Man with no limits thrives on tinned fish

In refusing to recognise personal limits, Cloud Direct CEO Brett Raynes's direction of travel is always going to be towards the top.

Raynes, a master of self-discipline, proves beyond doubt that human beings are born with extraordinary potential. So much so that if we were to apply the theory of Darwinian natural selection to forecasting the outcome of his strategic and personal regime, it is very likely that Cloud Direct will arrive somewhere at the top of the food chain. And the role of tinned mackerel in this scenario would not be insignificant. With a wry smile, Raynes admits that eating the fish for lunch every day is his greatest career achievement. But joking aside, this unwavering health regime is a piscatorial reflection of his strong mental attitude, determination and resilience, all key requirements to succeed in business.

"I like to test my self discipline and stamina," he stated. "I keep myself fit on a daily basis with cycling and running. In recent years I've wind surfed the coast of Brazil in a 500km ‘down-winder', completed an Iron Man, cycled from John o' Groats to Land's End, and possibly reached my edge finishing the Marathon des Sables, which is 156 miles across the Sahara Desert in extreme temperatures and contours. Discovery Channel calls it ‘the toughest foot race on earth', and completing this challenge underpins my personal and business ethos that ‘more is in you'. I believe that everyone can do more and be greater than they think possible. For me, the measure of that is the transformation that can happen for our customers and in the careers of our staff."

Raynes's brand of leadership is not embodied in one person, it is expressed through his company's staff and departments as an all-pervasive and thriving culture. "‘More is in you' sums up the ethos that permeates the business, from a personal development point of view and in how we can help our customers build better businesses," explained Raynes. "We have lots of company perks, sporty, foodie and social occasions, but we never take our eye off personal development. In everything we do I like to think we follow our five principles of mutuality, quality, efficiency, responsibility and freedom."

Turning to matters of strategy, Raynes's watchwords ‘cloud first' are also loaded with significance. "The move to the cloud is a journey, so it's important that we remain agile over time," he said. "For our customers, we want them to know that they're in safe hands. Our original focus was on back-up, disaster recovery and general cloud services surrounding all areas of communications and infrastructure. But with our recent acquisitions our skills and capacity have sprinted ahead. We can now offer customers more depth and breadth of services alongside strong technical capabilities as well as on-premises support which we didn't offer before. We're now catering for more hybrid needs."

The lesson emerging from Raynes's passionate and deep-seated conviction in his motto ‘more is in you' is that anything is truly possible if you put your mind to it. The watchwords also display a deep instinct for survival based on achieving long-term goals. "We want to hit the £100 million mark in five years time, both through organic growth and our buy and build acquisition strategy," said Raynes. "We exited 2016 at £9 million and will hit £20 million during 2017. Our plan is to continue that pattern exponentially. We already have four more acquisitions in the pipeline."

Last month Cloud Direct bagged its fifth IT business in 20 months, snapping up Connect Support Services. The deal follows Cloud Direct's acquisition of AlwaysOn and brings 300 more customers to its base along with additional Microsoft skills in Azure, Office 365 and hosted desktop. Previous acquisitions include Redblade in July 2016, ihotdesk in December 2015 and Datel Business Systems in June 2015.

Cloud Direct now has a headcount of circa 170 staff based in Bath, Bracknell, London and Cape Town, South Africa. This shows how far the company has travelled since it was founded by Raynes in 2003 to make cloud technology accessible to small and mid-size organisations so they could grow and compete against the big guns by being more agile and more productive.

"In 2014, after 11 years demonstrating year-on-year growth, we decided the time was right to seek outside investment to accelerate our growth through acquisitions," noted Raynes. "At that point we secured private equity investment from Saracens rugby club owner Nigel Wray, along with Rob Giles and Jamie Brooke, as well as the West of England LEP Going for Growth fund and Santander Bank. Our two acquisitions just after the New Year were helped by a further £5 million investment from Beechbrook Capital."

Prior to setting up Cloud Direct, Raynes spent ten years founding and running technology businesses in the UK, France and Germany, one of which he sold to a NASDAQ quoted business. He holds degrees in engineering and marketing, while a Cranfield University Business Growth programme still informs his approach to business. "I continue to challenge myself and grow personally by studying Chinese or music, for example," added Raynes. "Perspective, creativity, adaptability and application are all important in growing and driving a business."

Business leaders are obliged to lead, but how they lead is a matter of choice. Raynes's method, outlined above, is augmented by his ability to stay in touch with his inner font of ambition and drive, and to not allow a transient moment of massive achievement blind him to the need for keeping going. "As the cloud industry continues to mature we're aware that we need to grow and stay ahead of that curve to avoid being part of the ‘squeezed middle', such as you see happening with many small to medium sized businesses," he added.

"We have three practice areas that centre solutions around what the customer needs on their journey to the cloud - backup with business continuity and security; front office productivity solutions including Office 365, Skype, Dynamics and SharePoint; and infrastructure solutions including hosted desktops and applications. In each area we will continue to increase our capabilities."

Cloud Direct is a Microsoft Gold Cloud Solutions Provider for the small to mid-size market in hosting and Skype for Business, and Raynes hinted at what he sees as ‘huge possibilities' in getting close to Microsoft. "We're making big strides in driving the Azure platform and Office 365, especially Skype for Business," added Raynes. "Having a partner like Microsoft with Azure and Office 365 steers our business. The cloud opportunity is immense. Azure alone is growing at 140 per cent per year."

Also capturing the imagination is the emergence of analytics, on which Raynes speaks with a convincing passion. "The ease with which a customer can gain insight into their own business using tools such as PowerBI is amazing," said Raynes. "The potential of machine learning and AI is also mind boggling. Practical applications for our customers are a little way off, but we're starting to experiment. For example, combining voice-to-text engines with sentiment analysis techniques to predict the results of customer support calls. I am only just realising how our own know-how and automation can be captured in tools that drive down costs, improve productivity and ensure quality as we grow. Channel players who rely on lead flow from vendors or make important margin off licensing will struggle. They have to build solutions with their own IP attached."