Alistair Houghton meets STEVE HARRIS, managing director of Polymorph
IN MANY ways, the success story of Steve Harris and Polymorph exemplifies what The Heath Business and Technical Park is all about.
Harris worked at the Runcorn site when it was still an ICI complex. And today, some 13 years later, he is back there running an IT services company that has worked for some of the biggest names in business and whose software is helping sailors battle pirates off East Africa.
Harris founded Polymorph in Widnes in 2000 to serve some of the chemicals firms that had themselves spun out of ICI. And, as his business grew and won clients in new sectors, Harris found himself drawn back to The Heath – today a thriving technology park.
Polymorph has, without borrowing or acquisitions, grown into one of the best-known independent operators in the North West IT sector.
Its services range from software development to web design, as well as IT support services. Its clients range from small firms to large organisations including Manchester Airport and Merseyside Police.
Polymorph may be a small player compared to the giants of the global IT outsourcing industry, but Harris says it has never struggled to win clients.
“We’ve got a great track record,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of good work for some very well-known organisations. We’re all about what we’ve done – we can compete with the big boys on that basis.
“We’ve worked for the EU Naval Force (NAVFOR). We’ve written software that sits on ships that are part of the NAVFOR fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia.
“And we’ve worked with the Royal Mint, for example. We’ve worked with some pretty big organisations across the UK and beyond.”
And Harris says he is still enjoying the challenge of taking on the “big boys” of IT at their own game.
“Most of the time it’s absolutely fantastic,” he said.
“There are some hard times as well, but most of the time I absolutely love it. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
CHESTER-BORN Harris graduated with a first-class degree from the University of Central Lancashire, in Preston, before heading into the IT industry. After working in Shropshire and Manchester, he joined ICI in 1996.
“I used to work here at The Heath for ICI – it seems like a long time ago,” he recalled.
“ICI was selling up a lot of different businesses in the North West. I was part of ICI Technology, and as part of that divestment we were sold to an IT outsourcing company.”
Harris moved across to Atos Origin, where he was based for 11 months.
But as he watched other ex-ICI businesses find their feet as independent companies, he realised that they needed access to the kind of IT support they had at their former parent. So, in February 2000, aged 27, he founded Polymorph to offer them that support.
“I saw the opportunity at that time to pick up the ex-ICI businesses,” he remembered. “We picked up those businesses in the North West and beyond. That’s how we started, and we’ve grown from there.
“I left what was a well-paid job where I was. Looking back now, it was a big risk at the time, though I didn’t know it. But it was great.
“We borrowed no money – we won our first clients and went from there. And we’ve never borrowed since. We’ve done well.”
Polymorph’s first home was an office behind an ex-ICI site in Widnes.
“There was just a door between us and our first customer,” smiled Harris. “They kept coming in and asking for stuff.
“But it was next to a chemical manufacturing site, and we were starting to attract clients who weren’t ex-ICI such as Panasonic.”
The Widnes site was no longer suitable, so Harris moved the company back to The Heath.
By then, the team at SOG had begun their work transforming the site from a dated ICI base to a thriving technology park that is today recognised as one of the UK’s most successful private-sector led regeneration projects.
Individually, many of The Heath‘s tenants are small firms – but, in total, more people work at The Heath today than worked there when ICI was at its peak.
“It did feel strange coming back to The Heath,” recalls Harris. “My head said it was a forward step, but my heart said it was a backward step.
“But it’s been great for us. The team here is really supportive – we’ve moved a few times since we’ve been here as we’ve grown.”