Posted on Thursday 15 November 2012 by Ulster Business
AMT-SYBEX’s Conor Toal and Brian Mitchell
But for Belfast based AMT-SYBEX, it is more than just a metaphor to represent the complex problems it gets involved in solving for its clients.
That's because the company creates enterprise software and delivers support services to a list of globally recognised clients in the "essential industries" of utilities & energy, transport and food & agriculture, where ownership of a sturdy pair of boots is a pre-requisite.
An impressive list of clients including National Grid, London Underground, The Metropolitan Police, Network Rail, Northern Ireland Water, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Bord Gáis Networks, British Gas, Iberdrola-Scottish Power, RWEnpower, EDF Energy, UK Power Networks, Boeing, Airbus, Southern Water, South West Water and Scottish Water all use AMT-SYBEX software as key enabling solutions for their business.
Brian Mitchell, Managing Director of AMT-SYBEX in Belfast, says a deep understanding of their clients' businesses, technical know-how and practical expertise have combined to help drive the growth of the Belfast development centre.
"From our inception we've been really good at solving difficult problems. A lot of the areas that we've been working in would be core to our clients' businesses and a lot of the people that work for us have backgrounds in those businesses," he told Ulster Business.
"When you look at electricity, water and gas, security of supply is a big thing. Agriculture and the security of food supply is also very topical. So we're providing systems that really do impact on citizens and businesses."
Business Development Manager Conor Toal notes that having cut their teeth working on real world problems, the team has put that knowledge into its own products.
"What makes us different is that because we have done consultancy work in these industries, we have got our boots muddy and worked on real problems. That has really informed our investment decisions in terms of our products. We're not just saying, well this worked in banking so let's try it in the water industry. Solutions aren't just created in a lab, they are based on real world knowledge," he said.
For example, when the company saw customers building bespoke and inflexible integration to underpin energy markets – which tend to change a lot – the company created a product, based on a flexible catalogue, which would allow these changes to be managed easily and quickly without affecting other systems.
Where it saw mobile work management systems that required an army of coders to make changes, it instead created a product that allows a business to customise and deploy tailored mobile solutions without technical intervention.
MEASURES OF SUCCESS
The AMT-SYBEX Group employs more than 250 people in its offices in Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow and Letchworth.
Locally, the firm began life as Sybex Computing and has grown from 16 people in 1990 to 75 in 2012, with strong plans for future growth.
Over the last 20 years AMT- SYBEX has evolved from implementing third party products, through designing bespoke systems for clients, to becoming a product based software company in its own right. It has had remarkable success in selling and implementing its Affinity Suite to tightly focused markets.
For instance, the Affinity Suite is the core Business-to-Business platform for four of the six major UK energy retailers and is essential to enabling customer switching between energy companies.
The suite's Marketflow software underpins 85% of the GB Energy market by customer volume and 100% of the Republic of Ireland's gas market.
The company has built on this success with Meterflow – developed to support the unique requirements of smart metering and smart grids.
Building on its early innovations in mobilisation, where it has worked since 1996, the company's Fieldreach mobile product now has 32,000 mobile users across three continents, doing everything from on-site inspections to issuing parking tickets.
And outside of the energy arena, more than half of the world's top 20 aircraft lessors are using AMT-SYBEX software to manage their complex financial lease management calculations.
AMT-SYBEX has two development centres – one in Belfast and one in Dublin – both of which have grown steadily in the last 22 years.
In the last two years, headcount in Belfast has jumped from 60 to 75, which Brian says is reflective of the shift in focus away from undertaking projects through consultancy, towards the development of its own software.
"The group is much more focused now on development. Of our 75 people, 65 are technical people working in high-end technology jobs of the sort Invest Northern Ireland are keen to encourage," said Brian.
"We haven't put a number on growth, but in terms of the opportunities we have ahead of us to expand into more global markets and to sell products through partners, we're anticipating that will increase the development that needs to be done."
While he admits AMT-SYBEX has experienced intense competition for talent as it has gone through the recruitment process in the last 18 months, the company is popular as an employer.
"People tend to stay with us for a long time. Many will have been with us since university. If you look at why we haven't outsourced, it is because our company is a knowledge-based company. You learn through experience and on projects. Our guys have built that know-how in our core sectors. That's maybe why we've held on to our key staff for so long," he explained.
"We're fortunate that we have grown and our people have grown with us so we have a good core of talent. But we are bringing in new people with experience too," he added.
Where some IT companies have relocated much of their development to more cost effective locations in countries such as India, AMT-SYBEX has no intention of moving away from Belfast.
"We haven't gone down the route of off-shoring business to the subcontinent, which is very much the trend. We feel we have more control over what we're doing when it is based here. We can be more reactive, more agile, and that suits our business model," said Brian.
However, the company is looking to branch out into some of these more far flung markets by selling through partners and distributors. This is being helped by endorsements from some of the global organisations that have recognised its R&D and technical innovation and chosen it as a preferred partner.
For example, IBM benchmarked AMT-SYBEX's Affinity Meterflow product as having ten times the performance of any other comparable product in the world, with significantly reduced hardware and storage requirements. SAP selected its Fieldreach product to showcase the potential of their mobile enterprise platform at a major Global European mobile event.
The company has recently signed a partnership deal with the leading Chinese meter manufacturer to supply Meterflow for their smart meters. A team will be going to China at the end of this month to install the product for the client, which is targeting opportunities across the world in places AMT-SYBEX may not otherwise have reached.
Closer to home, the company also sees Europe as a big target market because a lot of the utility companies it already deals with – for example EDF and Scottish Power – have European parents. It has brought Spanish and French speakers into its sales team to make the most of this opportunity.
"Our UK clients recognise successful delivery in complex areas and are keen for us to now start to talk to their parent companies," according to Brian.
The company provides Northern Ireland Water's Mobile Work Management System which helps manage and schedule all maintenance work on NI Water's core assets throughout the province. It is a core business system that aims to optimise the work undertaken by NI Water's engineers on a day to day basis and provide real time information at the point of service delivery.
Agriculture is also a successful market for AMT-SYBEX with significant work carried out for DEFRA in GB, DAFF in Ireland, and with DARD in Northern Ireland, where it has provided a world leading solution for traceability of livestock from farm to plate to support the agri-food sector.
Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about food quality, and are demanding more information about the origin of the food that they put on their plates. Retailers also understand this, and the traceability of food products can make all the difference when it comes to securing lucrative space on a supermarket shelf.
The Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland was arguably one of the first to recognise that a computerised animal registration and traceability system was needed to support the livestock industry in the province.
AMT-SYBEX developed APHIS (Animal and Public Health Information System), a computerised animal registration, identification, movement, and disease management control system. Its use is applied across all species – cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry – and essentially means that every cut of meat produced in Northern Ireland can be traced back to the farm of origin, with a full history of all disease tests and other pertinent information.
"We've been involved in that project since 1997, and have worked with DARD to help ensure technology is used effectively to benefit both producers and Government, it is something that gives Northern Ireland exporters an edge," said Brian.
"It is recognised as having done a good job by the EU. It has also allowed DARD to reduce the number of people it has out in the field, so there are real savings being made."
With such a breadth and depth of projects for clients whose business is crucial to daily life, it seems AMT-SYBEX won't hold that best kept secret title for long.