The Big Interview: Rob Sinclair, chief executive of Altia-ABM
Rob Sinclair is the chief executive of Glasgow-based software group Altia-ABM, which specialises in investigation and covert management software. It says that every UK police force uses its technology, while other customers include the Home Office, local authorities, HMRC, Trading Standards and the Crown Prosecution Service. It is now also targeting business customers.
Sinclair began his career as IT manager for UPS, joining Sky as operations manager in 2013, and in 2017 joining Altia-ABM as group operations manager, appointed to his current role in June of this year.
Can you give us a bit of background on the business?
Altia-ABM is headquartered in Glasgow with an office in Nottingham; we also have teams in Toronto and Melbourne. Our software is created for two specialist fields – one is the investigations sector, including law enforcement, financial investigations, accountancy and insolvency; the other is covert operations.
Our investigations management software enables huge volumes of information (everything from CCTV footage, mobile phone records, bank statements, images and video) to be integrated into a single, searchable interface and from there the investigative team can analyse trends and pinpoint suspicious transactions or events. On the covert operations side, we work closely with intelligence agencies in the UK and overseas to provide tailored products and services relating to their work.
Group earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation increased by 92 per cent for the year ending December 2019 to £1.4 million. Revenues increased by 17 per cent to £5.9m. In the UK, every police force uses Altia-ABM technology and our footprint goes across all law enforcement bodies.
Since 2014, Altia-ABM has grown by 600 per cent, initially through expansion in the UK and in the past three years primarily through new business wins in North America and Australia.
How tough a challenge has lockdown been and what specific measures have you had to take as a business?
We asked staff to work from home before the official lockdown came – our industry can adapt to remote working more easily than most, with a few adaptations. We have kept our team communications going by frequent video calls and informal chats to make sure that staff are supported, especially for those who are facing a specific challenge or concern.
With our customers we have always had close relationships and this has evolved during the lockdown so that in some ways we have got to know them even better – we have held or participated in user groups or seminars across the business and this has provided a good insight into where we can add a new function or change part of a product to meet the specific needs of a group of users.
We offered extended support hours and additional licences to our customers. We also used this time to understand where the next challenges will come from for law enforcement agencies in terms of fraud, serious and organised crime and cybercrime, so we can stay agile and keep one step ahead.
Having our customers, in particular police officers, all working from home for weeks is not something anyone expected to see but we have used the cloud and upgraded networks to ensure that any number of users can have a seamless experience from wherever they are. It’s worked really well.
How is the industry going to have to adapt to the ‘new normal’/what are the main growth areas going to be?
In terms of the post-Covid climate, it’s an acceleration of flexible and remote working. We have ensured our offices are compliant with the regulations and fully risk-assessed, but we are not rushing people to go back to working in an office – they can continue to work from home or split their time as they prefer.
In Melbourne there was a local lockdown recently and we don’t know when and where the next restrictions might be imposed. I wouldn’t expect any of my colleagues to use public transport at the moment. I value my teams and trust their judgement. This current crisis has shown that productivity happens when you empower people to take the initiative in a supportive environment rather than a rigid top-down culture.
Partnerships have worked really well and will continue to be a priority. We can increase the breadth of functions that we offer through strategic partnerships, for example in Australia we partner with VeriSaas, which provides digital evidence collection and field intelligence.
There’s no need for us to develop a whole new product where it would be better to partner with a company that is already doing a brilliant job. This also helps open up new markets for us and we will announce more partnerships in the future.
Although the public sector will continue to be our main focus worldwide, the private sector is an expanding market. Where previously we would have targeted small and medium-sized enterprises, the excellent feedback we have had about our new enterprise case management system, SmartCase, means we are now more likely to work with large enterprises.
These are continually investing in counterfeit prevention and brand protection strategies, which is where SmartCase will have the greatest impact. The growth areas in technology are the cloud, Saas (software as a service) and IaaS (infrastructure as a service); these are not just buzzwords but really make the difference in terms of creating pricing models and access models that suit all kinds of business.
Time to deployment for infrastructure projects can be cut from six months to just a few weeks. We are making our business future-proof for the next ten years and these technologies are a key part of this.
What measures can governments take to further support businesses like yours?
We didn’t need to use the furlough scheme but that has provided a lifeline for many businesses in this period. The government has been very supportive of our business in recent years. We partnered with the Department for International Trade on trade missions in Eastern Europe.
Our customer base in South America started from a joint project with the National Crime Agency in Panama, Colombia and Peru, training their investigators and sharing expertise from the UK’s experience in fraud prevention and anti-corruption initiatives.
We’ve found that the Scottish government and the UK government are open to working with small businesses these days and not just the giant corporations. When they do that, they get software that is fit for purpose and better value for money too.
Tell us a bit about the online seminars that you are rolling out...
Our seminar series for international investigators will cover aspects of law enforcement, insolvency, asset tracing, asset recovery, cryptocurrency, legal issues and forensic accountancy. Investigators as a profession are never in the spotlight but their contribution to law enforcement and indeed to our society, is immense. This is an opportunity to share best practice and to gain an insight into a fast-moving field.
How crucial is international expansion to the future of the firm?
International expansion is a strategic priority for us. We expect substantial growth across North America and Australia-Asia Pacific in the next five years. The Five Eyes Initiative (where agencies such as the FBI and MI6 share intelligence) was the starting point for our expansion – across the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand because of the common language and also due to the fact that our work with intelligence agencies is a natural fit.
We have established an office in Toronto and in Melbourne, each with a permanent team in place to develop our customer base across North America and Asia-Pacific respectively. These regions along with the UK are our main focus for growth.
What challenges are brought about by Brexit?
It won’t affect Altia-ABM directly as we don’t currently do large amounts of business within the EU. Brexit seems not to be having a major impact on financial planning and investment at the moment.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
In my first job at UPS, my manager was committed to helping junior staff up the ladder. His thinking was that if you give people the opportunity, that also gives them the incentive to work hard, develop their skills and drive the business forward. It totally inspired me and I’ve adopted that approach with the team at Altia-ABM.
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