INTERVIEW: Rod Cousens

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Rod Cousens
This time of year always feels portentous. Even if it isn’t. There’s the temptation to look ahead and see the coming 12 months as the year; a pivotal period. A time in which (fade up American film trailer voice) questions will be answered and destinies will be made clear.

And then, before February rolls into view it becomes obvious that it’s actually just another year and it’s time to grab the holiday brochures in an attempt to stave off the monotony.
For Codemasters, however, this is no trick of the calendar. This really is the year. The year in which it does what, exactly, remains to be seen, but it’s definitely the year.

It has been building towards 2008 for some time. Ever since, in fact, in May 2005, VC outfit Baldertons (then known as Benchmark) began its investment programme (it now owns 80 per cent of the firm) and Rod Cousens was appointed as CEO to steer the company into a position where that investment can be recouped, either through a sale or a flotation.

There were no shortcuts, however. Codemasters had to be transformed into a company someone wanted to buy or the stock market could believe in. And it was always going to take three years. It had to grow its international sales dramatically, freshen and bolster its portfolio of brands, and it needed to improve its development technology to become a true next-gen front runner.

All these things have been achieved and more – with the most significant bonuses being the creation of an online gaming infrastructure that only a handful of publishers around the world can match (and one which has already spawned a huge hit in Lord of the Rings) and the launch of the widely admired EGO middleware (formerly known as Neon).

This engine is currently an in-house competitive advantage but could one day be leveraged throughout the development community – providing the business model and remuneration terms are right.

Cousens, understandably, is proud of the achievements: “It was always going to take two years for the investment and the changes to manifest themselves on next-gen systems, and in 2007 that’s exactly what happened with titles like Colin McRae: Dirt, Overlord and Jericho. At the start of this process the two things we had to get right was the balance of the content and the global distribution.

“The content has been perfected by a great team, great technology and a lot of investment (over £40m was spent on development in FY ’07 and the deal with Warner in the US has given us a strategic partner with muscle to match anyone over there.”

“But the two issues are related. We had to make the content more global to give international distribution a chance. Dirt is a good example. It was a US Xbox 360 number one and sold more units on day one than seven prior versions had done in total. We followed that up with Overlord and Jericho, both of which also topped the charts in the States.”

And what does Codemasters do next? Well, it continues to publish strong product and create new IP. And it also continues along the path to a flotation, a process which, barring a sale or an unforeseen disaster, should be completed by September 1st.

“Internally, we know we’ve done a great job in terms of the product pipeline, the distribution and the sales. But investors will look at a wider variety of factors, including market conditions, market appetite and competitive performance.

“PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii are all on the upward curve, PC gaming is growing, this cycle is widely expected to have the longest life-span of any generation so far, most video game stocks are trading at an all time high, other entertainment sectors are turbulent, in decline, or both.

“If I’m a media company, I’m looking at that situation and I’m looking at games. And Codemasters is uniquely placed in terms of its premium. We’re the fastest growing company in the fastest growing entertainment sector. Add to that our strength online and technology such as EGO and, as a privately-owned company, we’re unrivalled.”

As yet there has been no approach from a company outside the market. There was one serious approach from an existing major, but nothing has come of it so far. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking towards an IPO, and that, along with maintaining Codemasters’ current growth spurt, is what Cousens is working towards. As he says: “That’s something I can affect and make happen, what I can’t do is make someone write a cheque.”

Which one would he prefer? He won’t say, other than to re-iterate that his role is to maximise return for Baldertons.

What he does say, however; is that if the path to flotation is uninterrupted by an acquisition, then he relishes the prospect of continuing as CEO – but if the end result is a trade sale, “I’d assume that they’d have their own people and the Cousens era would be over”.

The Codemasters story over the next 12 months is already shaping up to be something of a blockbuster. Throw in the future (or finish) of the career of one of the games industry’s most colourful characters as a subplot and it would be difficult to deny that 2008 is going to be quite a year.

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