Northcross’ cross-border growth

Confidence is obviously at a high at Northcross, which has labelled its acquisition of Ideas, BCA and Isys as “phase one” of its expansion programme.

Northcross, the Leith-based exhibition and graphic design group which has seen rapid growth over the last six months, is now gearing up for further expansion. It describes its most recent acquisitions as the completion of “phase one” of its expansion programme.

Last week Northcross acquired Ideas and BCA, two York consultancies, for an undisclosed sum. The two have since merged, with corporate design and marketing company BCA – the smaller of the pair – moving into the Ideas office. The combined companies are considering moving to larger offices to accommodate a predicted growth in staff.

The Northcross group is making little effort to hide the fact that it now sees itself as able to take on rivals such as Imagination and Event for major exhibition, theme-park and exposition work. When asked if the opposition should be worried, John Slater, managing director of Northcross, says “there will be plenty to go round”.

But the sudden growth of one player in a market must have some repercussions. “We expect it to have an impact, especially in the field of interpretative design,” says Nick Townend, managing director of Ideas, speaking of the elevation of Northcross to group status. Ideas specialises in interpretative design and, says Townend, has competed with Imagination and Event on a number of projects already. Along with BCA, for example, Ideas was responsible for concept work on certain attractions at Legoland in Windsor. According to Slater, Ideas now has the size and resources to support its already respected creative ability.

The rationale behind the spate of acquisitions by Northcross is straightforward enough. First, by drawing on group resources, each individual company can now offer a far wider service to clients. “Often, design is approached from a specific point of view. There are no boundaries as far as we are concerned,” says Townend. In that sense, both Ideas and BCA could prove to be valuable additions to the Northcross group, which since late last year has also included Isys, an exhibition construction company. Slater sees the group’s manufacturing capability as a key element of what he hopes will be future success. Being involved in the entire process should make Northcross a more sustainable business, he says, as should the client list it has acquired along with BCA, which includes companies such as Asda, Nestlé and Ideal Standard.

The availability of greater resources may, in the short term, be the only real sign of change to clients of the component companies of the Northcross group. There will be no changes of name, as “both names have good brand strength. It would be foolish to [change them]”, says Townend. And the structure of the companies is unlikely to change much either. Northcross, BCA and Ideas have all worked together in the past, and each will be independent under its own managing director. Northcross will act as the holding company for the group.

Second, each company benefits from the “financially very stable” footing of Northcross, which Slater credits to careful money management in the past. “Our balance sheet would be the envy of many design companies. We have been very frugal and we’re popular with the bank,” he says.

The newly enlarged group is keeping its future plans quiet. “There is nothing specific long- term,” says Townend. Slater confirms that initial plans are for a period of consolidation until Ideas and BCA have bedded in.

But he also says that the group will keep its eyes open for further acquisition opportunities. Based on its past modus operandi, any acquisition made by Northcross could be expected to be of a company it has already worked with. “The chemistry has to be right,” says Slater, declining to put a timescale on growth: “It’s a case of watch this space.”

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