'Dour' image firm has plenty to smile about


PA Consulting at Melbourn is embarking on a charm offensive to counter what it believes is an 'un-fun' image.

John Buckley, who runs operations at Melbourn, says feedback the group gets tends to suggest PA is a bit dour compared with rival agencies in Mid-Anglia.

Yet the firm has plenty to smile about at present, having just recorded its best monthly sales on record.

While rivals are contracting, PA is still recruiting, albeit selectively, according to Mr Buckley, who says his firm takes only the best - often those de-camping from rivals whose future looks in doubt.

PA does not publish its results - it does not need to because it is a private partnership, but Mr Buckley says the internal share price has risen seven per cent this year.

'And the technology group made a profit,' he adds, as if this is something strange and unusual in current times, which, of course, it is.

'Telecoms is still the toughest market,' he says, yet PA has high hopes of its new mini base-stations due for launch in a couple of years' time.

These stations, about the size of a domestic bread bin, will be fixed to buildings in urban areas, replacing unsightly aerials and solving the problem of blank spots suffered by mobile phone users.

Mr Buckley says people like Nokia and Ericsson are very interested because they are no longer developing this type of kit in-house.

Much of what PA does, like all such consultancies, is secret, and while the offices at Melbourn are peppered with display cases showing female condoms, varieties of bottle-tops and pouring devices, new-fangle packaging and doubtless bits of nanotechnology you cannot see, there is the sense that something bigger is going on.

As it happens this could be UbiNetics, the 3G testing kit spin-out that is now larger than its parent in headcount (450 to 300). Mr Buckley says PA had hoped to float Ubi this year, but the runes are against it, not to say the stock market: 'I think it will be 2005 now.'

'Setting up spin-offs is the new model,' he says (although rivals have been doing this for more than a decade), 'but the issue for us is not to spin out too many because they take up a lot of management time. We go for quality rather than quantity.'

He also admits that PA keeps up the pressure on its fledglings - cash is king right now at PA.

Meridica, the other main spin-out, is not putting out that much news, but Mr Buckley says the big pharmas are knocking at the door: 'We prefer not to crow until we get the contracts signed, but the pharma sector is still spending money.'

In the wireless group two strong contracts in 3G mobile have been signed recently, and there are the micro (bread bin) base stations.

'The last 18 months have been horrid in wireless so we have been developing our own technology in 'off the clock' time (that means hours clients are not paying for).

'I think mobile will become big again. People say 'Why would I want all those facilities?', but I find that no matter how many wardrobes I build for my wife, they always seem to fill up.

'And take PCs. Every new PC is more and more powerful and yet we always seem to run out of capacity.

'Even so, the industry is going to have to learn that the man/machine interface has to get easier, and that small is not always beautiful.'

Certainly not when it comes to cash mountains, which Mr Buckley says is back where it was at PA three years ago.

He admits to a bit of a downturn globally as a result of Sars, yet the firm has just enjoyed that record sales month. What's more, the client car park is full.


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