Dr. Alex Mahon, the former CEO of Shine Group, has joined the The Foundry as Chief Executive Officer, taking over from Dr. Bill Collis, although Collis is very much still with the company but in the role of President.
Mahon's background is in the highly competitive area of television production rather than just effects or post-production. She joins from the Shine Group production company, where she oversaw 1,000 direct and over 4,000 indirect employees. The Shine Group is behind such shows as MasterChef (UK), Spooks and the hit series Broadchurch. From joining in 2006, Mahon built up the business via organic growth and acquisitions into a company with revenues over £700m a year.
Shine, having been originally founded by Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth Murdoch, was sold in December 2014 to a new joint venture between 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global. Prior to Shine, Mahon had held senior positions at Talkback Thames, FremantleMedia Group and RTL Group. Interestingly, she started her early career as a PhD physicist. She also worked as a strategy consultant, at Mitchell Madison Group as an internet retail expert and today sits on the board of the British online supermarket Ocado (voted best online supermarket every year since 2010).
Mahon has played many roles in industry such as at the Royal Television Society and the Edinburgh International Television Festival. She also serves on the DCMS advisory panel at the BBC. Importantly, Mahon is a national charity funding pioneer and works as the Appeal Chair of The Scar Free Foundation, a national charity pioneering and transforming medical research into disfigurement.
The Foundry was founded in 1996 in London, and now has offices in Silicon Valley (MODO), Manchester, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Dublin, and Austin. It has a staff of 300. In July 2015, as we reported here at fxguide, The Foundry was acquired by HgCapital for £200m. HgCapital Managing Partner, Nic Humphries, welcomed Mahon's appointment, saying: “We are delighted that Alex has agreed to join The Foundry. Her wealth of experience within both the technology and creative areas will support the huge growth potential of this innovative company over the next stage of its development.”
The former CEO, Bill Collis, who remains full-time as President and Board member, commented publicly: “Alex has the skills to continue the extraordinary growth The Foundry has achieved over the last decade. I’m personally looking forward to focusing on identifying new initiatives and technology partnerships to maintain the company’s entrepreneurial spirit.”
Bill Collis is extremely well known to the company's customers, so what does a company President do in this context? What will Bill Collis now being doing or not doing? We ask directly in this exclusive interview with Collis and new CEO Alex Mahon.
Bill: I will be moving away from the day to day running of the company, but doing the things I think I am good at, which is dealing with the big customers, doing IP deals - like I have in the past, doing more M&A type work. So really getting out there and understanding technology, understanding what is going on in the industry and coming up with major ideas and plans. I won't be doing day to day work I have been for the last ten years so all the things like setting budgets to focusing on monthly sales etc, that will all be the wonderful Alex's responsibility!
fxg: If you are staying on why do this at all? What's the logic (not around Alex but around anyone extra)?
Bill: The key is growth and having enough bandwidth to deal with all the opportunities we have. And the company needs a proper leader, someone in charge and that is most definitely Alex. And remember the company has grown massively, it now has over 300 people, and we want to grow and employ even more people, a 500 or a 1000 person organization over the coming years - and for that the company needs someone with the skills, capabilities and experience of running a large creative company.
fxg: Alex, what other changes are happening? Is this part of a major restructure?
Alex: It is not fundamentally about changing what has been but rather it is much more about building on what is already here. I quite like running a large creative organization and the communication that that involves, and the challenges of growth. I have been through some of that before, this is more about support and less about changes. It is about adding and supporting and that is because I have been through growth like that before. Generally, if you are growing, the challenge is you don't have enough good people, recruiting enough good people (for the expansion), fast enough is the challenge.
Bill: HgCapital invested in the company because of the opportunities we have here and their view, from investing in software companies in the past, is that The Foundry will not be limited by resources in exploiting those opportunities. At the moment we have been limited by management bandwidth. Alex is very much here to help with that.
fxg: Do you see the Foundry as uniquely British?
Alex: Well the truth is that more than 90% of the revenue is from outside the UK, but what I glad about is that it is British owned and headquartered here. Britain has a lot of important protection for IP, and it is at the forefront of the creative and tech industries. Britain is a really good place - and I think there is real value in that, but the company is extremely international in its outlook, with offices all around the world.
Bill: I am really proud that it is British, that we are a British high tech company.
fxg: What can we read into the fact that Alex comes from a major TV production company vs. a post house or effects company?
Alex: The similarity between television and film - it's all about creative storytellers, television has been coming closer to film for a decade...
Bill: And we have heaps of people that have the deep technological understanding - we've got that, that isn't the problem...
Alex: The actual skills in IT and the tech is very much Bill's strong suit, which is why this is so exciting - we are a very good match. The issue is really about how you manage a creative company, how you continue to grow and maintain a strong set of values and excellence in IP - while you are dealing with the challenges of growth.
Bill: ...and it is not just me, there is a whole team of people - and with Alex having a PhD in Physics - she will soon pick up any details of, say motion estimation or ray tracing. And I am looking forward to hearing you Mike (fxg) and Alex sparing on some technical issues significance or hard maths at some point in the future!!!
fxg: When did you decide this? Was this always part of the recent HgCapital sale plan?
Bill: Yes this was always the plan of what I wanted as part of that deal and it has always been my ambition, I wanted a new CEO to run the business and we worked very closely with HgCapital to make that happen.
fxg: Where do you see the Foundry in 3 to 5 years? Is there growth in effects and products like NUKE?
Bill: The Foundry will have a huge future in postproduction - television, film, advertising and newer important parts of that like AR and VR - that are growing a lot of us at the moment. So that will be a huge part of our future, but as people will know we have also been growing rapidly in other areas such as in the Design Market - you may have seen the announcement with Mercedes-Benz where future Mercedes-Benz dashboards will be powered by Foundry software (which actually began life in MARI). So we will see growth across all those areas, but the traditional Film and TV market is core to what we do and will remain so.
NUKE has grown year on year since we took it on in 2007, the last 3 or 4 years it has grown at the same steady rate year on year - I can absolutely see that continuing...and a whole bunch of other products of course.
fxg: Alex, what is the biggest challenge you face, is it product based, technology or industry?
Alex: Moving fast enough to make the most of the opportunities. There are huge opportunities - one of the things that impressed me here is that a lot of companies or even sectors have one idea and absolutely nothing else, the amazing thing about The Foundry is there are loads of ideas all of which could be a success - and it is about where to focus and how to get it all done fast enough. That is a really stimulating environment to be a part of, it is exciting, it's dynamic and it is all about opportunity.
Bill Collis has presided over much of the growth of The Foundry from a plugin company to a dominant force globally in effects and design.
Just after Collis finished his PhD, he started as a Junior Research Engineer at Snell and Wilcox (S&W). "I was appointed an Associate Fellow at the ISVR and continued to work closely with the Signal Processing and Control Group for the next few years," he says. "One of our areas of excellence at S&W was motion estimation using optical flow. This was a vital part of their standards conversion hardware that formed the basis of S&W’s business."
In 1999 the team were approached by a Californian firm to see if they could use their motion estimation technology to help with some special effects they were testing. "Thinking this sounded fun I dived in not really knowing what to expect. A few months latter I discovered we had invented much of the techniques behind the seminal ‘bullet time’ sequences in the first Matrix film starring Keanu Reeves."
Shortly after completing this work he ran into The Foundry, then a small London based software house providing plugins for products like Discreet Logic's Flame. "I started work as an algorithms engineer for them in 2000 and 7 years later, led a management buy out," and he has been CEO ever since. Over that period The Foundry have launched over a dozen different products, three of which have been awarded Scitech Awards (technical OSCARS) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Foundry has grown significantly in recent years through innovation, M&A activity, expansion into new markets and technology licensing deals with industry leading customers including Disney, Weta Digital and Sony Pictures Imageworks.
The Foundry dominate compositing especially at feature film level with its NUKE product, which is used globally by leading artists and designers such as DreamWorks, Double Negative and Pixar to create visual effects. It has moved heavily into 3D with MODO, and commercial design software for clients such as Mercedes-Benz. The company is now using its expertise to create new IP and VR technology for the next generation of virtual and augmented reality environments.
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