Tim Williams talks procurement in the Business Journal

Tim Williams is managing director of electronic tendering specialist Millstream, which operates the myTenders and Tenders Direct websites that allow public sector organisations to publish tenders and private sector companies to bid for new business, as well as national procurement portals for Scotland and Wales – Public Contracts Scotland and Sell2Wales.


Can you tell me a bit more about Millstream and its origins?

We specialise in electronic tendering, and run the Tenders Direct and myTenders websites, which highlight business opportunities in the public sector to private sector companies.

Tenders Direct and its bespoke alert system allows private companies from all sectors who are seeking new business to identify these opportunities from the public sector. Subscribers receive regular updates on tender opportunities, specifically tailored to their individual preferences. These include low value tenders (generally less than £100,000), which are particularly attractive for SMEs.

myTenders has been in operation since 2002, with around 1,250 UK public sector organisations using the website to publish all their new business opportunities on the website and fulfil their legal obligation to publish in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU), as well as the Local Government Transparency Code.

We also operate the national procurement portals for Scotland (Public Contracts Scotland) and Wales (Sell2Wales) and run a range of training courses for both purchasers and suppliers involved in public procurement.

Millstream was established in 1989, when we started out project managing underwater contracts and we were initially very successful in both the UK and Norway. During those early years, the oil industry restructured and the opportunities for a niche business like ours were becoming harder to find, so we knew we needed to diversify.

The European single market was being launched at that time and legislation for public contracts was being developed. Available contracts were being published in the printed version of the OJEU five days a week and I would spend hours every day at the library, trawling through the OJEU looking for potential business opportunities for us.

By the time they stopped publishing on paper, the OJEU was as the size of a phone book every day.

We used the information for our own purposes but then realised it was useful to other people too so we set up Tenders Direct, sourcing and sending out tender opportunities to businesses that wanted it.

In the early days, we sent customers a form asking for relevant keywords that we used in searches. As our customer base grew, we were able to group tenders into different sectors and our staff specialise in an individual market sector.

This has been refined over the years and Tenders Direct now sends bespoke alerts to subscribers’ inboxes, so if you are looking for a contract to provide roofing services for a new hospital, you will receive only roofing tenders and not simply everything related to healthcare, much of which will be completely irrelevant.


How long has Millstream been running Public Contracts Scotland and how did it come about?

Millstream has managed Public Contracts Scotland (PCS) since 2008. We’d been trying to persuade the Scottish Government to support a single website for all Scottish contracts since 2002, when we had first developed myTenders.

By 2006, the McLelland Review into public procurement recommended the establishment of a single website for public contracts. Our experience of running the Irish and Norwegian Government procurement websites helped us to win the competitive tender for PCS, leading the newly appointed Finance Minister, John Swinney to describe it as “one of the most fantastic tools I’ve ever seen”.


How many people use Millstream and in which industries?

An increasing number of European governments and public authorities now handle procurement electronically to save money, time and comply with the latest EU regulations and around 1,250 public organisations use Millstream’s services to publish their contracts. We work with local and central governments, NHS trusts and housing associations through to the emergency services and armed forces.

In the private sector we have more than 140,000 clients using our websites to find new business opportunities, ranging from sole traders to SMEs to multinationals, in sectors including construction, health, IT and energy.


What's your background?

I originally had plans to become a natural history filmmaker but ended up working as a commercial diver in the Middle East and Far East before moving into project management work in the oil and gas industry. After deciding to set up on our own, we initially established Millstream to continue managing underwater contracts on a contract basis.


How will the new EU rules affect Scottish businesses?

There are various changes that should help SMEs but the major change from the new EU rules will be to accelerate the move online.


How many people/businesses use Public Contracts Scotland each month/year?

The number of public sector contract awards being won by Scottish companies through the Public Contracts Scotland portal has more than doubled from 6,000 to more than 12,000 in two years.

Currently there are more than 65,000 supplier registrations with PCS, of which 86% are small and medium sized companies (SMEs). Importantly more than 80% of the contracts advertised on PCS are won by SME’s.


How much business does it generate for the economy?

Scottish public procurement is worth £10billion a year, but the value to Scotland of retaining this in our own supply chain is worth several times this amount, as major contractors place sub-contracts and this is repeated down the supply chain with the employees of all these companies then spending their wages in Scotland as well. The contrast to this is that every contract awarded to a company based outside Scotland means those finances leave Scotland to be spent in England or wider afield instead.

What are the challenges?

The challenges are probably to improve the efficiency of the competitive tender process so that it is not so expensive and time-consuming, yet delivers the best solution for the Scottish taxpayer.

Any advice for businesses? 

All public authorities in the UK and the rest of Europe will shortly be required to manage their procurement activities electronically. In order to participate in this huge market place it will be essential to use a system such as Tenders Direct (www.tendersdirect.co.uk) to protect your existing contracts as well as winning new business.

Lower value tenders are particularly attractive to SMEs, although they are not always easy to find, and it’s virtually impossible to keep track of all the business opportunities without using an electronic alert system which does the hard work for you and searches for the most up to date tenders.

When deciding whether or not to bid, pick your best prospects and focus on the ones you think you have the best chance of securing, while balancing it with existing work. It may be better to go for smaller ones to start with, considering the value and duration of the contract.