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Tech titan

London-listed private equity giant 3i Group has built a technology platform that reflects its ever-growing scale.

For a private equity supertanker, 3i Group seems able to maneuver remarkably quickly. In less than half a year since November 2006, the firm has added a new €5 billion ($6.6 billion) pan-European buyout fund, a team to invest in small and mid-cap quoted companies, and, just last month, a listed £700 million ($1.4 billion; €1 billion) infrastructure fund. As you can readily imagine, therefore, it's not just the firm itself that needs to be quick on its feet: so too does its technology platform.

In terms of sheer numbers, 3i has readied itself for the task with an internal IT team of no less than 40 professionals led by head of group business and IT services John Tracey in Birmingham, England. Although the firm also has IT staff in Asia, the US, France and Germany, Tracey says about 80 percent of the IT effort is centralised in Birmingham. ?Even if we ended up just having one person in each of our locations around the world, it would end up being a huge resource,? he points out.

Tracey is surely not saying anything new to the private equity community when he uses words such as ?accuracy? and ?timeliness? to describe the most important characteristics of 3i's back office effort. But the scale of what he is talking about is something far removed from anything most of 3i's peers will ever encounter. Imagine having to gather information from around 1,700 portfolio companies and you can begin to appreciate the task. That volume of information naturally requires sophisticated security software, and the firm also has a complex treasury function.

When it comes to communicating with its investors ? whether retail shareholders in the public company or limited partners in its funds ? 3i is able to boast a dedicated investor relations website. The site contains information such as the firm's latest financial and deal news, presentations, reports and video interviews with key personnel. Vindication of the site's effectiveness came when it was voted runner-up in the ?world's best IR websites? league table published last year by IR Web Report, the IR website advisory firm.

The firm's front office effort is centred round its Microsoft SharePoint portal, a massive database of information. According to Patrick Dunne, 3i's group communications director, ?Everything from the last 15 years is on the database; including tens of thousands of relationships around the world.? He says that all notes from meetings involving 3i executives go into the database, encompassing not just a vast number of organisations, but also people at many different levels within those organisations.

To illustrate the depth of information at his fingertips, Dunne says a user could, if he or she wished, search the database to find the resume of potential chairmen for a Chinese portfolio company requiring someone with aviation experience. Indeed, the hypothetical example he reaches for is informative: he says that the firm's expansion into Asia in recent years has ?added hugely to the number of relationships? that have been established and logged.

Given that 3i has a total of around 250 investment professionals in the 14 countries in which it operates, a key requirement of the firm's technology is that all relevant data is made equally available to all, regardless of where they happen to be located. Tracey says the firm uses Citrix software to provide a secure, single point of access to all its information.

Says Tracey: ?For a number of years the IT strategy has had to accommodate the fact that we are constantly growing into new geographies. Citrix makes this process very simple because no new technology is needed at the new location. Users can just plug into the network and away they go.? This contrasts with many competitors, says Dunne, who often employ ?different systems in different places?.

Of course, the reality of today's hyper-charged deal market is that 3i's investment professionals are more likely to be found wandering airport terminal buildings than sat in front of a desktop. Therefore, says Tracey, a vital requirement of the firm's technology is that it is mobile. ?Blackberries are the lifeblood of the organisation,? he asserts. For once, something that 3i's wide-ranging technology effort has in common with a great many of its rivals.