Tim brings a tender touch to public-sector procurement

IN this week's SME Focus an entrepreneur explains why he has swapped a career in the North Sea oil and gas services industry for a new business life charting the complexities of the public sector procurement system.


Name: Tim Williams

Age: 54

What is your business called? Millstream Associates

Where is it based?

We have headquarters in Aberdeen but work in Norway, Ireland and Wales as well as across the UK.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

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.

MyTenders has been in operation since 2002, with more than 1500 UK public sector organisations using the website to publish all of their new business opportunities on the website and to fulfil their legal obligation to publish in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU).

Tenders Direct provides tailored updates on public-sector tender opportunities for private companies.

We also operate the national procurement portals for Scotland - Public Contracts Scotland - Wales and Norway.

In addition, we run a range of training courses for both purchasers and suppliers involved in public procurement.

Who does it sell to?

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 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 clients ranging from sole traders to SMEs to multinationals, in sectors including construction, health, IT and energy.

What is its turnover? £4.5 million.

How many employees? 46

When was it formed?

Millstream was established in 1989, with three staff and a team of about 30 contractors.

Why did you take the plunge? Millstream 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. We won two rolling project management contracts for a North Sea operator in the early days but we ended up losing this work following a merger, which was a major blow and we struggled to find new opportunities.

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 so I used to 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, it was as thick as a phone book.

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

This has been refined over the years and Tenders Direct now sends bespoke alerts to subscribers.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

I originally had plans to become a natural history filmmaker but ended up working as a commercial diver in the likes of Oman, Bahrain and Borneo 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.

How did you raise the start-up funding? It was self-funded.

What was your biggest break?

A newspaper gave us a quarter page each day, which we used to highlight contracts that were relevant to people in Scotland, such as whisky barrels, schools and oil and gas work. They printed them along with our phone number and we'd then send information by post or fax to companies who were interested.

At one stage the fax machines were going all night so it was a relief all round when we moved to email from 1999!

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

The variety and speaking to people from across Europe with different backgrounds. Procurement constantly evolves.

What do you least enjoy? Ironically for someone so involved with public procurement, I hate filling in tender documents, as they are often very badly designed and poorly evaluated.

It would also make a huge difference to the process if the qualification questionnaires were standardised, rather than every organisation thinking that they are somehow unique and need to do it differently from everyone else. There have been numerous government initiatives over the years, but despite the good intentions, it's just as bad as it's always been.

What is your biggest bugbear? Public purchasers think they need to come up with a custom specification for everything, instead of just buying an off-the-shelf product, but this adds massively to both the cost and complexity.

I often use the analogy of buying a car where instead of visiting the showrooms and finding the one you like best, you would draw up a list of features, the looks of a Jaguar, the suspension from a BMW, the engine of a Honda, the sound system from a Lexus, etc. You send that specification to the car companies, who will have to build a custom car, which will be very expensive to buy and maintain, instead of a standard BMW, Lexus or Skoda, which will do everything you need a car to do.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

We aim to double our Tenders Direct subscription base in the next three years. We also have some new services that we are about to introduce.

What are your top priorities?

Grow our subscription numbers for Tenders Direct and myTenders; recruit additional talented people; roll out our new information services; increase the number and range of our training courses.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

We already work in partnership with the Scottish Government but there is a need to introduce standardised contracts and qualification requirements, and break large contracts down into smaller lots to enable smaller companies to compete effectively.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

Hire staff for aptitude and personality rather than qualifications.

Also trust your gut instincts when hiring, if someone doesn't feel right, they probably aren't right.

How do you relax?

I enjoy sailing, skiing and spending time with my partner and daughters, who are 16 and 19