Portfolio chair Bill Collis tells Rachel Bridge at Drax about his fascinating life, both before and with private equity
There are not many private equity Chairs who can say they are responsible for one of the most iconic moments in a blockbuster Hollywood film.
If you peer closely at the end credits of The Matrix, however, you will spot the name Bill Collis under the special effects section. He got the credit for his work creating the famous bullet sequence, in which Keanu Reeves’ character dodges a speeding bullet swerving around him.
Bill was in his early 20s and working for a firm that created hardware for the broadcast industry when his boss asked him to take a look at a request that had come in from an American company.
Although neither of them knew it at the time, Bill’s job was to transform a handful of still images into one of the most famous movie scenes of all time.
He says: “I spent six months using motion estimation to make up some frames in between other frames in a sequence of images. I had no idea what I was working on until the end. It required a lot of fairly complex maths to make it look real.”
Bill studied electrical engineering at university and then did a PhD in signal processing before joining the hardware company.
When the bullet time sequence was complete the American company introduced Bill to a small firm in London called The Foundry which made software for the film industry. He joined them as an algorithms engineer and ended up staying for 18 years, moving through a succession of roles in research, sales and products.
In 2008 the business was sold to an American firm and Bill became CEO, but a year later he led a management buyout to buy it back, supported by private equity house Advent Venture Partners.
The business continued to grow very rapidly and two years later in 2011 private equity house Carlyle backed a secondary buyout. Then in 2015 the business was sold again, this time to HgCapital for £200 million, who still hold it. The business now has 300 employees and its software has become the industry standard, used in every major film made today.
Following the sale to HgCapital Bill decided it was time to hand over the CEO role and after two years as the company’s President left to pursue a new career as a portfolio private equity Chair. He is currently Chair to three technology businesses – Cubic Motion, which is backed by NorthEdge Capital, Disguise which is backed by Livingbridge, and Random42 which is backed by Graphite. He is also deputy Chair of a Carlyle-backed German company Exocad.
He decided to become a portfolio Chair at the relatively young age of 46 because he felt that his experience in running a fast-growing private equity-backed company would be useful for other businesses dealing with the same kind of issues.
He says: “I thought I could help them and that it would be a fun thing to do, and that has turned out to be right. The four companies I am working with are all growing really fast internationally and have fairly young management teams, and they like the fact that I am a youngish Chair who has been through it all myself fairly recently. They can relate to that. I am very happy to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in when required.”
Bill says he learnt a lot about how to be a PE Chair from Karen Slatford, who joined The Foundry as Chair when Bill first became CEO and has stayed with the business through its successive owners.
He says: “I learnt so much from her, not just about private equity but also how to grow the business. I really benefitted from her calm guidance and constant reassurance, but also her ability to say, just get on and do it. She always tried to be helpful to the business, but without any intention to control or run it. Now I frequently find myself thinking, what would Karen have done in this situation? Then I try and do the same.”
Drax sector lead: Ruby Sheera
Partner, Technology and Tech-enabled businesses
Tel: 0203 949 9555