“I love it when a plan comes together.” Most of us who are middle-aged will remember this as the catchphrase of Hannibal in the A-Team. In almost every episode, having been locked in a room with a couple of chisels and a few scraps of metal, the team got to work, manufactured a tank under the direction of their leader, and overpowered their enemies. Cue a grinning, cigar-chomping George Peppard Jr. Cue cherished catchphrase. Cue end credits.
Edwin Bessant, CEO of Ceuta Group, is the Hannibal of the business world. And, just like George, his plan is coming together and he’s loving it.
When he spotted a gap in the market 23 years ago, he gave up his high-flying career in consumer healthcare at Pfizer Consumer [Formerly Wyeth] and chased the opportunity like a hawk tracking its prey. Over the past quarter century he’s stuck to his task. Relentlessly.
Edwin launched healthcare-brand-management specialist Ceuta alone, with no clients, from a three-desk office in Bournemouth in 1994. Today Ceuta Group has several offices around the world with a reach to over 100+ markets, employs more than 400 people, turns over around £80m and, after a whirlwind of acquisitions, comprises 12 distinct companies. Several of these businesses were bought after meticulous planning to feed an audacious business model (more on that later). CEO Edwin predicts that their net income, currently around $10m (EBITDA), will double over the next three years.
It was while working for Pfizer Consumer that Edwin recognised the opportunity. He’d been with the pharma giant for 18 years and was put on a European fast track programme, here he saw a growing demand for “brand fostering” – where an organisation gives total responsibility for one or more of its brands to a third party. Certain he could build a company to meet this untapped demand, and using all his blue-chip experience, Edwin created an ambitious business plan, left his job and set to work. His first job was to find an equally savvy and focused business partner. Managing Director Annette D’Abreo was the perfect choice.
“By the end of Year One, we had 30 employees,” Edwin says, who gives the impression he has never once doubted Ceuta Group’s ability to become a global powerhouse. “We made a loss of around £300,000 in the first two years [in line with the bank’s support]. And in year three we made a profit of £50,000.”
The upward curve since then has been phenomenal. There are many reasons why, but two stand out, and from these all others flow.
The first could be described as peerless future-proofing. Or, to put it another way, exquisite planning. Ceuta Group knows exactly where it is going – now, in the near future and in the long-term. It is never reactive and always in control. Even when Edwin sat alone in his company’s first office with no clients, he had absolute confidence in his business plan. This belief has never changed.
“One of our key imperatives is to ensure that the business is fit for purpose in three years’ time; not just relevant today,” says Edwin. “We’ve mapped our path to success and we always try to be aware of what’s coming next. We have a business plan for the next three years but have an eye over the next decade which generates a pathway of intent.” Edwin describes this approach as “staying in the blue ocean”. The red ocean on the other hand is shark-infested. It’s full of competitors, non-inspiring businesses and me-too brands. He explains: “We constantly stay in the blue and always focus on ‘Futurism’. The ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ is a book written by Renee Mauborgne & W. Chan Kim. I’ve often noticed parallels between my vision for growth and market positioning and the Blue Ocean approach. It’s a book I’d recommend to any aspiring entrepreneur.”
The Ceuta Group unique drives unique innovation, continually pioneering new ideas and differentiating the brand’s proposition and market positioning from their competitors. This would sound like hollow management speak if Ceuta Group had not recently done something unique. Over the past few years, it has evolved fast through the purchase of several successful companies – these include a branding communications and design agency, a category and shopper insight agency, field marketing and experiential business and other brand management and outsourcing businesses. More acquisitions will soon follow; including a transformational digital technology business.
Remember the “audacious business model” we mentioned? This is certainly it. Uniquely, Ceuta Group has built a fully ‘Integrated Platform’ of consumer outsourcing services globally. This means that it can offer every possible service a client could want on an international scale. Having such potent tools at its disposal allows it to enter new sectors beyond healthcare, such as food and drink and other consumer based businesses. And the raft of companies within the Group are supported by the Ceuta International Alliance, which provides access to more than 550,000 pharmacies, 3 million grocery independents and 120 mass retailers worldwide.
So when Edwin talks about evolving to “stay in the blue ocean”, this is what he means. His idea is to understand where the market is going and to align everything to meet it. “When your client base is global, they can choose from a collective of added value services and obtain an expedient single global solution,” he says. “That’s what we have created and we’re the first company to do it. The opportunity is now to take our evidenced-based model to other parts of the world; that’s our driver.”
Underpinning this peerless future-proofing is the second major reason for Ceuta Group’s success – the commitment of its co-founders, Edwin and Annette, to driving the business forward. They are not and never have been in it for the cash. They are in it to fulfil their plan. “Our priorities are to do what’s right for the business, right for the industry and right for our clients,” says Edwin. All CEOs say that, of course, but not many can back it up. But Edwin and Annette can, having said no – on more than one occasion – to buyers waving fat cheques. “We’ve always walked away from deals that only benefited us but did not benefit the business,” says Edwin. “A few years ago, we declined an eight-figure cash-out from an investor because we felt the deal would jeopardise the business. Those offers will always be there, unless we screw up. But from day one we’ve never felt like we owned Ceuta, but rather that we work for Ceuta – I know it’s a strange mindset but it happened automatically. What drives our decision-making is doing what’s right for the business. If we get that wrong, then we become irrelevant.”
Extraordinary planning. Relentlessly making it happen. Putting the business first. Those three fundamentals have fuelled the Ceuta Group story and they continue to energise the founders to this day. So despite clocking up almost a quarter century at the helm, you get the impression that Edwin Bessant is still only part way through building his A-Team tank. It’s a mean machine now. Just imagine what it will be like in three years…
Edwin was recognised last year for building a global vision and received a Global Top 100 CEO award. Other recipients of this award have included the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Uber, Disney and Microsoft. Edwin is also a Fellow of the Prince’s Trust and a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Photograh credit: Getty images