Eastern promise as Frogtrade aims to keep one jump ahead

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WHEN parents packed their children off to start school 10 or 20 years ago, they didn’t have much more to worry about than how to keep them safe from bullies and the perils of passing motorists.

In 2011, the reality is very different, with the enormous boost to learning provided by the widespread use of computers and the internet mitigated by fears over who children will meet in cyberspace, or whether they will understand how to use technology that is getting quicker and more complex every year.

It means there is a strong market for companies which can make learning varied, straightforward and safe without being boring. They are in a growth sector, and one of the pace-setters is Yorkshire’s Frogtrade.

The firm, which is based in Dean Clough, in Halifax, and describes itself as a provider of learning platforms, supplies top-of-the range educational packages for schools.

Now it is taking its technology East after signing a deal with a division of an infrastructure group which is one of Malaysia’s largest listed companies.

At Christmas, YTL Education paid £2m for a 20 per cent shareholding in Frog, and the Yorkshire firm will invest in a £5m joint venture in Kuala Lumpur, taking a 20 per cent stake.

Gareth Davies, managing director of Frogtrade, said the deal with YTL – part of YTL Corporation Berhad Group, a utility and infrastructure giant with a market capital of RM 37.45bn (around £7.7bn) – provided a huge opportunity for his company.

Education will play a vital role in Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020), a project in which the nation aims to have a fully-developed political, economic and education system within 10 years.

“There are quite a few countries putting a big focus on education and it is the starting point for Malaysia 2020. The joint venture has distribution rights in China, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia and we are in the process of making the software multilingual.”

The joint venture is bidding for a contract to service 10,000 schools in Malaysia and will find out the outcome at the end of the summer.

If successful, it would be another landmark for a company which in March was named the fastest growing small business of the year in the Yorkshire Fastest 50, which was organised by top 100 UK law firm Ward Hadaway in partnership with the Yorkshire Post.

Frogtrade’s products are used by more than a million people worldwide – in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand – as well as in more than 600 British schools, most of which are secondary, across 60 per cent of local authorities.

Its IT learning packages for schools can be used by teachers, support staff and pupils and tailored to the needs of the institution. Features include lesson planning, safe social networking, ways to organise a school’s diary, personal profiles and access to a contacts database.

But it wants to grow turnover beyond its current rate of £7m to £8m, based on the fact that its technology is more flexible than those of rivals, according to Mr Davies, and allows teachers to innovate in the classroom rather than having to rely on “tecchies”.

“Think of us as a Lego kit for the internet,” he said.

“You can build your own look in a safe environment in a school. There is that sense of creativity and it works for the school because they have that freedom.”

The firm has grown despite the spending cuts which have hit education, particularly to the Building Schools for the Future programme devised by the previous government.

Mr Davies said: “We had a difficult October and November as schools were working out whether they had any money after the Government changes, but following that, it has been business as usual.

“There is uncertainty, which can create a bigger problem than the bad news. At the moment, sales have not slowed down but we do find more price pressures. We don’t think it is hitting education particularly.”

More than three-quarters of its sales comes from word-of-mouth contacts after the firm was judged to be too small to be included on the previous government’s 2006-10 procurement network, according to Mr Davies.

“We have grown to be market leaders when we were effectively excluded from the market.

“Our product is a lot more flexible. The others do certain things in a certain way but Frogtrade allows you to adapt.”

The deal with YTL, which is listed on the Bursa Malaysia, the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange, and has a secondary listing on the Tokyo stock exchange, is, hopefully, the first stage in major growth overseas, Mr Davies said.

“International expansion through a joint venture business will allow Frog to capture growing international interest while allowing Frog UK to remain focussed on UK schools.

“Frog is finding a lot of international interest, and this is entirely due to the quality of our product and service in the UK. We do not intend to take our eyes off the ball in England; in fact, this investment allows us to accelerate our UK plans.”

Dato’ Yeoh Seok Hong, executive director of YTL, said: “We believe Frog’s learning platform will complement the suite of services currently being developed for the YTL group’s 4G wireless network which will be rolled out across Malaysia later this year.

“We fully expect that schools in Malaysia, like those in the UK, will benefit from the innovative learning solutions that Frog has developed and are very happy to be sharing the journey into its future.”

Frogtrade has opened a Dutch business, based in Utrecht, and Mr Davies is also considering how to convert its software for use in Chinese and Arabic and is looking at setting up a joint venture in the Middle East, ensuring that more parents around the world have one less thing to worry about.

Conference date for Frog

Frogtrade was set up in 1999 as a web software company to connect the textile and other industries in the East and the West.

The idea did not work out as planned but when a headteacher was shown an early version of the technology, he thought it was a great technology to use in schools, said Gareth Davies, managing director.

Today, the firm has 80 staff and Mr Davies said it has developed a “cult following” similar to that enjoyed by Apple, then a fledgling computer company in California, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

To capitalise on this success, the firm is hosting The Frog Conference at the ICC, in Birmingham, on June 14. It expects between 800 and 1,000 people to attend the event, which will include workshops and a talk from business solutions expert performer, writer and corporate adviser David Pearl.

Although Frogtrade can stand for “facilitating rapid online global trade”, Mr Davies said the name and imagery was chosen because a frog made for good branding.