Megabuyte, February 2016.
The Megabuyte Interview: David Pollock
It’s two days before Christmas as David Pollock and I speak, and the CEO is looking forward to starting the new year with a brand new £50m acquisitions pot. Though first it’s the holidays, which will be spent with family in Cheshire and then skiing in Switzerland; “But I always nip into the office on Christmas Eve, to talk to the people who’re working.”
Keeping the company spirit high, and making sure Chess Telecom is a great place to work, is alpha and omega for the CEO and founder. Just over 450 people work for Chess, which provides the full range of telecoms and data services to British SMEs from its headquarters in Alderley Edge. “I put a lot of effort into making sure it’s a great place for our employees,” says Pollock. “The deal I do with them is: ‘I’ll love and care for you, and your job is to love and care for the customer.’”
On that note, Chess keeps being voted one of the top places to work in the UK: “We’re very proud of that!” Chess has been in the Sunday Times’ Best 100 Companies list for seven years now; they don’t yet know where they’ll be in the rankings this year, but last year they were third. This is important because it translates to great customer service, says Pollock. Business performance then benefits in turn: in January Chess reported a 33% rise in turnover, to £74m, as acquisitions and continued move towards cloud services in 2015 ensured a 13% EBITDA uptick, to £14m.
The love-and-care approach
Central to Pollock’s love-and-care approach is the Monday Culture of People meeting: “We have a thing called Extra Love for people who’re having challenges in their life – divorce, ill partner, moving house. Then we have people who’re not performing very well who’re in the hot seat, who’re either encouraged to sort out their performance, or seek a career elsewhere. Every employee is measured for energy, attitude and performance every month, based on a score out of five. … The key ingredient in the success of a business is the energy and attitude of its people.” Chess has also won awards for its Happiness Training: “We believe that in every good person we employ, there’s a great person dying to get out. Our job is to try and show them the way.”
I ask Pollock if he can give me the one-minute version of Happiness Training, and he’s happy to oblige. A lot of it has to do with attitude, he says: “If you visualise losing, you’re definitely going to lose. If you visualise you’re going to win, you have a much better chance of winning. … We talk to ourselves every day. Be nice to yourself! And let yourself off – none of us are perfect.” Pollock initially developed the Happiness Training as part of his work with the Prince’s Trust charity, he says; it’s a combination of all the thing he’s learned over the years about leadership, and read in books – he mentions the Dalai Lama more than once.
Chess’ brisk acquisition pace is another reason why Pollock has such a strong focus on culture. The company has bought almost 100 companies now, five of which were announced in January before the newyear confetti had yet to settle. Asked how he manages to keep cohesion with this brisk pace of change, Pollock says this is indeed the biggest challenge: “But many businesses don’t really care for their people. Then we come rushing through the door with our Happiness Training, our benefits, Christmas parties, summer conferences, charity dress-down days, and encouraging people to jump out of planes or run marathons for charity! … People’s performance go off the charts.” This was what happened when Chess bought Avenir 18 months ago: “They’d been a subsidiary of a French company, a small part of a big machine. They’d not had a pay rise in five years, never been loved or cared for. They’ve done phenomenally well, and are up almost 25% in terms of EBITDA performance since we’ve owned them.”
Key to mutual success
Voice is still a key element for Chess, but the company continues to move towards what Pollock calls “new world” services. That’s what they look for in acquisitions too: connectivity, cloud solutions, fibre, backup, hosted PBX. The original idea though, when Pollock started the company in 1993, was to create recurring revenues: “I’ve historically been involved in property development, which is a feast-and-famine business. I wanted to build a recurring revenue business.” Things progressed quickly from there: “It was utilities at first – we were in deregulated gas and electricity. We began to focus on telecoms in about 2000, and then we started buying businesses in 2004. … Once you get the flywheel spinning you can keep doing acquisitions. I’ve always been doing deals, ever since I left school.”
Pollock was born in Nottingham and moved to Cheshire at seven. He’s dyslexic: “It took me six tries to pass my GCSEs.” At 19, he left university after a year to travel around the world instead: “I did funny little jobs: rickshaw driving in Hawaii, window cleaning in Australia, teaching English in Japan. I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, making music videos and TV commercials. I worked on a video for Fleetwood Mac, if you’ve heard of them?” I laugh – I love Fleetwood Mac. “Oh great. It’s the one set in the desert, what’s it called again …” I find it on YouTube later and email it to him, and he confirms: the track is ‘Hold Me’.
Pollock is full of little stories like these, which creates sometimes random detours from the topic at hand – the business of Chess. But maybe this is just the kind of friendly, conducive atmosphere that Pollock creates for his employees? In any case, make no mistake: Pollock is all about Chess. After coming back from the US he started his first company at 22 – mostly property-related businesses at first, and forays into organic food and online marketing. Pollock skims over this though, keen to get back to Chess: “I’ve done a few things, but now I’m focused on this business. The only other thing I do is charity. I’m a trustee for Active Cheshire, which encourages people to be healthy. I chair the North-West development committee of the Prince’s Trust, which helps marginalised people get their lives on track. I’m also a vice president for a local hospice. … But I don’t really want to be a serial non-exec. I’d rather be focusing on what I’m doing.”
Pollock’s key business lesson comes back to the philosophy of treating people well for mutual success, and that also applies to the acquisition process. “Both parties have to win in a deal. If one is trying to take advantage of the other, it doesn’t work. You have to get people to be open and honest with each other.” Pollock likes to keep things simple and avoid acronyms and buzzwords: “Business isn’t difficult if you behave with integrity and keep it simple.” Asked for an example, Pollock points out that Chess has done almost 100 deals: “You can’t do 100 deals if you’re trying to leg people over every time. Behave fairly with people! You’re not going to massively win on every deal, but [it means you can] keep doing the deals.” I ask if he’s found this to be an unusual attitude: “Yes, most people try and leg everybody over! And most people put too much pressure on their staff. If you love and care for people, they’ll walk through fire for you. So deal with people in a nice way, and you’ll have more success.”
Pollock (55) is married to Tina, and between them they have six children aged 13 to 27. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his son a few years ago, and Mont Blanc just before that: “I’d like to climb the Matterhorn, but my wife and kids aren’t so keen. It’s the fourth most dangerous mountain in the world.” In Zermatt, where Pollock is going skiing over Christmas, the forbidden mountain is a permanent backdrop. He laughs: “I keep looking at the Matterhorn, thinking: ‘God I want to climb that thing!’”
The appeal of the mountaineering lies in the challenge, says Pollock: “It’s a good excuse to get fit, and it’s good to have a target. … It’s also about how you mentally approach things. It’s bloody hard, climbing Mont Blanc! But equally, you’re very focused. You’re not worrying about work, that’s for sure.” He laughs. “I try not to let things phase me too much. I like opportunity and I like new things. I’m quite excited about where the business is going. I’m excited we have funds to buy more businesses, and I like working with the people I’m working with.” Pollock describes himself as open-minded, and that sometimes includes more controversial ideas – the Chess office gets the Feng Shui treatment. It’s all part of being open to new ways of doing things: “When you become very narrow, you become boring and you miss out on opportunities. I still don’t think, as a business, we’ve had our moment yet. There’s plenty more for us to achieve.”