The latest consolidation in the global SaaS construction collaboration marketplace has seen Reading, UK-based GroupBC acquired by the US giant AEC software vendor Bentley Systems for an undisclosed amount.
Jointly announcing the deal today (11 March 2020 news release), Bentley Systems says the two companies’ software solutions have been deployed for complementary purposes to improve project and asset information management over the past 20 years. “The transaction results from GroupBC’s expansion agenda, and Bentley’s investment appetite, for international growth opportunities stemming from the UK’s national initiatives for major infrastructure investment and towards infrastructure digital twins.”
Bentley has identified that GroupBC’s ‘common data environment’ (CDE) solutions have been widely deployed in the UK for information management across construction and asset estates. GroupBC, it seems, is being bought for its UK exposure to BIM deployment which has seen UK guidelines form the kernel of the emerging ISO 19650 standard. Bentley, of course, also has its own collaborative BIM product, ProjectWise. The Exton, Pennsylvania-based corporation says:
“The new opportunity is to build on ISO 19650, and GroupBC’s UK information management experience, to advance collaborative BIM, through “evergreen” digital twins, to span infrastructure lifecycles. In combination, Bentley’s iTwin Services will now be leveraged to uniquely connect GroupBC CDEs and ProjectWise CDEs. Through semantic alignment and change synchronization, the resulting digital twins cloud services will securely federate – fully enabling 4D mixed reality and analytics visibility – previously separate CDEs for construction and engineering.”
Keith Bentley, Chief Technology Officer for Bentley Systems, said:
“Our iTwin cloud services, taking advantage of iModel-based solutions for interoperability, are ideal for federating CDEs. This enables us to assure that the users of our BC SaaS services will benefit from further extending the value of their project and asset information through digital twins. With the help of our new GroupBC colleagues, we will now be able to better serve engineers, contractors, and owners by bringing together their collective IT (information management), OT (operational technologies including reality modeling), and ET (engineering models). I am confident that the resulting improvements in project and asset performance will be consistent with the UK’s demanding but welcome expectations for new ROI breakthroughs from digital twins.”
Simon Horsley, UK regional executive for Bentley Systems, said:
“Our many UK users, projects, and owners in common with GroupBC will gain a lot from our joining forces to advance CDEs through digital twins. I have been tasked by Bentley management to help the UK to continue to lead the world in going digital for infrastructure advancement, and our new offerings and colleagues from GroupBC bring essential momentum as we pool resources to meet our market’s expanded ‘infrastructure revolution’ requirements. I particularly welcome to Bentley Systems GroupBC’s co-founders Sanjeev Shah and Stephen Crompton, and CEO Wes Simmons.”
Sanjeev Shah, co-founder of GroupBC (pictured with CEO Wes Simmons, right), said:
“This is a hugely exciting day for our shared accounts and for both our workforces moving forward. The opportunities which arise from bringing our two companies and their respective product portfolios together are enormous, as is the global reach which Bentley can now add for us. Working together we will be even better able to support, through ‘going digital,’ construction and asset lifecycles.”
Stephen Crompton, CPO and co-founder of GroupBC, added:
“Bentley is going to provide a great new home for our products to thrive in. GroupBC have always promoted an integrated, best-of-breed approach, and being able to complement our leading software solutions with existing best-of-breed products from Bentley presents a uniquely exciting opportunity for us and our user organizations, opening the door for unparalleled integration between our solutions and bridging the gaps between design, construction and ongoing asset information management.”
Wes Simmons, CEO of GroupBC, said:
“Our founders and I would like to thank our equity partner YFM for their visionary support over the last five years. For our GroupBC team, customers, and partners, joining Bentley Systems ensures a future of continued growth, including beyond construction information management through broadly federated digital twins, and international expansion. Here’s to BC CDE and digital twins advancement!”
GroupBC back story
GroupBC (formerly Business Collaborator) is one of the UK’s most well-established providers of Software-as-a-Service collaboration platforms, launched in the late 1990s when it was part of the software solutions arm of the Enviros environmental consulting and software group. It has since gone through several changes of ownership and branding:
- In April 2003, BC was acquired from Enviros by CodaSciSys for £2.82m.
- In September 2006, CodaSciSys demerged, Business Collaborator becoming a specialist subsidiary of Coda plc.
- In January 2008, Coda plc was acquired by Unit 4 Agresso, a major provider of ERP solutions
- In February 2010, Unit 4 Agresso implemented a group-wide name change to UNIT4, and the BC business was rebranded as UNIT4 Collaboration Software Ltd, though the BC product name was retained. Efforts to cross-sell the solution within the UNIT4 group were unsuccessful, and GroupBC also began to lag behind the development of its competitors in the BIM collaboration space (during the mid-late 2000s, Business Collaborator was the ‘third force’ in UK collaboration behind BIW (now part of Oracle) and 4Projects (now part of Trimble) and ahead of Asite and others in revenue terms, but the brand’s visibility dwindled once it become ‘product-ised’ at UNIT4). Fortunately changes at the top of UNIT4 in 2013 saw it become a non-core business, and …
- … in November 2014 (New era for Business Collaborator after MBO), the BC brand was resurrected after YFM invested £3.35m into a £4m management buy-out. Freed of the dead hand of UNIT4, then GroupBC CEO Sanjeev Shah planned to invest more in sales and marketing to reinvigorate existing BC customer and end-user relationships (customers included Thames Water, Nationwide Building Society, Balfour Beatty and Costain), and to win new Software-as-a-Service customers (Sainsbury’s became a notable addition, as did – in February 2019 – Heathrow Airport, though in partnership with Autodesk: post; update [21 March 2020] other recent major wins include the 15-year redevelopment of London’s Canada Water for British Land, and Birmingham Airport’s £500m expansion).
Post-MBO, GroupBC enjoyed double-digit revenue and profitability growth (July 2017: GroupBC revenues up 33%) as accelerated development of its core platform, and investments in building information modelling (BIM) contributed to both user base and revenue growth. As Bentley have identified, it invested in its platform’s ‘common data environment’ capabilities to support teams working to meet the UK government’s BIM mandate. It also invested in research and development into “semantic BIM” (Connected BIM), launching its GeoConnect+ service at the GeoBusiness event in London in late May 2017. Developed by GroupBC with consultancy PCSG and Ordnance Survey, GeoConnect+ connects BIM information with geospatial data in a way that helps large asset owners and operators manage large, disparate estates better; datasets include OS open data, OS mapping data, land and property data, flood, river, and road network data. This and other developments were extensively covered at GroupBC’s user conference in September 2017.
The business has grown its headcount, recruiting experienced staff such as Stuart Bell (formerly at YFM-backed ERP vendor Eque2 and then at Union Square until it was acquired by Deltek in 2016). In January 2018, former Eque2 CEO Wes Simmons was appointed GroupBC CEO, with Shah taking on a new role in developing GroupBC’s strategic industry partnerships.
The Extranet Evolution perspective
At first sight, some cynics might say this is a move by Bentley to absorb a significant UK competitor – Bentley, after all, has been ever-present in the UK throughout the ongoing BIM adoption programme, so it is hardly devoid of understanding of UK standards and related developments, despite making UK BIM its primary justification for the deal. And both Bentley and GroupBC are patrons of the UK BIM Alliance and active participants in the Alliance’s Technology Group.
However, there is certainly interest in expanding UK BIM software development expertise in the Bentley portfolio – the business acquired another UK BIM pioneer, 4D specialist Synchro Software in June 2018 (post). And while there may be an overlap between the Bentley and GroupBC CDEs, there are also some strong technological differentiations – CTO Steve Crompton has been a long-time advocate of ‘open BIM’ and ‘the semantic web’, helping position GroupBC as one of the growing forces in UK ‘digital twin’ thinking (it hosted a breakfast seminar on the subject at Digital Construction Week in October 2019). And Bentley wants to retain its leading role in pushing ‘Digital Twin’ into the AEC mainstream.
The Bentley-GroupBC tie-up also brings with it some significant and long-standing customer relationships. These include owner operators such as Thames Water and retailers including Sainsbury’s, plus contractors such as Balfour Beatty and Costain – the latter has made a strong pitch to ‘digitalise’ and grow its digital capabilities. Such customers will not want drop their GroupBC relationships lightly, and will be trying to read between the lines of Bentley’s news announcement rhetoric and corporate buzzwords to see how the combined businesses will move forward.
This latest consolidation in the collaboration sector (Oracle acquiring Aconex who previously acquired Conject who acquired BIW, Trimble acquiring Viewpoint and eBuilder, Autodesk acquiring Plangrid, etc), also highlights that Asite remains one of the few independent UK-based vendors, a business which has been consistently growing its revenues for some years (post). Extranet Evolution will be talking to Asite’s new CEO Nathan Doughty shortly about his view of the market.
[* Disclosure: At the time of the 2014 MBO, I was commissioned by YFM to join an advisory team undertaking ‘due diligence’ on the Business Collaborator technology offering. I subsequently provided some marketing consultancy services to GroupBC, and have also provided some consultancy services to Bentley Systems. I am honorary chair of the UK BIM Alliance’s Technology Group.]