When they set out to build Knightsbridge Solutions, now the largest consulting firm solely focused on business intelligence and data warehousing, the founders started with a blank slate and an idea. They believed they could help organizations with large or complex volumes of data manage it more effectively through the application of high-performance technologies.
In June of 1994, IT implementation specialists Ki Chan, Jay Desai, Terry Ryan and Faisal Shah joined forces to build a boutique consulting and systems integration firm that specialized in applications of scalable parallel processing. They christened the company Knightsbridge, after an upscale, fashionable district in London that had been home to Desai. The first to bring parallel processing to the commercial sector, the founders soon realized that trained talent in this area was not readily available, existing hardware and software tools were bug-ridden and prospective customers didn't want to be "the first" with unproven technology. Instead of abandoning their goal, this team made a multimillion-dollar investment to train its own staff in parallel processing. Two years later, they had earned a reputation for delivering innovative technology solutions for organizations that needed high- performance solutions.
Intent on taking their company to the next level, the four founders looked to a source of inspiration from their past, Rod Walker. Years prior, Walker had mentored the men during a state-of-the-art call center project. The founders approached Walker, then a senior executive at Technology Solutions Company (TSC), a company he cofounded in 1988. Chan, Desai, Ryan and Shah told Walker that they wanted someone to craft a vision for Knightsbridge and build a business plan to implement it. They were looking for someone to implement a scalable growth plan for both the company and their technology expertise. Finally, they needed to build an executive management team. Auspiciously, they were looking for this leadership at a time when Walker was examining his career and contemplating leaving TSC in search of new opportunities, or retiring.
Walker considered their offer. In addition to his personal connection with the company the five men had maintained contact throughout the years Walker was involved financially. He had invested in the company and joined the board of directors in 1997 when Knightsbridge secured their first round of funding. In February of 1999, Walker decided that the opportunity presented by his four former protégés was too good to pass up and thus became the president and chief operating officer. (Walker's title was later changed to chief executive officer.)
"At the time," begins Walker, "we had approximately 50 to 55 employees and we were doing five or six hundred thousand dollars a month in revenue. Today, our total headcount is over 250, with nearly 200 consultants; and we were excited to report our first $4 million month in October of 2003."
He continues, "One of the things I had to do when I came to the company was get it very focused on what it is that we do and what it is we do well." Although the company began in parallel processing, it easily gravitated toward the extract, transform and load space because the primary commercial use of parallel processing is building large data warehouses. From there, the company expanded its expertise and focus to encompass the whole data warehouse and business intelligence delivery cycle. Knightsbridge helps companies with large or complex data challenges that demand high throughput, data reliability, data availability and low cost of ownership to reduce cost from operations and achieve competitive advantage. Most of the time, they build terabyte-class data warehouses and large-scale business intelligence solutions. "One of the reasons we're as successful as we are is that we've really stuck to that," notes Walker. "The dot-coms came and went as a fad in the business. Building Web sites came and went. Companies came and went. Everybody was encouraging people to chase the fads we said no. This is what we are. This is our core competency. This is what we're good at. As we approached the year 2000, we didn't worry about Y2K. We simply focused on becoming very deep and very good at what we do with the objective of being the best-of-breed solutions provider at the high end of the data warehousing/business intelligence space. We really stuck to our knitting and built a strong management team and a really strong consulting team to do this. We're focused and we're old-fashioned. We're building the company one person at a time, one client at a time and sticking to our strategy. We believe in the strategy and it is working."
While the larger consulting firms may have many times the number of people employed at Knightsbridge, they're doing everything for everybody and they're doing it worldwide. Knightsbridge's strength is in its singular focus. This narrow but deep company has claimed the position of being the largest such specialist in their space. Explains Walker, "We are a focused systems integrator. We're out there to be the objective, trusted advisors to the Fortune 500 in the business intelligence and data warehousing space. In doing that, we focus on the really large, complex problems in the space the companies that either have very complex data issues or the companies that have very large amounts of data to process. Most of these people need high-throughput, high-performance solutions. This focus drives us to the Fortune 500 or the companies whose business is data."
President and CEO
Walker explains that to deal with complexity and large amounts of data, having the right people is key. "For situations where you have extremely complex data models and business rules, you really need the best of breed the best people in the business to solve the problem and that's where we shine. Our staff averages 12 years of experience per person. To support our growth, we're constantly looking for people who really understand all the issues that are involved in large, complex implementations. We're looking for people who have done it before, know the technologies that we tend to deploy and have good consulting skills."
Both the technology and the business aspects are important to Knightsbridge. Walker expounds, "Consultancy is increasingly becoming a selling business. You really have to sell both sides of the house if you want to win the business because one side may do the funding, but the other side may actually oversee the work. You must have a comfort level on both the technology side and the business side." Consequently, the Knightsbridge approach is all-encompassing. "We go end-to-end. We do all technological plumbing that accompanies the extract, transform and load, the business rules and the data warehouse. We've also become proficient and very deep in the business intelligence work building the front-end applications such as the data mining, the reporting and the analytics that sit on top of the data. We start at the strategy level and progress through the architecture, the design, the development and the implementation work. We'll also provide ongoing support if our customers need us to. Additionally, we provide customized end- user training, which helps ensure that the project is successful. If you can participate in helping train the 500 to 5,000 people who are actually going to use what you've implemented, you can help ensure that it's really going to accomplish what it was intended to accomplish."
Their accomplishments are helping their clients optimize their businesses. "Whether we're helping a client optimize their supply chain, stock their retail stores, reduce their marketing costs or analyze their clinical procedures to optimize patient outcomes, we're always involved in fascinating projects that have real impacts on our customers and our customers' customers," says Walker. "Organizations are going to need to optimize their businesses more and more over time, and that is a very data-intensive process. The ability to process more detailed data enables more precise, more accurate models that, in turn, increase an organization's ability to compete. It's a great space. Data is piling up, and for those of us in the data management business, this is a wonderful trend. This increase in data means that you must employ more processors. That drives you into parallel processing because the processors aren't speeding up as fast as the data is accumulating. If you need to process more data in parallel, you're driving right into our space. We're seeing this everywhere we go."
Is the increasingly popular outsourcing trend impacting Knightsbridge? "It is," admits Walker, "in a few different ways. The first manifestation is in rate pressure. The reason people go offshore, in most cases, is price. That puts the pressure on those of us who are local to make sure that we're offering a better value. We operate in the high-end, complex, difficult cases, and it is difficult to take those cases offshore. A lot of the work is interactive and iterative. This kind of work requires us to be on site with the client; therefore, it is difficult to take this part of our work off site, not to mention offshore. The bulk of the analytical work in terms of analysis, design and requirements is still on site with the customers."
Year Founded: 1994
Last book read: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. On the rare occasions that I have a chance to sit and read, I usually escape from the world with fiction, either adventure stories or science fiction.
Walker's pragmatic attitude is refreshing. "Because we operate in the high-end of the space, we tend to be focused around the 'big data' class of solutions. It remains to be seen how the ETL, DBMS, EAI and front-end vendors will evolve in this same space. We're definitely seeing footprint expansions as vendors reach outside their niches. How will they handle the agglomeration of data? Is the performance going to be there? Can they make sure they're staying abreast of some new competitors that are claiming that they're providing higher performance, higher throughput solutions? That remains to be seen. I don't claim to know where all that's going to go. My job is to make sure that where it goes, we're there. We're not so much creating the market as we are advising our customers on what really works. If you've got a complex problem, we provide the best answers out there. We're constantly reevaluating what that means. Our customers are constantly asking us to do bake-offs and proofs of concept. These activities continuously update us on where the market is going."
The company's acquisition of BASE Consulting Group in July of 2003 rounded out the company's offerings by adding client education services, a west coast presence and additional knowledge in the BI space. Walker notes that the acquisition was precipitated by a call from Jonathan Wu, then chairman of BASE Consulting, who believed that if the two firms wanted to be major players in the space, it would probably make the most sense for them to do so together. "Combining the two companies really gives us a good, strong, evenly distributed end-to-end solutions capability with the strategy, planning, architecture and assessments up front, through the architecture development, design and the end-user training. Combined," he summarizes, "we emerged a much more evenly distributed company with a very strong skill set, and we've gotten a great reception from our customers."
"My expectation is we'll have choices going forward," Walker says with confidence. "I have no qualms about going forward indefinitely as an independent company because I think there's a lot of room for people who are very deep specialists in this arena. A lot of the big firms have a problem organizationally in that they tend to be organized by geography and by vertical. Creating a data warehousing/business intelligence practice that cuts across both the regions and the verticals is organizationally a very difficult thing to do. They have a tendency to build these skills within each of their other cubes, if you will. Thus, there's lots of opportunity for us to bring specialists to bear who are just deeper and stronger as a team than what they're going to be able to field."
"We're here to do the best possible job for our customers, and we appreciate their business," notes Walker. "We make sure we're delivering great value to our customers by solving their complex data challenges. That's what we do."
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