Celebrating 30 years in business: Interview with founder Derek Allen on ‘staying ahead’ for 30 years

CMC Business Advisors Business Advisors Celebrating 30 years in business
Derek Allen - Buckinghamshire Business Advisor

As CMC celebrates 30 years in business supporting businesses to grow, exit and sell, we step back and reflect how CMC started, the challenges we faced and the successes we gained with an interview with CMC founder Derek Allen.



It’s a pretty momentous milestone, Derek – 30 years of CMC. How does that make you feel?

We’ve survived! Through three recessions, good times and bad. We’ve been fortunate enough to have great people around us that are willing to step up to every challenge. It’s that resilience that’s got us through the last 30 years! Just think, in 1989 when we started, Tim Berners-Lee had only just created the internet, the Berlin Wall had just fallen, and our pride and joy was a fax machine! It really was a different time!

What was the inspiration for the business? How was CMC born?

Well, I originally trained as an engineer and did my first degree at Loughborough and then spent a couple of years at management college looking at new technologies. At that time a CAD system was £100k a seat. Here’s a statistic: every year the latest microchips would double in power, but halve in price! It dawned on me that we would see substantial change in the industries I had grown up with. So change was really important to the vision. CMC – Consultants Managing Change.

I think back to times as a student doing my apprenticeship at Hamworthy Engineering in Poole, where I was tasked with training people who had only ever used a drawing board for 25 years, to suddenly pick up a mouse and use a computer for the first time to learn these early CAD systems. At this time, nobody had ever done it before, nobody knew how to train them. It really made an impression on me that in this time of huge change, there was opportunity. I could see it happening in the manufacturing space, with car production at Toyota down from two years to six months. Those transfixed and observing went down the tubes while others started playing catch up. I knew this was going to have an impact on business, organisation, management, people, culture. This is all still so relevant today.

The other driver was being in consultancy for four or five years before I set up CMC. I’d grown to really hate prescriptive consultants, and the one-size-fits-all approach. And so CMC was born. CMC – Catalyst – Mentor – Coaches.

While we were building CMC, we saw the change tech was bringing. We started out working for corporates like BT, BP, Xerox and Unisys. Whole teams had to be retrained, and the approach to solving business problems changed radically as did infrastructure, process, culture… IT and innovation was behind it all. Finding the constraints and bottlenecks was key.

What has been the biggest change for you?

In the early 90s we had a recession and we were forced to evolve for reasons of survival. We moved away from serving corporate companies to working with Small Medium Size Enterprises (SMEs) – Owner Managed Businesses and got very busy doing so.

Since then we’ve defined the CMC model which is so effective for-owner managed businesses. It’s an area we never dreamt of working in, we’d previously only worked with big corporates with multimillion turnovers.

The gear change to working with smaller SMEs allowed us to survive the recession, but brought its own challenges. We had to look at our own structure and operational team, and consider what we needed to build this area of business. A totally different model, needing a totally different consultant.

This is where Adrian Todd came through. Our relationship has been the backbone of the business. He was the standout character, very sharp. Emotionally intelligent. I brought him into the partnership and much like my original partner Andy, a totally different character to me. We complimented each other perfectly. I can come up with an idea, bounce it off Adrian and then he can define a process around it.

The need to have consultants within our business meant we could no longer operate a PAYE model and associates would come and go. So, 15 years ago we created a franchise. This giving responsibilities from the franchisee to us and responsibilities from us to the franchisee. A legal framework, which we operate as if it were a partnership. We are now extremely proud to have 10 carefully selected wise CMC Business Advisors, all with huge amounts of business experience and passion to share with owners to help them realise their full business potential.

Owner-managed businesses are simple in one degree, yet complex as they are the epitome of the people that own them… owners create a reality based on their own perception of the world. That reality is peculiar to any other business because of the owner. So we make sure we have a deep understanding of the client and their business. Do they have an aversion to risk? Is it money that drives them? What are their personality traits? This is key, coaching and mentoring them.

We’ve had consultants working with some clients for over 15 years. We look at the long term, monitoring the changes inside and outside of that business, adding value month after month. It’s our purpose to be flexible and non-prescriptive. If we don’t add value, we shouldn’t be there.

The trick is to constantly reinvent, be agile and be creative.  Client success is everything.

Take a look at this timeline of major world events over the last 30 years including the invention of the interent, Amazon, ebay, Google, Facebook and Twitter which has forced SME’s including ourselves to reinvent, be agile and be creative. 

What’s your proudest moment?

I suppose we’ve turned 20 people into multimillionaires by helping them to sell their businesses. In some cases for tens of millions of pounds. We understand how to do that, and how to replicate it via a framework to do it again and again. Listen to some of our happy clients.

Something else I take pride in was using that knowledge to create a totally separate business, AiQ Consulting Ltd  (Airport Intelligence) which works out of London Heathrow and has clients worldwide. We model the movement of passengers, baggage, vehicles and flights in an airport and as the airport expands predict where it will become constrained.

We employ mathematicians and physicists to solve these highly complex problems and experienced airport planners. We recently helped the most space-constrained airport in the world, and we’re rolling out across the globe. And much of it is down to the tools and techniques we’ve created at CMC. The synergy between the two companies back each other up and learn from each other.

What does the future look like?

Owner-managers are interesting people to work with as they tend to have the entrepreneurial spirit. Technology is also key today and indeed tomorrow. It’s amazing when you think how quickly you can get to market compared to when we started CMC. 

Any change is an opportunity to prosper. Have confidence in your own ability to create the present in uncertain times. Be prepared to dig deep, and be really sure of your own ability. We can’t control the environment, so your ability to respond is essential.


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