North West Roots, Tricky Starts and Collaboration: DSW Transaction Services on 15 Years in Business

Fifteen years after three PwC senior managers were invited to set up a new due diligence business in partnership with Dow Schofield Watts, we caught up with two of the founders, Ed Brentnall and Catriona Lang, to get their reflections.

dsw transaction services
From L – R: Ros Jones, Rob Parker, Declan Littler, Cat Lang, Will Beckley, Madeleine Andrews, Ed Brentnall, Alex Aitchison

The challenges of setting up an independent transaction services business

Whilst used to managing projects, Cat and Ed (along with third partner Chris) had no experience in either winning work or managing a business. They were also acutely aware of the challenges they would face in trying to forge a space for a boutique financial due diligence provider in a market which was dominated by the Big Four and top ten accountancy firms, with the adage “no one ever gets fired for buying IBM” is particularly true in the cautious world of transaction services at that time.

But Ed, Cat, and Chris, confident in their abilities, felt strongly that there was a space in the market for a different transaction services practice, one focussed on high-quality output, with flexible fieldwork and streamlined reporting. This mindset complemented the innovative and collaborative model that James Dow, Jon Schofield, and Mark Watts had established, and likewise, the team were drawn to the model’s potential for sharing opportunities and opening business development doors.

Setting up a Transaction Services business in December 2008 at the start of a global banking crisis provided an additional challenge that the team could not have predicted. Cat Lang comments, “I may have given a different answer 14 years ago. However, there were several positives of setting up a business in a recession; this period not only afforded us the time to focus on how we wanted to differentiate ourselves but also gave us the opportunity to meet with pretty much everyone in the Manchester M&A market to explain our proposition. It certainly accelerated our transition from an employee to a business owner mindset!”

In the years that have passed, Ed & Cat have proved the model’s success, which now includes five DSW Transaction Services teams in offices from Aberdeen to London, and the approach has begun to be emulated by other independent boutiques.

Why the North West was the ideal location

In the early days of the business, North West investors could have easily stayed with their existing diligence providers, especially during such a downturn in market activity. Despite this, by 2011, the team were working with multiple leading private equity houses and funders, both testament to the open-minded nature of the market and their ability to overcome obstacles and market adversity.

“Proud to call the North West our home.”

On reflection, setting up a home in the North West was an easy decision. Ed Brentnall said, “Our business is entirely rooted in the North West—Cat and I trained in Manchester, and DSW was first established in the region. From our initial conversations about the viability of a transaction services boutique with North West contacts to our first diligence engagements, and throughout the past 15 years, we’ve found the M&A community across the region to be supportive, collaborative and easy to work with, an approach we’ve tried to mirror ourselves.

We were committed to providing a different approach to our specialism – however, we couldn’t have predicted the speed with which the North (particularly the North West) has forged its position as one of the leading UK (and European) M&A markets – underpinned in no small part by the entrepreneurial mindset which characterises the business community in which we work”.

Cat Lang attributes the continued success of the business not only to the incredibly strong working relationship that she and Ed have after 23 years of working together but also to their shared vision to produce financial due diligence of the highest quality, a service which they continue to deliver personally, alongside another partner (Ros Jones, who joined the team as a manager in 2015) and five team members.

She stated, “Both mine and Ed’s initial expectations when we set the business up 15 years ago have long been surpassed, and we are very proud that we not only forged a place for ourselves in this market but that we have developed an exceptional team who share in our passion“.

Onwards and upwards

James Dow, CEO of DSW, wished the team continued success, saying: “Congratulations to Ed, Cat, and the DSW Transaction Services team on fifteen years in business. It’s fantastic to see our partners accomplishing what they set out to do in those early days, and as a cornerstone of the DSW Network, we are proud to stand side by side with such resilient entrepreneurs.”

In our next chat with the team, we’ll delve into how their experience of being business owners has shaped their flexible approach to clients and how they are imparting their passion for quality and entrepreneurial spirit onto their young team.