Business in focus: Shield Safety Group
Shield Safety Group is one of the UK’s leading providers of food safety, fire safety and health and safety (H&S) services and software. Founder and CEO Mark Flanagan is combining technology with deep sector expertise to make safety simple for every business.
Flanagan founded Shield Safety in 2003. Based in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the business has achieved 50% growth for the last three years. It employs around 170 people – including around 50 technology experts – and is continuing to recruit.
“Large businesses like Tesco switched to us because of the quality of our people, including our environmental health officers,” Flanagan says. “Technology plays a big part too. It separates us from our competitors. It enables us to deliver our services in a more efficient and effective way.”
The core software – called Compliance Centre – gives users a current, dynamic indication of their organisation’s safety risk status. Its real-time reporting enables users to track and monitor safety progress. It provides a central location for storing all compliance data and is accessible on any desktop or mobile device.
From the start Flanagan was intent on building a cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution.
"Initially the technology was limited by what you could do within the web browser,” he says. “So it was more about communicating effectively with our clients. We didn’t want to be sending off audit reports or certificates in the post or clogging up emails.”
Shield Safety therefore used an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) solution akin to Dropbox. “We then began to build functionality around it and it grew from there,” Flanagan says.
He believes Shield Safety’s approach is unique. Competitors offering software in the safety arena tend to be technology companies rather than safety specialists.
“They develop bespoke tech based around a customer requirement,” Flanagan says. “They then try to sell it to someone else – and they want more functionality. You end up with a big clunky system that takes six months to learn how to use.”
In contrast, Shield Safety believes in making safety simple. “So we believe in giving people the right information – not the information they initially ask for,” Flanagan says.
"Keeping control of that has enabled us to develop a complex system which is simple to use. And it gives people the information they need. That enables us to be far more competitive in the development of our software.”
The approach has won awards for the business, including Technology Supplier of the Year in the Grocer Gold Awards 2017. “We were up against huge technology companies,” Flanagan says. “So the tech is really important – but so are the people.”
Flanagan has no doubt that Shield Safety is a disruptor in the safety sector. “We’re operating in what is traditionally a heavily paper-based industry sector,” he says. “There aren’t many SaaS players in our sector. I think that’s because it’s complex.”
The Shield Safety team is always looking for new, improved ways of doing things. “Innovation is one of our core values,” Flanagan says.
"We also have a core value of fun. We interpret that to mean we are not the ‘fun police’. We are not here to stop people running the business in the way they want to run it. We are here to give people an educated understanding so they can make good decisions."
“With health and safety, some people are frightened of doing some things they want to do. But we are the largest employer of environmental health officers in the UK. I am an ex environmental health officer. So we understand it. We understand the legislation – what people need to do and how to do it.”
Applying digital technology
“A lot of our industry is focused on audits,” Flanagan says. “If you fail an audit, you get another audit. We are saying, do less audits, use technology.”
The Compliance Centre software gives users a dynamic risk indicator for their organisation.
"Businesses traditionally view their level of risk based around audits that have been conducted,” Flanagan says. “Our system records that there was an audit and any non-conformance. Those things will be more or less critical. The risk indicator calculates all of that."
“The risk indicator will change dynamically as actions following an audit are closed off. What you get is a dynamic risk indicator which is a true indication of risk to the business.
As Flanagan explains, organisations don’t need to keep doing H&S audits on all their sites. “Some sites will perform well,” he says. “Some won’t. Using our algorithms we can start to predict which sites won’t perform well.
"We can do some predictive analytics so you can allocate resources more effectively to improve levels of compliance, while spending less money. So we are doing more work on modelling that predictive risk for businesses.”
About Shield Safety Group
Company size:51-200 employees
Visit website: http://shieldsafety.co.uk/
Future-proofing the business
“For us, developing new products all the time is key,” Flanagan says. “We just released a module to manage the risk assessment process. That’s a massive burden on businesses and creates a lot of paperwork.
"Our system manages the whole process. It enables the business to easily conduct the risk assessments. It makes it easy to update the risk assessments centrally."
“You can then link that to individuals’ training records. There’s evidence to demonstrate they have understood the contents of the risk assessment and training. Somebody else has observed them doing the work correctly.
“So if somebody does have an accident, it’s easier for the business to defend itself.”
Developing thought leadership is also key to future-proofing Shield Safety from competitors. Blockchain and the supply chain is one area of focus.
“Imagine the food industry,” Flanagan says. “Retail and hospitality businesses buy products with ingredients from all over the place. There could be hundreds of suppliers.
“What if someone along the supply chain has mixed some spice with some peanuts? How does everybody know about that? If a product has been tampered with, how can the supply chain effectively communicate that so we can have a product recall?
“Blockchain provides a lot more clarity to that process. Currently information is stored in lots of different places. So blockchain is really key for us in the future.”
Business goals and sector predictions
Flanagan aims to keep developing the business in line with its core purpose. “We believe in making safety simple,” he says. “That’s our purpose, so we will carry on with that.”
"And we want to be number one in the UK in relation to food safety, health and safety, and fire safety in terms of market share. We are close to being number one, if we’re not already.”
Another goal is to bring out more products for small businesses so that they can manage their safety risks more efficiently and effectively.
As for the safety sector, more change is expected. “I think blockchain is going to have an impact,” Flanagan says. “So will artificial intelligence and machine learning on predictive risk.”
Such developments present opportunities. Deciding which opportunities are best is the biggest challenge in growing the business successfully. “We have so many opportunities,” Flanagan says. “We could potentially do so many things. So the biggest challenge is about focusing on the right opportunity.”
Supporting digital businesses
Flanagan believes the government could do more to support digital businesses, particularly those beyond start-up phase.
"We are just moving to a global platform and having to fund that ourselves,” he says. “There are no government incentives or initiatives to help us. There are some incentives and grants to set up small businesses. The R&D tax credit is good. But there are no real incentives when you want to scale up.”
He also thinks more could be done to support innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence.
“I don’t think the government has invested enough in supporting AI,” Flanagan says. “SenseTime in China has just raised $1.6bn in funding. What is our government doing to enable businesses like ours to develop new technology?”
"We asked: Away from Shield Safety, what disruptive tech has most impressed you…
What Uber has done for the taxi sector is fabulous,” Flanagan says. “So is what Airbnb has done for accommodation. They are good examples of businesses having an impact on an industry and disrupting markets.”