IN this week's SME Focus we hear from a South African entrepreneur who has developed a business based in Scotland, which is thriving in a highly specialised area of a global market.

Name: Daniel De Bruin

Age: 36

What is your business called?

Modelling Design Partners (MDP).

Where is it based?

Edinburgh, London and Johannesburg.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We provide advice, training and software solutions to help businesses improve their financial models, make efficiency savings and increase productivity. We also help clients better align IT to their organisation's financial modelling requirements and ensure their information security procedures comply with regulations.

To whom does it sell?

We have carved a niche in the insurance, asset management and technology sectors.

What is its turnover?


How many employees?

Seven and we are looking to grow to 10 by half year, and 15 by the end of the year.

When was it formed?

July 2010

Why did you take the plunge?

Throughout my career I had seen how people in large consultancies were working, what they were paid and how they weren't being fully utilised. It seemed some of the smartest brains I encountered were left doing repetitive tasks due to their age or inexperience. I thought that by automating the tasks involved, energy could be refocused on developing or improving new business areas. I saw a good business case for starting a business of my own to do this.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

I was working as a consultant and contractor in financial modelling for a number of the world's leading financial firms such as Santander, Munich Re, ING, but I'd always wanted to run a business.

After travelling over Europe for a very large consultancy – now known as Towers Watson, I moved to Glasgow to work as a contractor for the life insurance arm of Abbey National, which became part of Santander and then later Resolution and the Phoenix Group. I then worked for Ignis Asset Management (previously Axial Investment Management) as a contractor for a couple of years, and at the height of the credit crisis, I was made an offer to become a permanent employee. A year after going permanent with IAM, I handed in my notice and, three months later, I was working for myself.

It was a great feeling to take those first initial steps. For a while I had to give up the nice offices, the international travel and the team around me, the assistants and direct reports, to set up my office at home and, in some ways, start from the beginning. We had our first client on day one, and that was a strangely exhilarating, if disorienting time. That first consulting project was with a well-known Scottish life insurance company.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

The business grew organically. Initially, my own time was contracted to our major clients and most of the revenue from this was retained within the business to build up cash reserves, enabling me to take on a second and third employee within the first six months. We have continued to grow organically but are now in talks with investors to speed up our expansion.

What was your biggest break?

Winning a large contract against an international and well-known consultancy. We had initially bid for another piece of work, but when I became aware of an even bigger project, I thought: 'Perfect, this is ideal for us.' As a small and relatively new firm, the main challenge was in reassuring the client we were solid enough to handle this major project. Insurers are naturally cautious about whom they commission and they repeatedly asked for additional evidence of the company's sustainability.

When we finally completed the delivery, I took the team out for a huge dinner to celebrate.

What was your worst moment?

Well, I wouldn't want to tempt fate, but it has been pretty plain sailing so far, with a couple of minor incidents along the way.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

I certainly get a thrill out of the pitch meetings and presentations, as well as training my consultants as we go, but in a rather nerdy way, I especially love the nuts and bolts of business building – establishing a new office here, selecting and setting up the right hardware and software there, defining our procedures and protocols.

What do you least enjoy?

That's easy – employing maths specialists. I sometimes have to plough through English that seems to have been written by a computer. Trying to translate geek code into good English causes me endless frustration. I shouldn't be too harsh, though, as my consultants are learning.

Graduates, while they are skilled academically, often don't have the business acumen or everyday workplace skills that they need. We put a lot of emphasis on developing those and that gives us a competitive edge; however, there are some basics that it would be great if the graduates already had.

I'd like them all to come out with high levels of competency with Microsoft Office tools, solid written English and a determined attention to detail. We're all spending a bit too much energy and time mopping up the basics.

In South Africa, where the education is still a bit more old-fashioned, this sort of thing just isn't a concern.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

We aim to grow to approximately 50 employees within the next two years. At this size, we will have developed our specialist skills in a range of areas, while remaining boutique. We will aim to extend our presence to Hong Kong and either Mumbai or Bangalore in the near future.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

As the boss, the ultimate responsibility for everything lies with me. That can mean one minute I'm working with the programmers to make sure the code they are writing is top notch, and the next honing the marketing message with my marketing guy, before heading off to a pitch presentation in the afternoon, and then responding to the accountants on the way back to the office. It's quite different from being a contractor where a lot of that responsibility is borne by other shoulders.

What are your five top priorities?

To become the go-to people for process efficiency and financial modelling; to be regarded as a top graduate employer; our data analytics and data fusion wing, which is going to be a major growth area; our community relationships, which I want to develop, especially in my native South Africa, where I've been involved directly with mathematics training to talented pupils at high schools in disadvantaged areas; and have a friendly culture in the firm that I intend to entrench.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

Encourage banks to lend to small businesses at reasonable rates. While we are fine to continue to grow organically, a business loan at a reasonable rate would allow us to grow much more rapidly. There is business out there for us to do, but we need to be a larger consultancy before we can tender for larger projects. We've got the structures to grow the firm, but have to build up slowly due to the limits of our existing capital.

How do you relax?

My father was a photographer and I have inherited his passion for visual art and photography.

I also have a personal training session at least once a week, which allows me to stay healthy, and reduce my stress levels. During the winter I always try to fit in one snowboarding trip.