After more than a decade and a half with Maury Blackman at the helm, Accela — which clients call a “poster child” for the burgeoning government-facing technology market — is moving on.
The move came as a shock to some. Under Blackman’s leadership, the company grew steadily and then hit a growth spurt in recent years, acquiring eight or so firms in the past two years and raising some $233 million in 2015. Offering an array of services from billing to permit and licensing management, Accela saw its accounts grow to more than 2,000 local governments in multiple countries.
And that is exactly why, according to interim Chief Executive Officer Mark Jung (pictured at left), Accela is moving on.
“I think we got to the point where … the board felt that from a leadership standpoint, we needed somebody with more leadership experience,” Jung said. “We are in more of a growth phase now.”
And what a growth phase that might be. According to Jung, the company’s board is mulling — though it hasn’t made any decisions yet — the possibility of going public. In the meantime, it will take a “breather” from mergers and acquisitions and focus on expanding its work with its base of existing clients.
Put broadly, Jung wants to make Accela the kind of company that’s ready to go public if it wants to.
He compared the leadership shakeup to so many others in Silicon Valley — some people are best at helping small companies grow, and some are more adept at seeing them into maturity. Blackman, Jung said, was the hand that guided the company to become ready for that next phase.
“I do not think we would have gone as far as we did without him,” he said.
One of Jung’s priorities is to serve Accela’s customer base better. Rapid growth can sometimes mean a loss of personal touch with a company’s established clients.
But Tom Vanover, chief building official in Cleveland’s Department of Building and Housing, said that hasn’t been the case for him. Cleveland has worked with Accela for a long time — more than a decade, in fact — and Vanover’s department has moved most of its processes to the company’s software.
“Any type of company that gets to a certain size, there are pros and cons that come with that, and one of the pros being that they’re able to acquire other companies and moving in that direction. One of the cons is that … the intimacy of the relationship is affected,” Vanover said. “Not to be misunderstood, but I don’t believe that there was an issue from a Cleveland standpoint because Accela was too big.”
Actually, the company’s growth worked out pretty well for the department. Just as they were looking to go mobile, Accela was expanding its mobile services. And even as they acquired new companies, Vanover said his contacts at the vendor were up-front and honest with him.
“They’re very candid in that they’ve always told us, ‘We just bought these guys but they’re not ready; they’ll be there in six months,’” he said.
Aside from Blackman, Accela is also losing Technical Evangelist Mark Headd, who tweeted on Sept. 15 that he was joining 18F. Another customer, Evanston, Ill.’s interim IT Division Manager Luke Stowe, said the loss of two talents — Blackman and Headd — will be challenging for Accela. Stowe called Headd, who came to the company after serving as Philadelphia’s chief data officer, “one of the best in our field.”
As for Blackman?
“I always felt [Blackman] was a great spokesperson for Accela and for the civic tech space in general,” he said. “I think that he’s a champion for civic technology.”
Stowe said he’s not concerned about the departures per se, but is waiting to see who will replace them.
“Accela is what I call kind of an ‘indicator species’ for the industry, where their growth and their health probably impacts everybody in the space,” he said.
While Jung declined to reveal the circumstances behind Blackman’s departure, he described it as a mutual decision and a positive situation. Blackman did not respond to requests for comment. Headd also did not respond to requests for comment.
So what will Accela look like after Blackman? Here are four ways Jung said the company might grow:
1. (Possibly) going public
Jung said Accela’s leadership is in no rush to make a decision, but the board of directors is considering an initial public offering.
That would mean many things for the company. It would mean reporting to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which would mean different standards for things like projecting revenue. There would have to be internal audits. The company would aim for predictability, and that would mean losing a degree of flexibility in decision-making.
Before a company goes public, Jung said, it’s best to see if it can run like a public company. And it would also need the right leadership in place.
“If we choose that direction, that is a long-haul commitment in terms of a public company and a CEO of a public company that has the experience and the wherewithal and the staying power …. to [lead] a public company,” he said.
2. Doing more for existing customers
Accela has plenty to do without acquiring new companies or signing more clients.
“Even if we closed our doors and did not sign any new customers, I think we would still grow for the next 10 years,” he said.
So for now, he said he just wants to focus on serving those customers better. Part of what he wants to do is reorganize customer support efforts, including assessing what the needs and levels of support are for different tiers of clients.
It will also mean working to integrate the companies Accela has acquired so that they can offer more to the client base.
3. Improving internal processes
Meanwhile, Jung said he wants Accela simply to run better as a company. In the day to day, his focus is on making internal processes more efficient. He wants to improve management of the pipeline of projects the company is handling, for example.
Already, Jung said Accela has centralized a series of four functions that used to vary from team to team. He wants to keep following that path, making sure that the company enshrines the things that work.
“The key is process, to make sure the right hand is talking to the left and that we can institutionalize best practices across our customer base,” he said.
4. Leveraging clients’ expertise
One quirk of working with government instead of private industry is that clients aren’t in competition with each other, Jung said. That presents an opportunity for Accela: If it can bring its customers together and enable them to cooperate, it can give the company better insights into what government needs.
“The culture is to share, not to hoard and defend,” he said.
And there is quite a bit of expertise readily available to Accela, Jung said. If there are 10 people at each Accela client with expertise in some specific area, that adds up to an enormous number who engage with the company’s various offerings. They might be able to learn from what they do, or even bring together data to get new insights into what government is going through and how it solves problems.
“You’re talking about 20,000 people or more who are experts in their own right who you can tap into,” he said.