My Ambition: Putting data at the heart of a growth strategy

Serial entrepreneur Gehan Talwatte discusses the importance of asking the obvious questions.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 21 Jul 2021

The My Ambition series, developed in partnership with leading mid-market private equity firm LDC, shares the personal stories behind successful businesses, uncovering how business leaders realised their ambitions and what these exceptional leaders have learned on their journey to success.

“When you join a new business, you have permission to ask the obvious questions. In my case, my obvious question was ‘How is the business planning to grow?’ That ended up being a very smart question.” 

Gehan Talwatte is a serial entrepreneur whose obsession with data has helped him turn several businesses into runaway successes. When he joined a small division of an aviation insurance firm back in 2005, he knew nothing about aircraft – but understood the power of data to revolutionise a business model. 

Talwatte was a breath of fresh air at Airclaims, bringing renewed focus and igniting the ambition of the whole team. “This company had been around 40 years and had been collecting information about every plane in the sky,” he explains. “It had chapter and verse on everything from safety history to miles flown – but it didn’t know what to do with the information.”

Could this division become a standalone company and grow? With the support of a private equity partner it did just that. The business, branded Ascend, went from strength to strength, leveraging its unique data set to become a true power player in aviation. 

Talwatte's first move? To “shake up the DNA”, he says. “I had to take a business that was deeply rooted in an engineering mindset and shift it to being about data and information with more of a media-centric culture. Engineers have a pedagogical approach to problem solving and it was a major cultural shift to a world where you think a lot more laterally. You’re forcing people out of their comfort zones.”  

Having an experienced investment partner on board gave Talwatte the confidence to bring in the talent he needed to accelerate this shift. “One of the things that our investor helped push me to do was hire people that were smarter than me,” he says. “It’s really important for CEOs to remember – you are not the smartest person in the room. At least you shouldn’t be if you’ve hired right. Give people room to fly.”

Failure was not an option for Talwatte: “I knew that if my strategy didn’t work, I would end up as the MD of a division of a larger business, which was never my ambition.” So he kept on asking the ‘obvious’ questions that forced the team to think differently about every decision and process. 

“My next question was, ‘Who is buying all of these aircraft?’” says Talwatte. “The answer was China. How many salespeople did we have in China? None. So our private equity partner helped us set up shop in Asia.” With help from LDC, Talwatte opened an office in Hong Kong, which meant that Ascend had first pick of the deals coming out of the fastest-growing market in aviation. 

“The most eye-opening thing about working with an investment partner was their incredible curiosity about how to make things better,” says Talwatte. “Within 12 months we figured out how to make the company fly. We focused the business on providing information and advice to investors in aircraft, instead of a more general customer base that included airlines and manufacturers. No one else was serving this multi-billion-dollar marketplace. That’s when the chocks came off.” 

Talwatte’s advice to all other entrepreneurs is to invest time and money into truly understanding the customer. “So many businesses really have no idea what makes their customer buy from them, beyond having a great product,” he explains. “I’ve always asked myself: what does someone do five minutes before they touch your product or service, and five minutes after? If you know that, you have true customer intimacy.” 

At Ascend, Talwatte created that intimacy by hiring people who used to be customers. “That saved us during the 2008 downturn because we knew exactly what products they wanted and needed,” he reveals. Between 2006 and 2011, the company grew from £3m in revenue to £12m before being acquired by Reed Elsevier (RELX). In 2008, when the industry went into freefall, Ascend grew 20%. This flying trajectory was down to a focus on customers and asking the right questions: the catalysts for change and growth. 

Leading mid-market private equity firm LDC is sharing inspirational stories from across its network to mark 40 years of backing ambitious business leaders across the UK. Find out more about Talwatte’s story, here.

Image courtesy of Gehan Talwatte