10 years of Clevertouch

10 years of Clevertouch

The winning formula of a successful UK manufacturer

Interview with Kevin Batley, CEO of Sahara plc and Clevertouch

Ask anyone in AV about the Batley brothers; they’ll know exactly who you’re talking about.  

Not only are Kevin and Nigel Batley the muscle behind one of the largest audio visual distribution businesses in the UK, they are the brains behind many of the industry’s most famous innovations.

This includes an Orange Projector in 2004 that was designed to combat projector thefts, and most notably the world’s very first large format interactive touchscreen.

Weighing in at 100 kilos and costing £8,000 for a 65” Clevertouch interactive touchscreen, it was a risk, but a risk that the brothers instinctively believed was going to pay off.

“Although there was no market for interactive touchscreens in education, given the popularity of personal touch devices, we had a gut feeling that it wouldn’t be long before teachers and pupils would be demanding more”, says Kevin Batley, CEO of Clevertouch.

Kevin and his brother Nigel have used those instincts to their advantage, skillfully steering Clevertouch through choppy seas with the dexterity of Poseidon himself.  Futuresource cites the Plus Series from Clevertouch as the number one selling interactive flat panel within education for the 4th year running in the UK.  The London Stock Exchange 1000 Companies to Inspire Britain Report has featured Sahara plc (Clevertouch’s parent company) for the past 3 years, and the company made the Sunday Times Profit Track 100, in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Over the past 2 years, Kevin and Nigel have turned their attention to corporate and overseas markets. 

Kevin explains, “The UK market has stagnated somewhat over recent years because of huge education budget constraints – although sales have increased by 28% between 2017 and 18, they are slowing down, and it was time to look for other opportunities in new sectors and markets.”

It’s a strategy that’s already paying off.  International sales grew by 107% in 2017, and the company appeared in the Sunday Times International Profit Track 200, 2016 and 2017 – rising from 116th to 27th in the space of just 12 months!  

From small acorns

This entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to innovate and adapt to the changing times is not something that started with Nigel and Kevin.

The company’s foundations go way back to 1924 when Albert Williams set up the Express Typewriter Company. When Albert retired, he handed the reigns over to his son Peter and a trusted colleague called Terry Batley, Kevin and Nigel’s father.

“My father always had an entrepreneurial spirit and created different divisions within the company, whilst at the same retaining the core business,” recalls Kevin Batley. “At its peak the company employed 50-60 engineers dotted around the country servicing massive estates with engineers based at client sites, such as M&S in Baker Street, which operated 3,000 typewriters.”

As an example of Terry’s entrepreneurial instincts, he identified an opportunity to sell in visual planning boards and T-Card systems to the company’s existing customer base.  By 1976 the business was one of the leading UK suppliers. 

“I drove my car vast distances selling these planning boards,” says Kevin, who was a junior sale rep at the time.

By the early 1980s, crisis almost hit! Its long-term customers started switching to word processors. Typewriters and planning boards were out – the computer age had begun! Express Typewriters had to transform itself almost overnight in order to stay in business.   It was at this juncture in 1984 that the company secured the contract to become the UK distributor for a Dutch manufacturer of high-end whiteboards.

It wasn’t long before external forces were once again at play, testing the mettle of the company’s leadership, when the UK came out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.  

Kevin explains, “Sterling fell dramatically overnight and our costs to import from Holland suddenly went up by 20 per cent. So, we started to manufacture, creating our own facility in the UK for producing steel products – whiteboards, rail systems, a plethora of different products.”

Kevin continues, “As a manufacturer, our main objective has always been to give end users complete solutions rather than boxed products. This gave rise to our next big idea, a range of interactive touchscreens for the education and corporate markets when interactive whiteboards were the incumbent technology. This is where the story of Clevertouch really begins.”

10 years of Clevertouch

“At its BETT launch in 2009, the company sold 100 pieces. The 2nd year we sold 400, by year three 1,000 and by the end of 2011 we could see quite clearly this was going in the right direction. We had no competition at this point. Nothing,” Kevin comments. 

Because of this foresight, Clevertouch was able to gain a foothold in the education sector before the bigger and more established technology manufacturers had registered the market was shifting 

Kevin continues, “One of the over-riding principles of Clevertouch is to keep your ear to the ground.  We listen to the people using our screens, we actively encourage their feedback, and then we act upon it. We know our competitors are constantly chasing at our heels, which means we must get it right.  To stay ahead, our agile teacher-led development strategy is what enables us to maintain our position as number one."

Clevertouch for business

For 10 years now, education has been Clevertouch’s primary audience, but as the need for better collaboration and communication between employees, distributed teams and overseas offices becomes a priority, businesses are looking to invest in AV solutions that do just that.

“Corporates were slower on the uptake. Many had been burnt investing money in AV products only to find they never used them. In the past, AV solutions were too complicated and there was no requirement or perceived benefit to stepping over this barrier to entry by employees. Many were left to gather dust, expensive white elephants in the corner of the boardroom,” Kevin explains. 

“What’s changed is the growing demand from a younger generation who expect seamless and uninterrupted communication regardless of whether they are working from home or they’re on the move.” Says Kevin.

Clevertouch believes that enabling employees to use collaborative technology should be simple and uncomplicated for everyone. Shaun Marklew is the Chief Technologist at Clevertouch, and responsible for the development pathway the products take.

“You as the user should decide how your technology works, not the technology dictating your path,” explains Shaun. “Unlock content and data from individual devices, move it into a shared workspace so that everyone in the team can access it simultaneously, regardless of whether they are in an office or on the other side of the world.  Operating platform, device or software is no longer the obstacle – in fact the tech and hardware should be completely irrelevant to participants.  It’s important that technology enhances, not impedes, the free flow of ideas and the power of the collective mind.”

“At its BETT launch in 2009, the company sold 100 pieces. The 2nd year we sold 400, by year three 1,000 and by the end of 2011 we could see quite clearly this was going in the right direction. We had no competition at this point. Nothing,” Kevin comments.