Inflexion’s support for K2’s plans to deepen its global business meant the CEO moved to the US just two weeks after the ink dried on the partnership in 2017. Since then, strong organic growth and seven acquisitions have tripled the business’s profitability.
Antonio Gulino joined K2 as Sales Director in 2002, when the specialist ERP and cloud human capital resourcing business K2 was based out of a suburb in South West London and he was only the 26th employee. Even at that early stage the business had a keen eye on international expansion, and Antonio spent time in Zurich during his first five years at the company. He then took a sabbatical for 18 months, during which time he certified as a PADI diving master – and got inspiration for how K2 should focus on its international growth. “I wanted to do something new, so I spearheaded K2’s efforts in Brazil and Mexico,” he recalls.
The business continued to grow, with its international strategy then largely predicated on following clients and sending one or two people to the location and hiring locally. The firm’s first foray stateside came in 2004 with the acquisition of Jotorok in Rhode Island, followed by expanding into Japan in 2009. Thereafter a new office opened in a new geography for each of the next three years: São Paulo in 2010, Singapore in 2011; Moscow and Mexico City in 2012.
Despite this fast roll-out, just over 30% of K2’s revenues were from the US when Antonio became CEO in 2013. “It’s always been in the DNA of K2 to be a truly international company, but much of our internationalisation efforts had been on the back of winning a client rather than a predetermined strategy and so we really missed the opportunity to penetrate the US properly,” he explains.
The business was successful, but the team felt it was capable of more, and so in 2017 the firm went to market to find a partner to help professionalise the organisation. One of K2’s biggest competitors was Red Commerce, which had previously been backed by Inflexion and so the very relevant experience appealed to the leadership team.
As partnership negotiations were underway, K2’s management were simultaneously reconsidering their international strategy. “We decided we needed to truly shift the focus of the business to North America, which is around 50% of the global market, and a bigger market is a bigger opportunity. We realised we probably needed to move the senior team to the US to drive this,” Antonio explains.
It was a stark change to K2’s status quo, which had been send someone over from Europe or making a hire, rather than providing proper support and infrastructure. “We learned over five years that didn’t work very effectively, so moving the team was the next step. I needed to lead by example, so I moved there first.”
This sentiment was based on Antonio’s own experience when he re-joined K2 post-sabbatical in 2009 to head up the Latin American efforts.
Brazil had been one of the most successful markets for K2, and that worked because I’d moved there. The local presence and true support are the secret sauce. Trying to transfer culture is impossible remotely.
Not a minute wasted
When the investment was agreed with Inflexion in early 2017, K2 had a stronger business in Latin America than in North America, having only ever operated a presence on either coast of the latter – but had big plans to boost the company’s global footprint.
Inflexion were very supportive of K2’s plans to move senior management to the US, with Antonio trailblazing and Inflexion supporting the efforts. “Success in a new country requires a balancing act of company culture and the country you’re operating in. If you try to make the company culture prevail, you’ll fail. If you try and let the country culture take over, you’ll fail as well. You may get some results, but the endeavour won’t be maximised. If I look back at all the experiences we’ve had historically, the successes have come after we struck that balance,” he says convincingly.
He moved to San Francisco just two weeks after agreeing the partnership with Inflexion. He assessed the talent situation and appointed an executive search firm to help build out the c-suite in the US, ultimately creating a leadership team combined of external hires and homegrown talent.
“We knew we’d need to take our time to find the right people,” he says, explaining it’s how they found Lori Larson, who joined in 2018 as President of the Americas, Todd Hauser was hired in the US as CFO in 2019, and long-tenured K2 Chief People Officer Tricia Bielinski had worked with the firm in the US, Asia and EMEA before moving back to the US a year after Antonio’s relocation. “She had done a great job in Asia and Europe and so transferring her experience and understanding of our culture made a lot of sense. We’ve been fortunate to find excellent local talent in all the markets we operate in,” Antonio enthuses.
Inflexion was a big part of K2’s internationalisation journey, travelling to the US regularly and connecting the team with Inflexion’s in-country experts in China and Sao Paolo. Antonio explains that Xuan Ye helped a lot with introductions in China, and in Brazil, Frédéric Junck was instrumental in helping secure new clients in the region.
Inflexion have supported me and the team throughout as we have expanded internationally. We agreed on a plan and we stuck to it, even if things didn’t work straight away. Their support and our knowledge make for a very powerful combination.
Powerful indeed: K2’s US presence has grown from three offices and 38 sales employees to five offices and 62 sales people in the five years since Inflexion’s investment, with the US now accounting for 40% of revenues The business now serves over 520 clients globally from its 700,000 contractors across 21 offices in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia Pacific.