Opinion: An opportunistic acquisitions strategy

CGI snaps up success stories – and a few failures – from the sidelines

One would expect a company with 31,000 employees and revenues of $4.32 billion – making it the seventh-largest systems integrator in the world – to have a big attitude.

But meeting with the tall, fit, 40-something Scott Lawrence suggests a different story: a place where executives want to stay humble and hungry while remaining open to new ideas.

Mr. Lawrence, CGI’s vice-president of systems integration, has been an IT guy since the day someone at Bell Canada asked him what they could do with a huge document cache made up of microfiche files. He suggested turning it into computer-readable records and, since no one – including himself – knew how to do that back then, he got the job because he was the one who suggested it.

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Looking back, his Fanshawe College background in philosophy and law was hardly the ideal undergrad degree. But it worked somehow for his career, and he’s been an IT guy ever since – that is, until he decided to spend six months sailing in his refurbished ’80s-era, 48-foot Taiwanese trawler, named Reviresco, which is a clan motto meaning “to grow young again.”

He took his tired self, along with his spouse, aboard the three-stateroom Reviresco and away from corporate life to find new purpose. At the end of the trip, he knew he did not want to return to a career of corporate consulting, even though he’d been running a $100-million practice with 700 people. Perhaps especially because he’d been running a $100-million practice with 700 people.

His timing, however, was impeccable. CGI, like many tech companies, is blurring the lines between being a company exclusively focused on hardware, software, services or being an outsourcing resource for third-party clients.

Mr. Lawrence wanted products and CGI did too. In fact, an opportunity had emerged to buy the assets of a bankrupt Sault Ste. Marie-based software company and create a CGI-branded product, now called SuitCASE.

CGI wouldn’t disclose the purchase price of SuitCASE but, given it was purchased from a receiver, it probably wasn’t much. The value was in the intellectual property.

CGI is a company that has acquired more than 60 organizations, large and small, over the last 35 years since its inception. It’s opportunistic, and the company’s strategy makes sense.

Like many large organizations, CGI can afford to wait on the sidelines, looking over the fence and waiting for the tallest poppy to appear. Letting entrepreneurs experiment using a process of trial and error, and then purchasing the fastest-growing ones or the ones that fail but have promising intellectual property, is a smart play.

SuitCASE is a case management system. Government departments, large companies and non-government organizations are all potential clients for workflow automation software application. Paper-based file management is not just inefficient; it can also be ineffective. Enter SuitCASE.

Grievance filings, licence applications, pension applications, permitting and grant applications are among the many potential uses for a software app that can track, speed up and manage complex processes. Another industry with ample opportunities is the pharmaceuticals sector, as drug approvals in North America have become mind-bogglingly complex. Similarly, the court system remains the ultimate antiquated case management field to conquer.

CGI already works with 95 government agencies, departments and Crown corporations, so it feels confident it can leverage the company’s existing clients and sell lots of SuitCASEs. Three clients are now actively using it. They pay licensing, integration and setup, maintenance and support fees. Upgrades are free and customers receive comprehensive support.

Mr. Lawrence is a boyish-looking, happy guy these days. Instead of telling his employees – CGI actually calls their staff “members” to reinforce the idea that they are all on the same side – to do stuff, he’s in the trenches with just nine other people selling directly to clients.

Even a deep-pocketed company like CGI understands the importance of landing launch clients as well as building real revenues and cash flow.

Professor Bruce M. Firestone is entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management; founder of the Ottawa Senators; executive director of Exploriem.org; and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc.

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