Dealmakers: Antony steers a clear course

EKM has never been a run of the mill business. From its creation in founder Antony Chesworths bedroom to its Google style Preston headquarters, complete with three-storey slide, it does things differently.

Its an approach that has seen it become a pioneer and leading provider of e-commerce and online retail software, powering more than £350m of transactions annually for its customer base of SMEs.

So perhaps the main question to ask about its acquisition by ClearCourse Partnership, a group of innovative technology companies, is how will things change?

Antony stresses that the sale, for an undisclosed sum, will mean the business and its team of more than 80, including him, remaining in its Fulwood base. It will also remain a distinct brand.

But he adds that being part of a bigger organisation - private equity is behind ClearCourse, which was founded in 2018 - will reap benefits for EKM and its team.

And that continuation of the business journey, coupled with strong backing to enable its further growth, is what made the deal attractive to him.

Antony set up EKM in 2002 in his parents Burnley home. EKM.com was the world’s first e-commerce platform and up to now it has grown organically.

All our customers are in retail, they need an e-payments system and point of sale system and ClearCourse has these businesses within the group

It has helped tens of thousands of independent retailers across the UK and Ireland, servicing small businesses and entrepreneurs from cosmetics retailers to astronomy centres.

Antony says: Weve been approached about a sale in the past, but the offers have almost been asset stripping really.

They only really wanted our database and our customers and Ive never wanted that. We didnt build the business for that.

Ive always wanted EKM to be bigger, and bigger than one person or one group of people.

To that end EKM also fits in with the ClearCourse strategy of buying businesses where they can see clear synergies.

The growing partnership consists of companies servicing the payments, membership, business services, events and leisure and retail sectors. EKM has joined its retail division.

With its ethos of investing and growing its brands, ClearCourse looks set to work closely with the EKM management team to jointly develop opportunities in what is a high-growth market.

Antony says: They want us to focus on growth and are willing to invest money in the business. They have some amazing companies.

All our customers are in retail, they need an e-payments system and point of sale system and ClearCourse has these businesses within the group.

Payments are a big part of their strategy. They own a payment gateway which means we have now got our own payment gateway.

ClearCourses new proprietary payments acceptance solution, called ClearAccept, has signed more than 300 merchants and exceeded £130m contracted payments on its platform since its launch earlier this year.

Antony adds: You just look at all the group and there are just so many opportunities to improve our service and bolt all these things on.

Its great for us, it’s great for the team and it’s great for the customers and for Lancashire. I am genuinely excited about the future. We are looking at companies that complement us as well.

ClearCourse chief executive Gerry Gualtieri says: “EKM is a fantastic business which has grown from strength to strength since its inception, and we are excited to learn from the expertise of Antony and his team.

EKM will bring a range of positive synergies to ClearCourse and our existing brands, and its acquisition will be a significant expansion of our e-commerce and retail offering.”

Looking at the current state of the M&A market, and the appetite for tech deals, a spokesperson for the partnership says: Technology is front of mind for every industry and the key driver of the modern economy.

As such, it has set a significant volume of growth/strategic M&A in motion across many sectors, including those ClearCourse focuses on – membership services, business services, events and leisure, retail, and payments.

That said, acquirers continue to look for stable businesses with good recurring revenue.

The pandemic has certainly propelled areas of tech that would have taken much longer to grow organically. Prior to the pandemic, a significant number of B2B payments, for example, were still processed with cheques. Following the pandemic, digital payments have become the norm.

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