow with us and benefit financially. Every single person who works for accesso is a shareholder and that will continue – it’s about sharing the rewards, sharing the fun, working hard and being part of something that feels optimistic, forward looking and engaging.”
“If you’re lucky enough to create that momentum and you have good people, that’s how you achieve great things. At least I hope that’s how it works!”