North East Chamber of Commerce member, Lesley Moody, Managing Director, AES Digital Systems shares her path to business success with Kay Wilson

THE education sector in the 1980s may appear to be an unlikely starting point for a groundbreaking digital business with clients around the world, but a Billingham company has its roots firmly in North-East learning.

Lesley Moody who taught food technology in Northumberland high schools and Joe Telford a former secondary school maths teacher created AES Digital Solutions Ltd in 1992. Their business was launched initially to provide education and training resources for companies and support the curriculum delivery to schools. It now offers a suite of flexible business management tools for clients in the HR, food, fine chemical and pharmaceutical sectors around the world, along with bespoke software solutions.

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Lesley and Joe first worked together at Cleveland Council’s High Technology Initiative that was set up to help schools have leading edge technologies in the classroom. This was when the National Curriculum was introduced and Technology was a core subject. There were very few materials to support this topic in schools so Lesley and Joe set about filling the gap.

Their ability to design and deliver innovative technology attracted interest from companies looking for new technologies to support their businesses, and lead to AES being established.

One relatively new company which was keen to use their expertise was Marlow Foods, now Quorn Foods. British Steel was another early customer, which turned to AES to develop and deliver software and technology initiatives, including a national micro-electronics project and the creation of software and printed materials to celebrate 100 years of the motor car and steel in vehicles.

AES has grown mainly due to the combination of a healthy appetite for embracing cutting edge technologies and the ability to design bespoke systems, and it’s customer base has similarly developed to be predominantly global blue chip companies and government organisations.

Lesley Moody said: “We were very clear we didn’t want to be a ‘box shifter’, selling on a third party software for other companies as innovation and creativity are our strong suit. We develop all our systems from scratch in-house with our range of on-line applications purposely designed to be scaleable and configurable to match each customers’ requirements. Another part of our value is in our ability to provide bespoke solutions but in a modular way – using RAD (Rapid Application Development) to deliver systems in tight timeframes to our customers’ budgets

“Similar to much bigger companies like Microsoft, our suites of software contain multiple business tools which can be brought together as part of a solution to meet customer’s requirements.

“We have evolved and expanded over the past 23 years by putting the needs of customers along with the rapidly changing technology landscape, at the centre of our solutions and support.

“Our knowledge of specific sectors, new internet technologies and the ability to identify their possible application, has helped us develop and deliver innovative business applications. As a result we now have a range of web based, browser driven applications which are designed to improve internal business communication and provide a global real time access to data and businesses activity. They all include built-in powerful data warehousing capabilities delivering ‘easy to create’ reports.”

Some customers have come by word of mouth and others have been introduced to AES by staff moving between companies. More recently with the introduction of SaaS (Software as a Service) AES has worked with new companies like PolyPhotonix based at Sedgefield, County Durham who were looking for a system to help manage their Noctura product range from manufacture through to patient data collection and display. Using a SaaS approach, AES have been able to provide a cost effective licencing model for this application.

The global reach of AES came about through a piece of serendipity when a managing director of an existing UK client, (part of the European division of an US corporation, Sensient Technologies) was transferred to Singapore to be President of the corporation’s Asia Pacific operations.

Lesley Moody said: “We were originally contracted to research competitors use of the web and then to make recommendations on how the Asia Pacific division might improve market awareness of their companies in the region and their product offerings. This was at a time before corporate websites were commonplace, and as a result of our findings and recommendations to senior management in Singapore we were asked to create a web presence for the business. From this initial project we’ve been able to grow our export business across the US and Europe as well as in the Asia Pacific region with support from UKTI to the extent that we now have an office in Taiwan.

Joe Telford Chief Technical officer at AES said: “One of the best pieces of advice we were given by UKTI was to attend a business school to get inside information on how American business people think. They supported my participation in a week-long course at the Kellogg Business School in Chicago which was absolutely brilliant for us as a company.

“On the course we had sessions by some of the leading thinkers in the States including an adviser to President Obama’s Cabinet and the Deputy Director of Linked In. It taught me so much in particular what American businesses say and what they mean – we may both speak English as a language… but US and UK English are different and the interpretation of what you are saying can be different too.”

“For example if you say to an American business they don’t need something they assume it is because you can’t provide it. We also learnt about pitching a price that was quite an eye opener. On the course they explained that in the States they automatically assume you will want to negotiate over price so believe any ballpark you give on cost will be around 50% higher than they would expect to pay. That is one heck of an assumption for a UK company to get their head around.”

UKTI continue to work closely with the business today through UKTI North East’s International Trade Adviser John Holmes-Carrington. He has provided advice and support and helped them take part in trade missions to the US, China and Singapore and arranged for them to talk to trade experts from UK embassies and consulates through UKTI regional roadshows where 40 countries were showcased as potential markets.

At present AES is exploring opportunities in Taiwan with John as the Taiwanese Government’s attitude to food legislation is changing, to ensure products are accurately labelled with their ingredients. The top 38 food manufacturers turnover in the country combined is around £5.6 billion, presenting an enormous opportunity for AES. Alongside this exploration into a new market, things have almost come full circle in relation to the education sector as the business is also in talks with an academy chain to develop a bespoke system to support careers education.

UK business for AES has been similarly growing with the development of a talent management system for local authorities called Match Jobs which scientifically identifies ideal candidates for particular roles. It has been used by local councils to protect staff, while making substantial savings. Using an algorithm developed by AES, the system provides a ranked list of potential candidate for any post based on a number of variables including skills, experience, qualifications and psychometric profiling.

Lesley Moody said: “We have worked with Sunderland City Council and helped it save more than £150m, and Calderdale Council which is also using Match jobs expect to save around £5.5m a year. Whether a council has a workforce of 1,000 or 20,000 the system can identify best matches in seconds.”

Despite the opportunities for growth Lesley and Joe acknowledge it can be challenging sometimes to find staff with the right skills and attitude, but their belief in supporting everyone to be the very best they can be, is still at the heart of the company’s ethos, as it was when they were educationalists all those years ago.