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Is this the original IT girl? ANN BUDGE Told 30 years ago that the future was in computers, she made it big, then sold up for £30m, hears Paul Rogerson

ANN Budge had her lifechanging moment on the tarmac at Edinburgh airport more than 20 years ago. "I was working for a large IT company, which at the time was called F International and is now Xansa.

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I was promoted and I used to f ly to Manchester on the Monday, Bristol on the Tuesday and so on. I had one of those moments where you say to yourself 'why am I doing this?'

"It was then I decided I wanted to live and work in Scotland."

So it was that Budge, now 57, teamed up with founding partner Allison Newell to create the eponymous business sold this week to quoted French group Sopra, which netted the former an estimated £30m.

One must go further back to ascertain precisely how the quietlyspoken Budge ended up building a trailblazing business which offers IT systems-building and integration services to companies, mainly in the financial services and telecoms industries but also government departments.

She points - literally - to her sister Rita Little, sitting in the nextdoor office at the firm's Edinburgh HQ.

Budge took a psychology degree, and were it not for the fact that she married while at college would probably have ended up a clinical psychologist.

"It was not an option because in those days you had to be willing to move and go where the jobs were, " she recalls. "So I asked around a few people. Rita, who then worked forWood Mackenzie, told me computers were the thing of the future and I thought well that sounds good. That's how it started."

Computing degree courses were thin on the ground then. So Budge took an aptitude test at Scottish & Newcastle and ended up a trainee programmer at the company's Holyrood offices.

"There were 12 of us and I think just three had actually done computing as a degree, " she remembers.

Thirty years on, Budge and her colleagues admit to being rather taken aback by the feverish media interest in the Sopra deal and her own subsequent elevation into the ranks of Scotland's super-rich.

Budge does not fit the stereotype of an entrepreneur motivated to build and sell a business for material gain.

She describes Newell & Budge as "my life", and it is the prospect of growing the business which animates her. "My biggest dread is to wake up one morning and not have anything to do. It's not really in my make-up. This is where I get my kicks, I suppose."

It is principally for this reason that Budge never thought seriously about f lotation.

"I am just not cut out to run a public company and be answerable to hundreds of faceless shareholders, " she shudders. "It is something that I have not thought long and hard about."

Budge fended-off numerous approaches before Sopra came calling. The timing of the deal is not especially significant, she insists, except in a personal sense.

"I want to stay on and can never see when I will not want to stay on.

So I reckoned, OK I'm 57, I could credibly go out and say I want to sell the company but I want to stay with it.

"In three years' time it might be a harder sell to say 'yes you can buy my business but you've got to take this pensioner on as well'."

The acquisition, therefore, is not so much the culmination of a life's work as a staging post.

Newell & Budge employs 600 in the UK and the chief executive stresses that Sopra is committed to maintaining the firm's headquarters in Scotland. Though she believes there is still scope for further growth north of the border, however, she expects a greater rate of expansion in England.

"We set out to become a major force in the UK and that continues to be the case. When we put Sopra UK and Newell & Budge together this year, we'll probably turn over £55m (of which Newell & Budge will account for £38m). Our objective is to be a £100m company by the end of 2007.

"Not all of that can be done organically, although we will be looking to grow the business at the rate we've always targeted, which is 20per cent a year. But to get to £100m we will have to make another acquisition in the UK.

"It is fair to assume that will be in the southern part of the country."

Though Budge is technically no longer her own master she does not expect the new owner to impinge on her autonomy. "Time will tell whether I'm being foolish or not, but although Sopra is a listed company the chief executive (Pierre Pasquier) is still the largest shareholder.

"We've talked a lot about the degree of autonomy we will have in the UK and their view is that I know the UK market and they don't. What they are buying is someone who is going to help them reach their targets. I genuinely don't think it will be an issue."

Given the reported value of the Sopra deal, one must question the timing of Allison Newell, who originally headhunted Ann Budge for a small computer consultancy.

In 2001 an "amicable" MBO saw Budge - with the help of a £5m investment from venture capitalist 3i - buy out Newell, who wanted to retire.

The pair had formed the company after working together since 1981.

Does Budge think her erstwhile colleague will be regretting not staying with the business longer, which might have seen her treble her money?

She thinks not, pointing out that had the transaction taken place in the wake of the downturn which followed the September 11 terrorist attacks, Newell would have ended up with rather less.

"I asked her what she wanted and went and raised it, " Budge said. "It was very amicable and we certainly did not haggle. She was very happy when she left and I don't think she'll be too concerned."

GETTING AHEAD ON TECHNICALITY

Hearts-supporting IT guru Ann Budge became the first woman appointed to a senior position in Scottish & Newcastle after starting her career there as a trainee programmer.

After leaving F International - now Xansa - Ann Budge began in business working from home , teaming up with Allison Newell in 1985.

Budge had observed that no company other than FI was offering help with specialist computer systems. The niche market for Budge was targeted through establishing a specialised technical group that could support IBM systems. IBM was very supportive and its first customer, Standard Life, opened the doors to many others, including the Scottish Executive, Standard Life, Royal Bank of Scotland and the Scottish and Northern Ireland prison services.

Newell & Budge, which specialises in making bespoke software and IT systems, is on target to deliver "another solid operational performance" in 2005, with projected revenue figures of between £37m and £38m, a rate of 20per cent growth year-on-year.

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