David Thornton, Managing Director of business consultancy, Thornton and Lowe explains how digital innovation and product development are critical to creating a solid platform for sustained growth.
Bolton-headquartered Thornton & Lowe has been helping businesses with their contract and tender writing processes for more than a decade and has seen impressive growth in recent years.
Discussing how the business came about and what they hope to achieve, MD David Thornton provided us with a bit of background; "Since we founded Thornton & Lowe, the business has always been focused on helping other companies to win valuable and transformative contracts. We do this through the use of industry knowledge, unparalleled insight into the bidding process and dedicated experienced writers that can hit the brief every time.
"It's good to help companies to secure those major contracts. The businesses we work with have experienced real growth and opportunities as a result of our advice and it's fair to say that our growth is nothing compared to that of our clients.
"The industry is growing and there's more tenders out there than ever before. More private companies are using these processes as well."
As technology evolved, Thornton & Lowe wanted to embrace all that was possible and become a well-rounded and tech-enabled business.
In the last decade, Thornton and Lowe has experienced great success in developing dedicated software that can be used by both those putting out to tender and those looking to win work. Its Tender Library is a tender management system that allows bidders to easily search, sort and report on their bid information.
David explained their growth hasn’t happened overnight though: "Our software has evolved over time to allow users that make regular bids to keep track of the information and resources they might require with minimal disruption. It has incorporated built in task management, bid/no bid assessments and reporting, as well as improving the core search function, look and feel.
"We've had a great reception to the Tender Library from large organisations such as the NHS Trusts, SSE and national charities. It has become the natural entry point for clients looking to access services that build on their existing successes, which in turn has created a solid platform for sustained growth."
Developing the right solution to help the largest number of customers has bolstered its place in the market and elevated other services, such as consultancy and bid writing, to existing customers.
The business is also looking to incorporate software that can help you predict the chances of winning a contract and whether it's worth putting the required time into the bid process.
Having found a myriad of different products on the market, some of which were confusing or expensive, the business began development on its AI-enabled Tender Pipeline in 2019.
The company worked closely with innovation advisor Paul Halliday, who says: "Thornton & Lowe is a great example of how a company and the Growth Hub should work together. When I first met David, he was so open to listening to our suggestions.
"By maintaining that relationship over a period of time, we have become a trusted partner of David's and they can turn to us when they want to talk through new ideas or potential investments. When we launched the new innovation programme and the opportunities for innovation vouchers and university collaboration we were able to build a valuable programme of support."
"David had been thinking about the Pipeline for a while, so we took the opportunity to pick it up and run with it. The Innovation team acted as a catalyst to help move the development along and have a play with the project.
"Because we'd already developed a high degree of credibility with David, we took the chance and got some innovation sessions in the diary and pushed the development of the project along. From there we built up our relationship with Manchester Metropolitan University and explored how they could bring their knowledge and expertise into the organisation as well.
"This then helped us to get the ball rolling and enabled us to develop a small proof of concept that showed that the project had legs."
Clients utilise Tender Pipeline to monitor tenders, easily ask for additional support to help prepare bids more efficiently and effectively. With access and knowledge on their competitors, users are better informed on which opportunities are right for them and which tenders are winnable.
While still in early stages, the Tender Pipeline already has more than 1,000 active users with very little promotion. Those users have also generated new market opportunities for Thornton & Lowe to offer further support, in bid writing, business winning and in the administration required to organise and access documents.
This has led to the development of a chargeable premium service: Search & Selection and the Bid Success Programme.
In 2020, with support from the Hub’s Innovation team, the company managed to secure over £160k of European Funding for Tender Pipeline in partnership with the University of Manchester to further develop the software.
The firm has taken on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) associate with The University of Manchester to help improve and establish Tender Pipeline.
A three-way partnership between businesses, academic teams and qualified postgraduates, KTPs support advances in business-led innovation through greater use of knowledge, technology and skills.
Speaking about how the KTP has benefited the business, Paul says: "From our initial project with the university, we then took the opportunity to introduce David to KTPs. He's a forward thinking guy and jumped at the opportunity to work on it. The piece of work the KTP associate is working on has helped to create a product that is new to the market and has the potential to be transformational for his business.
"KTPs have a real impact and have a great reputation with the businesses that use them. Most companies don't know what they are and it takes someone like me to suggest a project like this. Companies know what they know, and they don't know what they don't and a university can show you what technologies are on the cutting edge.
"If we can get the technology out of the universities and into SMEs across Greater Manchester, we're helping to make them more competitive and improving the economy as a whole."
More focused than an apprenticeship or a work placement, and typically with a higher level of qualification needed, a KTP aims to meet a single strategic need and to identify innovative solutions to help a business to grow. They require significant investment, whether monetary or in terms of time, from all three of the involved parties.
According to David: "Our KTP associate is totally focused on this project and they're really pushing the research and development phase. We anticipate that we'll be able to inform people of their likely win rates for contracts, so you won't have to go in for contracts you're unlikely to secure.
"We've already got 1,000 users through recommendations and we've had the North West Aerospace Alliance promote it to their members and the National Federation of Builders. It's a great tool, and as we build that side of the business, people can get to know us as a market intelligence company and then learn about the ways we can support them to win new business.
"It is helping to usher in a new era within the business."
The company is committed to further growth, taking on more people across all levels of the business and making use of skills available in the local area.
The Tender Pipeline will continue to be improved so that it will have its own intuitive search function that will enable more complex queries and learn users' behaviour to automatic suggestion and completion, tender ranking and matching, personalised and explainable recommendations, reporting outputs of statistical models and advanced analytical insights (on top of summary statistics), interactive graphs and information summarisation.
Tender Pipeline will guide bidders’ decision making through assessments of buyer behaviour, competition analysis for the sector, buyer type and region.
With an eye on the future and the opportunities further collaboration could yield, David says: "We look forward to building our relationship with the Business Growth Hub and benefitting from the funded support available to growing SMEs."
The work that Paul undertook with Thornton & Lowe is a great example of the Hub’s different levels of support and the benefits of ongoing communication. He says: "We've built a relationship and credibility with David, and we are working to continue to build and maintain that into the future. The Growth Hub has so many programmes of support available, and we can always help a business in one way, even if it's not strictly about innovation.
"The more we understand about a business, the more we can help them to understand the Growth Hub and open up a wider package of support."
If you’re an SME in Greater Manchester that has the ambition, capacity and drive to grow, the Hub’s specialist Innovation Advisors are here for you. They’ll help you identify the key things needed to become innovative and guide you on your own journey.