It took just 20 years for Dean Forbes to transform his life. Twice homeless in London as a teenager, failing to make the grade as a professional footballer, and amassing a mountain of debt, it would have been easy to expect a tragic end to this story of a young man trying to find his place in the world. Yet Forbes was driven by his traumatic and tempestuous experiences to transition from a junior call centre sales executive to CEO of billion-dollar businesses – recognised as one of Britain’s best leaders, mentors, and champions of social mobility.
“I describe the start of my career journey as a twice homeless failed footballer who found himself doing telesales to service a mountain of debt that he'd accumulated to keep up with football friends,” says Forbes, speaking with an openness and candour that is refreshing from a CEO.
“I’m really grateful for that debt because it meant I had to fail at football quickly in order to get into the professional working environment.”
It is hard to imagine how an in-demand CEO of a business recently acquired by Partners Group for EU1 billion could have been in that situation, and the resilience he had to show to climb out of those depths. The emphasis there being on ‘had to’, as Forbes simply had no choice.
The first time he was made homeless was around the age of just 14, when escaping from what he describes as “a very bad family situation”. The second time was arguably even harder. Forbes’ mum had worked hard, despite disability, to become a homeowner, only for her to lose her job and ultimately the family home.
“Both times were very difficult for our family,” says Forbes. “We went into hostel accommodation and the second time, we came out of it by breaking up the family. I was of age so I left home and had to go and make my own way. That was around the Motorola time so I left home which meant my mother needed a smaller place which we were able to find more easily. Four years later I was actually able to buy her a home.”
“Looking back on it now, it’s just incredibly difficult. The emotional aspect of losing your home is something I can't put into words, and especially for us – our home was our refuge from a very, very difficult earlier situation. We didn't just emotionally lose the roof over our head – we lost the sanctuary from the thing we were escaping from.”
Swapping sporting dreams for business goals
Making it in professional sports is notoriously difficult, and football in the UK is no different. From all the kids playing in academies at the age of 9, fewer than 1% make it professional at any level of the game. In the UK, of the 1.5 million youth players, around 180 will make it to the top tier of the Premier League.
While being a pro player for the likes of Crystal Palace was a dream for Forbes, he is the first to admit that he probably didn’t want it as much as some of his friends.
“I look back now and realise I can't say I dedicated my life to it because my friends who went on to have great careers, there's a complete contrast in the way we approached football,” he admits. “I enjoyed it. I loved it so much and the part that wasn't helpful to me is that it was just a group of my friends from similar estates, so I just laughed six days a week and messed around, played football when it was time to play football, but I wasn't dedicated to it.”
The turning point came when Forbes came to the realisation that his future was not in football, and that his mountain of personal debt accrued by trying to live that lifestyle beyond his means was potentially “life threatening”.
It’s hard to imagine the so-called Tech CEO Unicorn speaking to us today being anything other than successful, but it is a given that his success was built on his hardships, failures and work ethic. When you have been in those kinds of situations, you never want to go back.
“I have been lucky and I've been helped by a lot of people, but I've worked very hard,” he says. “I've done the hours, because I don't want to be back in that situation. It taught me that you get up, you go to work. You don't spend time feeling sorry for yourself. I learned to be resilient – not to stop and ponder bad luck and misfortune and things that happen. So I get over difficult situations extremely quickly. I learned that it's a privilege to work.”
Darling of the venture capital deal
Forbes admits that he has probably built something of a reputation for himself as an executive leader with high tolerance for challenges, given his early years, and that is why certain projects attract him and why private equity firms seek his skills.
Part of that demand comes from his “insane desire to prove himself” but he tempers that by admitting he still has a degree of imposter syndrome.
But that does not stop Forbes from turning around tech organisations and exiting with impressive valuations. He was instrumental in Primavera’s sale to Oracle for around US$550 million, had his first CEO role with Paris-based SaaS firm KDS, acquired by American Express in a multi-million dollar deal, and constantly moved up the valuations ladder into the billions. Impressively, Forbes does not take the easy route to success.
“I've come to peace with the fact that a Salesforce or ServiceNow environment where the world is your oyster and every executive is trying to buy from you is not the kind of project that appeals to me,” he says. “That's a downhill project with a lot of momentum behind it. I like projects where the odds are stacked against me and the company. I like projects that are highly complicated and complex, but where the upside potential is enormous and as long as I can find one pathway to success then that's normally a highly attractive situation for me.”
Changing role of the CEO in tough times
The role of a CEO has evolved. More than ever, a leader needs to be in touch with employees and how they are feeling. After the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and now a global financial crisis looming, not to mention climate change, geopolitical pressures, soaring inflation and potential food shortage, there must be incredible pressure and responsibility on CEOs. As someone who has faced incredible hardship and uncertainty, Forbes can relate more than most.
“If you go back maybe 10 or 15 years, the job of a leader could be more dictatorial – it’s my way or the highway kind of thing,” says Forbes. “Now, people have far more choice. The individual value system is much more amplified nowadays, so all those things make it much, much harder. Then, you layer on record inflation and a global economic crisis. I find that extremely stressful.
One of the coping mechanisms or things that have been helpful to me is to communicate – communicate to employees to get them to understand what it is we’re trying to do here, why we’re trying to do it, what their role is, and how they are going to share in the value that we create as a collective. I’ve been trying to create some mutual understanding and a bit of trust. It's difficult. I enjoy it so I'm not a victim of it, but it is challenging.”
How Forterro 3.0 can be a US$4bn business
In March 2021, Forbes was appointed CEO of Forterro, a European leader in mid-market manufacturing ERP solutions backed by Battery Ventures. Exactly one year later, private markets firm Partners Group acquired the company, putting its enterprise value around US$ 1 billion.
Forbes has a vision for Forterro to combine the 12 companies in the group into one, transforming it into a US$4bn business in the process. It is something Forbes calls Forterro 3.0.
“Forterro 2.0 was a group philosophy where we acquired geographically focused, manufacturing centric ERP software companies,” he explains. “We acquired those companies and made them the best versions of themselves but kept them as a standalone business. As a result, we have 12 different products which are 12 different businesses serving 12 different profiles of customer.
“In Forterro 3.0, we think given the size and scale of the company, there is an opportunity to instead of having 12 different businesses to have one. We think there's a bigger role for cloud technology to play in the group than it does today. And we think that the role of the cloud will be to unify these 12 different products in one way or another. For some, that will be a technical unification. For others, that might be horizontal applications like reporting or HR that these individual products can consume from an integrated Forterro Cloud.
“This is what's really exciting, we've got the opportunity to create a US$4bn plus company now with Forterro. I'm super excited about that, even though it feels weird to have the opportunity even to be talking at that level is just insane.”
Aiming for the moon, and beyond?
Of course, the road from billion-dollar company to multi-billion-dollar is not a given, even with Forbes’ track record. There are also considerable external headwinds to consider out of Forterro’s control. So what does he see as the biggest challenge ahead? Forbes is incisive in his response.
“People,” he states, without having to consider. “It comes back to the turnaround. In an environment like this we have quite a long serving employee population. Average tenure here is 10 years plus so you've got this incredible depth of product knowledge and market knowledge and customer knowledge built up in the business over many, many years.
“But now you're trying to go to the moon. So you need people who understand how you got here and what makes you effective here, but you also need people who are experienced in space travel.
“So that's my job – finding that new, talented DNA and bringing it in whilst preserving the heritage, experience and expertise that we're going to need to make the next step.”
The next step may well be the moon, but you wouldn’t bet against Dean Forbes having greater ambitions than that, or indeed achieving them.
Dean Forbes CV
“My career runs from telesales at Motorola in a kind of windowless room to Primavera Systems via Isis Telecommunications.
Primavera was a private equity-backed US software company trying to grow in Europe and I got in there right at the moment it was really taking off and able to drive a lot of growth there and became the de facto leader of the international business – partly because things were going well, but also partly because I managed to outstay a lot of the other sales people.
We built that business and sold that company to Oracle, by which time I was the leader of the international unit, which was 51% of global sales at the time of the transaction, and I think my world and horizons just opened at that moment because I had this great opportunity to run this global business unit inside of Oracle.
“I was working for Charles Phillips the then president of Oracle, somebody I admired a lot, whilst at the same time private equity and venture capital was interested in talking because they had seen the Primavera journey. Because of that, I ended up at KDS where I became CEO. The French-headquartered SaaS business, backed by Excel, was going through its troubles and we were able to turn that one around and sell it to American Express.
And then I moved on to CoreHR with JMI Equity – another company with great aspirations but a bit troubled at the time and we were able to turn that one around and sell it to Access Group. And then Battery Ventures called me at the end of 2020 with the Forterro project.
I think that was a culmination of everything that I've done so far –perhaps I had built a bit of a reputation in the investment community for somebody who has a high tolerance for difficult projects and situations, and it had all the hallmarks that I love in a project initiative. And, here we are having recently [March 2022] exited to Partners Group and looking forward to the next five years.”
“The best piece of advice I've received was always be authentic, which may have resonated with me a bit more than others, but it was the notion of it. Just be yourself and do things that align well with your value system and it will be OK.”
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