The Ri5 interview: Keith Pilling and Roger Juniper, Penna Education

The Ri5 interview: Keith Pilling and Roger Juniper, Penna Education

In the summer of last year, Ri5 brought you the news that Penna had acquired 360. More than six months later we caught up with Penna’s chief operations officer Keith Pilling and 360 chief executive Roger Juniper to find out more about the move and to hear how the transition has gone.

If one thing is clear, it is that the acquisition and subsequent integration of the 360 team into Penna has gone exceptionally well. Prior discussions between the two businesses, together with analysis of the market from both sides of the deal, made it clear there was a synergy between both businesses that made the acquisition an intuitive move.  

From Juniper’s perspective, it was an easy decision to partner with Penna. He points out how the 360 business, along with many others in the industry, had been pressurised by changes in the marketplace and the recruitment advertising industry overall.

As a result, he describes it as “no brainer” to strengthen the business via an acquisition along these lines. Exploring the marketplace he noted that only a small number of companies were truly synergistic with how 360 operated. One of these was Penna.

Pilling adds: “It always felt like an intuitive move for both businesses. Even the initial chats were more about how and when the acquisition would happen, rather than if it would.”

One of the key reasons for Penna’s acquisition of 360 was, of course, its offering in the education space, which reinforced the connection between the two businesses that was recognised by both Pilling and Juniper. The partnership between Penna and 360 has created what Juniper describes as “one of the primary players in the market”.

“That synergy was definitely the key,” says Pilling. “We wanted strength in depth in our education marketing business, and this meant a very close fit with 360. Penna’s education business was growing and we saw 360’s skills and client base as a good fit for the direction in which we’re heading.”

“That was certainly a key advantage,” agrees Juniper, who is also quick to point out the role played by Penna in facilitating a smooth process as the businesses came together.

“We wanted to identify in the early conversations how we would integrate the two businesses,” he says. “It was brilliant how accommodating Penna was throughout the negotiations. It helped to make the process painless.

“I’ve been very impressed with the level of care for people that Penna has shown throughout. Penna was consistently positive through the integration, and provided training and other resources to members of the 360 team. There are always glitches and maybe some teething problems, and as a small business it could be said you’re more agile and can work differently, but the integration into a larger business has gone well. Penna people are nice people – and that’s been a big help.

Juniper also points out how Penna has offered career development routes and wider opportunities within the business to members of the 360 team – another wider benefit of the acquisition.

“It was important that most of our 24 staff would have a future following the move,” he says. “Of course, in any acquisition there can be a loss of people, but Penna’s growth and the opportunities it offers meant we were able to slot any at-risk staff into Penna roles. This meant there was a very low attrition rate during the process. We only lost one and a half roles, and that was mainly due to logistics and geography.”

It is also significant how both Juniper and Pilling consider the move within the context of the wider Penna business now the acquisition has taken place. Pilling points out that, as well as bringing on board a group of specialists in the education space – filling 20 vacancies at once, as he puts it – the 360 team also bring other experience and expertise that he says can benefit Penna more widely.

And both men agree that the integration of the 360 team has been a smooth process. Juniper says: “We as a family business, and Penna as a people business, have integrated really well. I predict that soon things will be fully integrated and the new business will be working really effectively, as well as learning how to do new things.”

Pilling adds: “Traditionally, processes like this one can be bloody, but the absolute synergy and ability to get depth and experience into our business meant everyone involved pulled together to make it go well.

“Also, it was nice to have people come into the business and challenge what we were doing, and to suggest different ways of doing things.”

“There’s been an exchange of knowledge in both directions,” adds Juniper, who also emphasises how the acquisition was treated more as a partnership than a takeover.

“From a business point of view it was an acquisition,” he says, “but we always saw it as a partnership because of the synergy that was present. We’d had experience of mergers and acquisitions in the past, so there was a knowledge on both sides of how this should work.”

Meanwhile, Pilling is grateful to Penna PLC for what he describes as its sensible approach regarding the bottom line and business impact of the acquisition. He says: “There have always been realistic expectations and a long-term plan, financially and operationally.

“We definitely expect to reap the benefits of a move like this, but it didn’t have to happen immediately. It was more important to make sure the move went in such a way that we could retain the people and the expertise. In any case, the bottom line impact has been immediate – things are cost-neutral this financial year, which helps us with the longer-term strategy.”

So, six months on from the acquisition and with all personnel comfortably integrated into Penna education, thoughts turn to future developments.

The acquisition has been part of Penna’s wider growth plans, which also included its partnership with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy that also began last year.

Pilling suggests further partnerships along these lines might yet take place, in order to supplement Penna’s already solid organic growth as well as growth it is pursuing via social and digital. If so, it looks like 2016 will be another busy year for the business, with a number of possibilities ahead. 

Thursday, 11 February 2016

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