The leadership team should be on the front line, says Decision Inc.'s Nick Bell

Once a savvy boy-entrepreneur and then a sleepless 20-something who perhaps understood SAB’s business better than the brewer itself, young Nick Bell is now building the billion-rand professional services firm that every CFO should know about: Decision Inc.. “We help clients make the decisions they should be making and provide them with a platform to unleash their potential.”

  • See Nick and Decision Inc. in action at Finance Indaba, where they are exhibiting as a silver partner.
  • Also, read more about Decision Inc. here.

Nick Bell, at 32, is already a seasoned expert on the cutting edge of IT, finance and operating models, and the name of his fast-growing professional services firm, Decision Inc., does what it says on the package. "We advise more than 400 clients, through their journey to greater decision-making and help them deliver. We are not a consultant looking to make money quickly. We want to be a meaningful partner over a longer period of a time, as business challenges are never a once-off and decision-making is quite a fluid art. That is our competitive advantage."

R500 million
Core clients for Nick's burgeoning business, which is aiming at a turnover of R500 million in the next five years, are CFOs. "The intermediary between IT and the business is usually played by the CFO and that is where we can add value," says Nick, who studied accounting at the University of Johannesburg and was taught auditing by CFO Awards judge, Prof Ben Marx.

"I think we have done more consolidations in SAP than anyone in the country in recent years. We can speak the language of CFOs, and we invest heavily in relationships with them."

As we chat to Nick, he is busy completing two big acquisitions - one in South Africa and one in Australia - that will see the turnover of the company grow to R270 million. For Nick, it's a mere stopover on a jet-speed growth journey of ten years and counting. Aged 22, Nick started to build a business with two developers and an assistant, and an annual turnover of R700.000. Three months before his 30th birthday, he hit the magical mark of R100 million turnover.

Making money comes naturally to Nick, a Bloemfontein-born Johannesburger. "I started my first job at age nine, packing bags at the local Spar. Throughout school, I ventured into business. I built a CRM in Microsoft Access for real estate agents, introduced videos of houses for sale before this became commonplace, and at university developed a service that helped restaurants book bands for their entertainment. I was fascinated by the internet. I loved building things."

Merchandising app
Although accounting was "the best course I could have done" and EY had an articles position lined up for him, the CA(SA) route was never to be. During his studies, Nick had built a merchandising app for SAB and, when offered a three-year contract, he jumped at the opportunity to launch a business that would help SAB further improve its merchandise distribution and execution. The success of the business (then called BusinessIntelligent) lead to the "bizarre scenario" where Nick, just after leaving varsity, employed his biggest supporter: his father. Tony Bell is still the director of sales for the company today.

Nick was bringing something to SAB that the big corporate struggled to pull off itself. "At 22, I was presenting to their sales executives and general managers in the distribution department. They were looking for a balance between good business and IT knowledge. I could bridge that gap really well. They wanted to be quick, agile and fast, which are common corporate goals now, but they weren't back then. What they liked about me is that I could do it. I would leave a meeting and by the next morning have something to show them. I was full of energy and threw everything and the kitchen sink at it."

The system Nick built captured how SAB's merchandise was placed in stores, providing information about visibility, fridge space and competitors from thousands of outlets.

"Because of the nature of what we had built, I started to grow affinity with data and analytics. If you have x share in the fridge, what does that mean for your business? I was asking questions and grew a closer relationship with SAB about what to do with their data, ultimately leading to better decision-making."

Before long, Nick added companies like ArcelorMittal, Simba, Sibanye Gold, Barloworld and Harmony Gold to his stable. What he also realised was that his business needed an overhaul to grow further and faster. "The idea was always to build a R100 million business. I started to see that the tech had a particular speed about it."

Mentors and coaches
While Nick had his father to guide him from a young age, other good mentors were actually pretty hard to come by, which was not great for an ambitious entrepreneur with his eyes on big things. "When I was in my early 20s, my friends were still at varsity or just starting out in jobs. The sphere of people around me was an inhibitor, as they did not come with a natural network. Even the best sportspeople have coaches."

He went out in the market to seek professional coaches and business advice. It was those conversations with coaching professionals from Endeavour that helped Nick realise it was time for change. "Because of our growth, our risk profile started to change, especially because we were very beholden to one market force, especially with Qlik being the only software vendor we worked with. We were doing a lot of great stuff for our clients, but we also created a lot of work for others that we could do ourselves. Clients don't want to deal with multiple vendors, so we needed to implement a strategy that would add more meaning to our clients."

Nick is quick to add that he has nearly never lost a client and many customers of the first hour proclaim to be "proud of being part of the Decision Inc. story". With his near-American confidence and optimism, Nick says he is a believer in "failing fast" but also says he has never made any "monster" mistakes. While Qlik is still an important vendor, Decision Inc. now works with many others, including SAP, Microsoft, Adaptive Insights, Alteryx, and MicroStrategy.

"We are not beholden to holy cows, so if something doesn't work, we stop it. We are very adaptable."

From BI consultant, aided by a few strategic mergers, Decision Inc. is now also able to help clients with information strategy, data management, enterprise performance management, content management, and advanced analytics. Not only the business changed over years, Nick did too. "I needed a different leadership style," he says. "When you are a small business, it is all about the entrepreneur. In a way, the company was a proxy, as the clients were buying me. Now that has completely changed and my focus is on enabling others. The big challenge is finding the right people that buy into the same vision and have the required passion and intensity."

A real test
From a small team of 25 people, Nick is now leading 130 colleagues in a consultancy space that typically lies between IT implementers and expensive advisors like Deloitte and Accenture. "We recently took on private equity funders, who invested in the business to fund expansion into other markets. Australia is a real test for us to see if we can replicate our model elsewhere in the world. If we can, I want to look at Europe and the UK."

While much has changed - as recently as 2013, turnover was 'only' 21 million and the staff component just 25 - Nick's strength as an entrepreneur has stayed the same.

"We still operate on the cutting edge of IT, finance and operational streamlining. We are often replacing old systems and help companies in their need for information to drive decision-making. Thanks to our experience and benchmark data, we don't have to start with the white board. We bring innovation and explain what is best practice, for example, in working capital management. We run those projects that give you the edge but that you don't have the time for."

The diversity of clients keeps it exciting for Nick. "With some of our mining clients we focus on safety, procurement and contract compliance. At Simba, we focus on sales, and at Marko we assist with their rewards programme," says Nick, who has vowed never to lose direct contact with his clients - no matter how big Decision Inc. grows. "The core part of my job is now to internally and externally promote our culture, which is our incessant desire to keep going the extra mile and be part of the success. To prevent missing the mark when clients' businesses start to change, it is crucial that the leadership team remains part of the front line."