David Pollock, CEO and founder of Chess Telecom

Megabuyte, February 2016. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.54.43The 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.”

Mountaineering spirit
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.”

Michael Whitfield, CEO and co-founder of Thomsons Online Benefits

Megabuyte, February 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 15.13.06The Megabuyte Interview: Michael Whitfield
Michael Whitfield talks about all sorts during our meeting, but everything he says is really about one thing: how culture is everything at Thomsons Online Benefits. Even the cheery pink decor in the headquarters in London’s Victoria is a symbol of the company’s values: “We are quite pink here. We talk about passion and fun, people are brave here, they can do stuff – that’s the essence of what we’re trying to achieve.” Recently Whitfield felt the company was becoming too process-y, with too many people changing the proverbial lightbulb, and issued a call for more pink: “Don’t tell me you can’t get it done for six months. Find a way! I feel the culture of this business, so if something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. I think that’s a great way to run a company.”

We’re sitting in Whitfield’s office, shared with co-founder Chris Bruce, surrounded by photographs of Whitfield with his colleagues. The CEO’s lanyard, worn over a grey jumper on this cold winter day, carries the same sort of badges as seen around the office: “Vitality”, reads one; another: “I’m tidy”. Whitfield could also be labelled as engaged and enthusiastic, with a knack for delivering even critical opinions in a respectful manner. “I don’t believe in cutthroat and ruthless, I think business is about relationships. That’s what keeps the world going around, and it keeps us honest as a business.”

The changing world of work
Thomsons Online Benefits turns 15 this year, having built a name for itself as a specialist software provider for employee benefits. “Most employers around the world provide some sort of benefits for their staff, but up until the last ten years they’ve not put much thought into how they provide those benefits, or whether employees actually want, need, or like them!”

Increasingly, employers are coming around to the fact that flexibility and choice are key to providing the benefits that attract the best staff. That can mean working remotely, job sharing, bring-your-own-device, health plans, or canteen vouchers: “I’ve always said to companies: you have to give people choice, you have to give people what they want. The millennial generation want something completely different to the baby boomers. People don’t have set retirement ages anymore, so that’s a choice they’re going to have to make.”

The Thomsons technology enables this flexibility, says Whitfield, but the changing world of work ultimately means the boundaries of employer and employee trust has to change. “And this is probably necessary if we want people to have better work-life balance, time to bring their kids up, more time to work, less barriers to working.” Most companies place major barriers to mothers coming back to work by demanding they work full time, says Whitfield: “You have to allow some flexibility. If not, your talent will go work somewhere else, or become a disgruntled employee.”

At Thomsons they practice what they preach, Whitfield assures me, explaining how most of the software engineers won’t show up until 10am, maybe even noon, but will happily work into the evenings: “I just want them to be in their optimal state to write code. […] This is about allowing people to do what they want in their lives, while also delivering the work we want at the appropriate time. I’m after getting the best quality, and having happy brilliant people working.”

International appetite
After undergoing a series of changes in recent years, from the Retail Distribution Review to a partnership with private equity group ABRY Partners in Boston, Thomsons now has its ducks in a neat row: “Our core product is delivering benefits to clients online, and we feel very comfortable doing that,” says Whitfield, who is wary of losing focus through too much diversification. ”We decided to go with ABRY because we wanted a partner who understood the world. It was time to find a global player.” The company is contracted to clients in 120 countries over the next five years, with a determined focus on increasing its global presence. When facing off with the likes of Workday, Thomsons competes on the fact that benefits software is its core focus: “Lots of companies try to offer benefits software, but they are less successful because it’s part of a suite, or it’s an afterthought. For us, it’s all that we do.”

Asked if he feels Thomsons’ global plans are ambitious, the CEO rather thinks this has been a long time coming: “We have eight of the world’s top ten companies as clients, and you don’t get those easily.” He remembers when Google was scouting out the company before becoming a client, and someone commented how the Thomsons culture felt a bit like Google. Not that Whitfield wants to be Google – he wants to be Thomsons – but it’s a nice compliment. “No, I don’t think we’re at all ambitious. I think we are being realistic and our growth plans are very achievable. We achieve our numbers.”

Pushing for change
Whitfield describes founding Thomsons at 40 his “good midlife crisis”, although he’d been working with benefits and financial services a while time before this. “My original plan was to go to university and become a barrister. But my parents divorced and I had little guidance, so I ended up going to work at 18.” This was at Bentalls department store in Kingston, “the best retail training I ever had”, teaching Whitfield how to treat customers. Deciding there wasn’t any money in retail, Whitfield made the switch to financial services, moving through Bishop Cavanagh, Swire Fraser, Alexander Forbes: “I got thrust into a world where I dealt with individual clients, and those clients went on to become managing directors who then asked me to look after their companies. Those companies had benefit requirements, so that was my evolution.”

The spark that later became Thomsons Online Benefits came one Saturday when Whitfield was ordering groceries online: “I was on a big dial-up PC, it took hours and all the wrong stuff turned up, but it was fun because it was online!” This was around 1997. “And I thought, I must apply this to what I’m doing, there must be a way. That was the trigger.” Whitfield knew nothing about technology at the time, but there was so much paper-based admin around benefits, and this could be a chance to change it.

Whitfield’s ambitions for the company has certainly changed since the early days: “I had no idea how big it would get. I remember thinking at the time: wouldn’t it be good to get a million in recurring revenues?” He laughs; now over 80% of Thomsons’ £36.7m revenues are recurring. “I never thought we’d grow this big, but now I don’t think there’s any limit to how big we could grow. We have some fantastic clients and we love what we do. The world is a very small place, and it’s up to companies like to us to go and say…” Whitfield pauses. “When Chris and I first started, people told us we could never put all this online, getting rid of the paper.” Never? “No. You needed a wet signature.”

Well, you don’t need a wet signature anymore. Whitfield never finishes his point about what “companies like us” should go out in the world and do, but his next anecdote provides a hint: Thomsons also pioneered online pension enrollment in the UK by confronting the tax authorities about the red tape, illustrating how plucky little companies, which do just one thing really well, may just have the attitude and motivation to create change.

Cultural lessons
A bold move with more risk attached came four years into the life of the company, when a decision was made to scrap the home-made software and go with Microsoft’s .NET framework. “It was the best thing we ever did, because it allowed us the flexibility we have today. It was a brave thing to do and it went well – it didn’t have to go well! But it did.”

But the period that taught Whitfield the most came around 2010, when Thomsons “went off on a tangent”. The co-founders were advised to step back from the day-to-day runnings, and the company went from 125 to 250 people in the space of a year. “We had all these new people come in without Chris and I living and breathing the culture on a daily basis. The old people lived the values and the behaviours, and the new people didn’t care. After about six months I said: ‘Enough, this isn’t going to work. We are losing the culture which makes us special.’”

It took the co-founders six months to get the company back on track, but it became a lesson in sticking to your guns when you have a passionate conviction about where you want to go. “Of course you listen to advice, but if you know what you’re doing is right, it probably is. […] I learned a huge amount about the business, and about myself. We became a much better business and I became a much better leader.”

Running with your head up
Whitfield (56) is a Londoner, “born and bred all my life”, now living in Barnes where he’s chairman of the local rugby club. He has two children in London and three in Canada following “a couple of iterations” of marriage: “They are very diverse: my youngest in London are students. In Canada, one is running a university treasury department, he’s about to finish uni. One runs a business, one sells advertising.” Whitfield likes to get up at 5.30 every morning and “keep this old body in shape”, and he’s passionate about sports: “I still play the occasional game of rugby. I’m also into travel, reading, holidays, so yes, passionate in and out of work! But as I get older I feel I have sacrificed a lot in terms of time with the kids. I try and make up for that now. We spend time together, all the kids, they get on well.”

Proper work-life balance isn’t just something the CEO facilitates for his staff and customers, readily recognising he’s at his most creative after he’s been on holiday for a few weeks, “when my mind is rested and free from the clutter of the day-to-day work”. Getting some distance from the daily grind also ensures Whitfield can keep an eye on what’s on the horizon for the business: “You have to run a business with your head up, not down. That’s how you play sports as well.”

At Thomsons, this means talking to everyone in the company, and Whitfield makes sure to check in with every new face. “Your people keep you honest,” he says, not for the first time during our chat. “Nothing excites me more than a challenging period of growth, as I know I have to be really alert. You have to get up and work a bit faster and harder, and walk around the business more.”

Keeping in touch with the people of Thomsons, making sure the culture and the “pink mist” is strong, is without a doubt what motivates Whitfield: “When you are young you want to do it yourself, proving you are the best at what you do. Now I want to see my talent be the best. I look at my talent growing with the business, and it’s great to see them feeling empowered to do brilliant things. It’s that, not me, which will make this business great in the future.”

Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership

Work. – December 2014. Original article.

work coverInterview with Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership
For an institution so British to its very core, the Partnership inspires feelings in direct opposition to the stiff upper lip. Because who doesn’t love John Lewis? And for anyone on the fence there are those devastatingly charming Christmas campaigns. Of course, the John Lewis Partnership exists to serve much grander ideals than clever marketing. Company man that he is, Sir Charlie Mayfield is distinctly British too, in the sense that he may be clearly proud of the Partnership but he remains tastefully modest about it. Mayfield’s smile when the Partnership’s enviable reputation comes up suggests this matters to him a great deal, but of course, there’s no resting on laurels here:

“Our reputation is both a privilege and a challenge. It’s something we think very carefully about. The last thing I want is to appear as the smuggest retailer on the High Street. We have to work very hard, every single day, at getting things right.”

The first law of the John Lewis Partnership, and also to Mayfield, is to serve “the happiness of its members”. Not once does Mayfield refer to just himself in terms of the work he does – it’s all about the group. Actually that’s not entirely true: Mayfield points out more than once that the partners have the power to sack him if they think he’s not cutting it. We’re sitting in the Chairman’s office at Partnership House in London’s Victoria, on sofas surrounded by green plants and abstract paintings. Mayfield is in a salmon-coloured knit tie and crisp white shirt, his jacket left on the hanger on the unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon. Glasses dangling from the hand, he’s relaxed yet professional throughout.

The John Lewis Partnership is a story of how an employee-owned business can not only match the performance of its retail sector peers, but also beat it. People-issues are hard-wired into the organisation, but Mayfield is careful to stress how this, above all, is a business. Our conversation swings back and forth between these two elements – people and business – as if ethical practices were the enemy of growth. But as only 2% of British businesses are employee-owned, chances are Mayfield has had to explain more than once how a long-term holistic focus translates to a healthy bottom line.

JL1*** Now in its 150th year, the Partnership delivered a £129.8m profit at September’s results announcement, a healthy rise of 12.1% on the year before in what remains a squeezed market. But it’s something of a chicken-or-the-egg situation regarding what comes first: the desire to run a people-centric company, or to run a profitable business.

“Somewhat unhelpfully I probably won’t be able to separate the two out for you!” Mayfield laughs. “In essence, the focus of the business is the happiness of its members. We are really focused on partners through their worthwhile and satisfying employment – in a successful business. That’s our our ultimate purpose, and from that stems everything else.”

Certainly, this priority will affect how decisions are made: “We won’t say that the most important thing is to make a certain profit, each year. But what we do prioritise is having a sustainable business that’s well-balanced, reflecting the needs of partners, customers, and profit.” This may mean the company won’t slash costs to improve numbers in a single year, unless there is a strong case for long-term benefit: “But what we absolutely will do is take tough business decisions to completely remodel and reshape our business where we think that’s necessary.”

So what happens when these “tough” decisions prove unpopular? “Oh, there will absolutely be controversy!“ Mayfield got plenty of “vocal” feedback after the decision to take out an entire level of management from the John Lewis department stores, making over 360 roles redundant. “We don’t shy away from those issues. But the manner with which we carry out those decisions may differ from other organisations.” In the case of the redundancies, the changes were implemented over the course of a year, encouraging people to find alternative positions within the company, and offering payment cushions.

“What we always do is, we say: ‘Look, we’re not running this business for any one individual partner. We are running it for the totality.’ We’ve always recognised that the greater good will trump the needs of individuals,” says Mayfield. “Though what we will do is try to implement change in a way which respects the needs of individuals.”

jl2*** The financial advantage of being a partner is attractive: people get an average of seven weeks’ pay in shared profits every year. “But the fact that way we share profits is almost as important. It sends a strong message about collective reward for collective effort. It’s not about equality, but fairness.”

The other vital element is how the management is accountable to partners. Throughout our chat, Mayfield brings up numerous examples of what this looks like in practice, as this openness isn’t just culture, it’s structure. Human resources is an important channel for implementing this, but the Partnership is also putting in place a central shared-services team whose job is to make the sure the principles are enacted consistently across the group. Already, there’s an elected body of people in every single shop, distribution centre or office, holding the local management to account. Registrars throughout the organisation ensure the business is run in accordance with its constitution, a document which includes a commitment to sharing knowledge. That means keeping discussions out in the open instead of secret meetings behind closed doors, and keeping facts available for all to see, warts and all.

“We don’t have a referendum on whether we are going to reorganise a particular area of the business, open a shop, or stock green jumpers. But the responsible managers make those decisions in the knowledge they are accountable,” says Mayfield. That includes himself: twice a year he faces a council questioning him on the performance of the business, before they vote on whether they want him to stay: “That is quite a key moment. Now, I have never lost the vote, but it still focuses the mind.” He nods. “It really does focus the mind.”

*** Accountability doesn’t mean the management will never be in the firing line, though. The Partnership caught flack this autumn when CEO Andy Street described France as “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat”. Street was quick to issue an apology, adding that his comments were meant to be “tongue-in-cheek”. Earlier this year, at July’s council session, Mayfield found himself at the receiving of complaints from partners unhappy about the stress and pressure caused by recent years’ restructuring:

“Fundamentally, the council was not very happy with where we were, and they made that very, very clear. I sat and listened; I didn’t particularly like it, and I didn’t agree with all of it either. But that is the view of the owners of the business, so whatever my views, I listen to those opinions.” The follow-up came in October, after Mayfield commissioned a report on how the changes were progressing: “That was a very good session, and as a consequence, we have decided to make a few adjustments. The direction is still correct – we are very confident of that – but we made some adjustments in-flight.”

A unusually hands-on Chairman, Mayfield took an oath to run the Partnership in accordance with its constitution. He acknowledges he’s probably more focused on people-issues than perhaps the average Chairman: “But I would really encourage you not to separate that from the business. We focus on the business, which happens to be run by 90,000 people. Therefore, the best way to achieve the best results is actually to focus on the people running it.”

Having said that, Mayfield will readily assert that the effects of the Partnership is vital to the success of the business: “There is now a good body of evidence which shows employee-owned firms outperform their PLC company peers in overall performance over the economic cycle. In areas like job creation, productivity improvements, and well-being, many do even better.” Looking at Waitrose, product innovation can often be attributed to long-standing relationships with suppliers: “Don’t get me wrong: we have very commercial relationships with our supplier base. But we try to put them on mutually beneficial footing.”

jl3*** Mayfield became Chairman in 2007, but he first joined the Partnership in 2000 as Head of Business Development. “Before this, I was working in management consulting [at McKinsey & co] which I … enjoyed?” Mayfield laughs. “I say that with a degree of hesitation, because I’m not cut out to be a career consultant. I just don’t think I’m designed to be solely in an advisory role.” Still, the experience of working across retail brands was useful: Mayfield now chairs the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and was appointed Chairman of the British Retail Consortium this March.

In the rare moments when he’s not working, Mayfield (48) lives in Newbury with his wife, a teacher, and their three teenage children. And yes, the kids have had a taste of the family business, with a bit of work experience at Waitrose before going off to university. “I spend lots of time at work, so when I’m not working I basically want to be at home with family. We have two large dogs that need a lot of walks, so it’s that kind of thing. […] It’s really important to defend the time away from work. My wife would probably tell you I don’t do it very successfully!” He laughs. “But I think I do, reasonably.”

Being in a leadership role within a partnership means potentially exposing yourself to a higher level of internal criticism: “Sometimes people find that hard to take. But I would say it’s a great strength to the business that we do that.” It may also take a little longer to implement change: “But this is not for soft reasons. We think doing so gives us a better long-term outcome. And it’s always the long-term that matters.”

This commitment to playing the long game cost the John Lewis Partnership £47 million last year, as the company discovered a discrepancy in holiday pay going back six years. The company could probably have got away with back-paying just part of the money: “But we decided that was just completely wrong. […] Rather than using the law as a device to avoid payment, we should actually say: ‘Frankly, we should have paid people more.’ These are the people who own our business. We just need to take this on the chin.”

This also goes to the heart of what the company means to Mayfield personally: “It sounds terribly cheesy, but I never cease to be impressed at the level of motivation and commitment [the partners] demonstrate – to each other, and therefore to the Partnership. We’re very fortunate to have an organisation which reinforces and encourages that.” The Chairman is usually recognised when he goes into a shop, where he’ll chat to partners who have been with the company anywhere between a week and 30 years. “They are working hard, are proud of what they do, and they are trying to do their best. That never ceases to be a tonic for me. […] There are thousands of people like that, who are impressive and deserve the best possible leadership we can provide.”

jl4*** Mayfield is careful never to say the employee-ownership model is better than the alternatives, but absolutely, he’d love for Britain to have more partnerships. “I would be delighted if there were more [employee-owned] companies,” he says. “But it’s not everybody’s cup of tea!” In any case, the John Lewis Partnership has been campaigning for five years to ensure employee-ownership is a financially viable alternative for entrepreneurs selling their businesses, as is now the case following October’s Finance Act. Next, the Partnership is running the ‘Inspire EO’ conference in February, aiming to educate company owners about the benefits of this model.

“I think there’s an increasing interest in not just how businesses perform, but in how they behave,“ says Mayfield; he would like to see the number of British employee-owned companies to reach 10%, up from 2% today. “Reputation matters, also in terms of very hard-nosed measures of financial return, and so it’s a key consideration. It’s probably a good thing that more businesses are thinking more seriously about how to preserve that.”

Despite his insistence that the John Lewis way is not for everyone, Mayfield is at his most enthusiastic when talking about his work to spread the word of its benefits: fairness for employees, the stability of a long-term outlook, and the benefit of plurality in a country’s business ownership. Maybe he’d be better suited to consultancy than he thinks? Clearly he has a desire to affect change beyond his own company. Mayfield laughs: “Well, that’s just being an advocate for a form of ownership I think deserves a greater awareness and following.” Again the company man, proud yet tastefully modest always.

Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 18.40.29

Source Magazine, autumn 2014.

 Original article.

art2Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub 

She’s not quite what you’d expect, Lauren Baker. Her art is intense, bright and hard-hitting, so you’d think the person dreaming it all up would be loud and brash. Of course, Baker is plenty intense once you’ve spent some time with her, but the surface remains deceptively subtle: a small girl with lots of big brown hair, riding a pink mini-bike with a chihuahua zipped inside her coat. In a sense, Baker’s a bit like her art: the surface is only half the story. Look closer and something happens, light and dark collide and it’s sharp and fearless, and ultimately, fascinating.

Take Baker’s favourite piece right now, a large, three-dimensional starburst covered in mirrors: “It’s symbolic of the portal to other dimensions.” Next to the portal sits a coffin, lined with light: “Like the light you see when you have a near-death experience.” And everywhere are the skulls: gold and metallic ones, jewelled eyes, bright neons, colourful crystals, painted in jagged or sweeping patterns, energetic and bold.

Baker’s Hackney Downs studio is halfway between Hackney Wick, which has the highest concentration of creative practitioners in Europe, and Haringey, home to a thriving artist community including the Chocolate Factory, London’s biggest studio complex. While conscious of the nurturing effect of the East London arts scene, self-admitted workaholic Baker is really just doing her thing, no biggie. Her studio is inside a railway arch next to Hackney Downs; perfect, she says, so close to her house. Today she’s in a loose, long-sleeved playsuit and tights, chunky jewellery in silver and bone offsetting the discrete outfit. She serves tea in mismatched crockery before sitting down, launching into the story of how she got to where she is today. Now 32, Baker’s only been an artist for three years: “I didn’t find my passion until I was 29. It’s moving really fast. Now that I’m finally on the right path, it’s just flowing.”

Baker credits her former life of working in events and marketing as part of the reason she’s managed to become a successful artist in such a short time; she knows how to attract attention to her work, and this is how the Tate Modern picked her up after her very first show. But it was necessary to make a change: “I quit my old job and went to South America. I was looking for an adventure, a spiritual path.” What she found was a mosaics artist in Brazil, who inspired Baker to go to Venice and learn the craft. But not before having an experience, deep in the Peruvian jungle, where she met a shaman and had a vision that she should become an artist. Having moved on from mosaics since, Baker now considers herself a multimedia artist: “I see my art practice as one big fun experiment. I don’t want to restrict myself.”

It’s sunny outside the cool railway arch, and Baker’s chihuahua, Dude, is keen to go outside. Baker releases the dog once we round the corner into Hackney Downs, and the tiny dog disappears immediately in the tall grass. Baker is unconcerned; Dude makes friends easily. “I love it here,” she says, as she waves to a woman passing on a bicycle; “That’s my neighbour. She’s a blacksmith.” I ask if Baker, who’s not a native Londoner, would ever leave the capital, but she looks at me like I’m mad: “Oh no! East London is my home. I could never leave!”

Even when she’s talking about her work, Baker is soft-spoken to the point where you still can’t quite believe all that powerful art comes from her. Then she talks about how, early in her career, she decided she wanted to decorate display windows, picked three places she fancied, and ended up with Harrods. She makes it sound easy, like it was nothing. The Harrods window led to a Selfridges window, and there were shows in New York, California, Ibiza. “I try to trust my instincts,” she says, in an effort to explain how she does it. “I think, in order to succeed, you need the ability to just go for it. Not letting yourself be led astray by what other people want you to do. Stay true to your heart.”

And, Baker is quick to add, you need to be a top-notch networker: “You really need to get yourself out there, go to exhibitions, art fairs, talk to lots of people and tell them what you’re doing.” Being part of Hackney Downs Studios makes this possible without going far; Baker’s complex is home to over 100 artists, designers, record labels, bookbinders and other creatives, even a brewery. Regular events and open studio days, plus a café, shop and gallery, ensure a nurturing community.

Baker doesn’t linger on the details when she talks, skimming over the studio that’s freezing in winter and the fingers that bleed after hours and days of placing crystals. Instead she talks about how much she loved it when the Tate Britain invited her to reinterpret one of their works; she chose ‘Ophelia’ by Millais, “the most beautiful death”. Baker created a forest inside the gallery, recreating Ophelia’s final moments surrounded by trees and flowers, and of course, skulls and bones. “I’m really driven to try and understand death, in a positive way. We’re not here forever.”

We’ve sat down on a bench on the Downs, and Dude has reappeared and wants attention. Baker has been talking about her work for Save Wild Tigers, and spending two and a half months placing 35,000 Swarovski crystals on a life-sized tiger’s head. This year she’s doing it again, only it’s bigger and will take four months. She readily admits the work can be maddening: each sequin is individually placed, and it has to be perfect. “But then I get into a meditative state doing it, and it’s really lovely.”

Baker’s in demand for commissions, but will still spend all her money on materials and push on with her passion projects. She’s just come back from her first vacation in three years. “The plan now is to have a work-life balance!” If that’s possible, that is: “I get into extremes with work. I got to bed at 3am last night. I basically have to leave London to stop working.” She seems to be having a lot of fun though. Is she? Baker looks up from Dude in her lap, and for a moment it’s like she’s surprised. Then she lets out a big, red-lipsticked laugh: “Yes! I’m having a really good time!” And you know it’s true.


art3Adam Doughty, illustrator in Hackney Wick
Adam Doughty draws what he sees: a pint, King’s Cross station, some cheese, what the weekend feels like. Of course, it’s all re-imagined, bringing a sense of magical, yet simple, realism to his work. “I liked the phrase ‘magical realism’, I felt it was a fitting term to describe my work.” says Doughty. “I focus on the everyday, but I like to play with aspects of the illustration, like manipulating scale, adding historical references, and using a varied colour palette.”

The result is day-to-day elements captured with a whimsical feel. Doughty likes to research the history of an area before drawing it: “It’s inspiring to discover the old use of a building, the people who worked there and what it stood for.” Like his workplace, the Bridget Riley Studios in the part of Hackney Wick known as Fish Island; the building used to be part of a peanut factory. “The Bridget Riley Studios has such an array of talent. At the last Hackney WickED open studios I talked with painters, glass cutters, sculptors, illustrators, web designers, architects, fashion designers – all in the same building.”

Doughty shares his studio with two women, one is a children’s illustrator and the other a freelance architect. “Our studio is quite spacious and we all get on really well. I love the fact that the space is hidden away, nestled in the corner of an artistic hub. If I leave my window open I’ll often get a cat visitor, who sits on my rocking chair until I’m done for the day,” says Doughty. “I’m proud to show visitors around the area. The graffiti, the quirky sculptures, canal boats, the giant stadium, and the creation of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Park. It all make for an interesting experience.”

Doughty lives ten minutes’ walk from his Fish Island workspace, in Bow. “I loved the feel of the place straight away, especially the vibrant arts scene in Hackney Wick. If you need support, it’s there for you.” Recently, Doughty has been experimenting with larger scale illustrations, but he always has a couple of Moleskine notebooks on the go: “I sketch and draw in these when I’m out and about. I draw on the bus, train, the doctor’s surgery, the beach, the Sikh Temple in Bow – anywhere that allows it.” He laughs. “The only place I’ve been told off for drawing was in the Tate Modern!”


art4Matt Small, painter in Haringey
“North London is one big village,” says Matt Small. He’s sitting on the fire escape of his flat in Camden right now, but his workspace, at Euroart Studios in Haringey, is just a skip, hop and jump away on the Overground. There are new studios opening up all the time, Small observes, with lots of open days and initiatives for support: “There’s a DIY mentality growing. I think us artists have realised it’s important to take control, and not wait on established organisations to provide support.”

As a full-time artist, Small knows that locking yourself away in your studio to focus on your craft probably won’t cut it: “You have to be savvy about promoting yourself. That’s a part of the job as well, and not something us artists have traditionally been so great at. So it’s good to have a network of individuals who are in the same boat as you.”

art5Primarily a painter, Small has a strong, compelling style, often choosing discarded objects like car bonnets or old signs instead of canvas for his work. “The theme of my work is young, dispossessed people: individuals who feel undervalued, who don’t have a voice, who get looked over.” Small explains how the urban debris he paints on becomes symbolic of the feeling of being without value: “I thought it’d be interesting to connect the two – that oven door, that shelving unit, that piece of trash to someone – I don’t see it like that, I see that it can be something beautiful and worthwhile. That’s how I see our young people too. Let’s look at their potential, at the hope that’s in all of them.”

Small has hosted workshops for socially marginalised people, driven in part by a desire to give them a voice, but also wanting to make art more approachable in general. “I think the art world is un-inclusive by design, but for me, making it understandable and connected to us mere mortals is what art is about. It’s about finding your own way of communicating what goes on in your mind. That’s the most powerful thing you can do as an individual: creatively express yourself, visually or through music or dance.” And of course, there’s the thrill of the challenge: “I’d feel as if I was cheating myself if I wasn’t pushing the boundaries of my own potential. Keep discovering, keeping finding, keep playing.” He laughs. “Having fun with it all. Yes, yes!”


art6Natalie Ryde, painter/printmaker in Hackney Wick
Delicate nets and intricate webs are in Natalie Ryde’s blood, it seems, as she was drawing these patterns for years before discovering her family’s 300-year history as framework knitters. “It’s so curious to me. I’d been drawing these nets and ferns almost intuitively,” says Ryde. The realisation came five years ago, when her family was invited to visit the factory where their ancestors had worked for generations. “My family knew, but they never mentioned it. They just took it for granted. So it’s definitely not from nurture!”

Studying nature, and close-up details, are key elements in Ryde’s work. Her nets create a “sub-lingual pattern” that tries to convey something: “It hints at things that are familiar but not quite discernible, like you can relate to them but you’re not quite sure what they are.” She laughs a bit, nervously, it’s hard to explain what she means. “I’m compelled to drawing things and making things in response to the world around me. I can remember being little and wanting to be really good at drawing. It’s so much a part of my life now, I can’t imagine it not being the thing I do every day.”

Originally from Scotland, Ryde works at Wallis Studios in Hackney Wick. “Why did I come here? Because this is where everyone is!” Previously living in London Fields, Ryde has since moved to Haringey. “I was thinking of getting a studio closer to home, but I quite like the commute. I cycle down, along the canal.” Not to mention the community in the Wick: “It’s exciting, there’s always lots of exhibitions and galleries. There’s always so much fun going on. People work hard here, it’s nice.” Ryde is part of a mentoring programme for artists in the area, and also works in arts education, in part for local children in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park.

And of course, there’s the net drawings. “I have worked in lots of different mediums but I’m focusing on the nets, as I feel that’s my visual language now,” says Ryde. “l get my ideas from being outside, but I’m not necessarily interested in the view. I’m more interested in the ground, or in things that are washed up on the beach. That’s how you’ll find those strange, alien-looking things, detached from their context, so it doesn’t quite make sense when you first see it.”


art7Richard Peacock, printmaker in Haringey
“The Chocolate Factory is really not bad,” says Richard Peacock, who’s been in his Haringey studio for 14 years now. “When I first qualified I had a studio in Dalston, where you had to scrape the ice off the windows. But here, we have heating!” He laughs. Peacock lives close to his studios too, although this is a happy accident; he originally came to Haringey because his sister lived there. “I didn’t do my art degree until my 30s. As a teenager in Essex I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t get back into it until I started going to evening classes. Then slowly and surely it became the most important thing in my life.”

Peacock talks about the “rhythmic abstract” process of screen printing, the “changes in the weight of the inks” and the “variation in the edges of the shapes”. This is a physical experience, requiring 24 different processes for each print. It can be planned or intuitive, but regardless: “You have to respond to what’s happening. That should let you make something that’s better than what you can plan.”

The result is part abstract, part pop art, playfully exploring shapes and colours. “Every time a cardboard box comes into the house I take it apart and look at it,” says Peacock, who often ends up using the shape in his work. “I like things with holes and gaps in it, so you can see through it as you print layers. Someone once sent me this lovely waxed paper with lots of tiny holes, it had been used in a circuit factory.” Peacock used the paper to print strips, which began to resemble trees in the forest. The resulting piece, “Step from the path”, is his favourite. Sometimes he’ll includes words too, usually simple phrases, or maybe texts from spam emails or horoscopes; it’s cliche language that ultimately says something about how we live.

Haringey has seen a lot of new artist spaces pop up in the past few years, says Peacock. While still a very diverse borough, things are becoming more buzzy, especially around Tottenham with its open studios, and around Alexandra Park with its arts trails. “Then there’s the Chocolate Factory, which has its own community associated with it. There are lots of people here who are making things happen.”


art8Esther Ainsworth, mixed-media artist in Hackney Wick
It starts out subtle, Esther Ainsworth’s work, always with a place or sound that’s caught her attention. Like today, when she’s in Balfron Tower, East London’s Brutalist masterpiece: ”It’s an incredible building. I’m using it as a kind of residency, trying to conjure up ideas based on the environment here.”

Ainsworth’s main medium is sound, but through this comes an exploration of space. “I like looking at what makes an interesting place, and then finding the sonic information that gives it a sense of identity.” The result is an experience that teases you in and opens you up, be it a recorded soundscape or a site-specific installation. Ainsworth has been at Mother Studios in Hackney Wick since 2006, which has provided its own experience as the area has changed. “Hackney Wick is such an interesting place to be. It was completely different when I got there,” says Ainsworth; especially the previously “stark and industrial” Olympic area has undergone a complete transformation.

One of Ainsworth’s current collaborations is with a light artist also working at Mother Studios. “The activity on each floor at the studio is very sociable, very vibrant. People often work with their doors open, and you can get feedback on your practice. We share a mailing list where everybody can promote their work,” says Ainsworth. “All the studio blocks and the galleries tend to know about each other. The Wick is essentially an artists’ village, because there’s not really anything else happening there!”

Having said that, Ainsworth often works outside of East London. Her favourite project is called Drive-In Sound; she’s done it three times so far, most recently on her way to a residency in Slovakia. “I love the idea of combining the freedom of a road trip with something that’s deeply enmeshed in the communities you visit. You can create new networks as you move around from place to place.”

This also goes to the core of why Ainsworth does her work: “It comes from trying to understand the world a little bit better. By finding interesting places, by hopefully connecting people between those places.” She thinks about it. “The idea of uniting and building bridges between communities and cultures is very exciting for me. I don’t think there’s an arrival point, but there’s a sense of journey. It drips through everything.”


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Andrew Lindsay, CEO of Telecom Plus

Megabuyte, November 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.21.47The Megabuyte Interview: Andrew Lindsay
The sign to the Utility Warehouse, the trading name of Telecom Plus, points to a functional building between Matalan and McDonalds. This is Colindale, a non-descript area at the far reaches of the Northern Line, with a view of Alexandra Palace as the only sign we’re still in the capital. Telecom Plus is a proud North London kid from Hendon, and Andrew Lindsay, a son of Scotland, will soon move the staff of 800-and-growing to a bigger and better building up the road. After all, running a large call centre operation in London means access to a great talent pool, as customer service is the beginning and end of the Telecom Plus story.

“We have as a mantra: treat every customer as if they were your own mum,” says Lindsay. “Our business is to be the nation’s most trusted utility supplier.” Right now, that means over 547k customers taking an average of 3.6 services out of the core offerings – gas, electricity, mobile, broadband and landline – with solid organic growth across the board. “It’s intensely personal business. Every single one of our customers come through a personal recommendation,” says Lindsay. So it follows that you wouldn’t recommend something dodgy to your mum or dad, nor would you let them down on a service call: “When we deliver good customer service we get recommendations, and we grow.”

A personal approach
The strictly-business roundtable in the conference room where we’re sitting is offset by Lindsay’s rolled-up sleeves, plus a generous sprinkling of the company logo: a purple piggy bank with a phone cord tail. But the folksy feel goes beyond design to be part of the company’s reason for success, as is clear from Lindsay more than once bringing up the distributor network, his “Purple Army”.

“The route to market is low-cost and proactive. Our distributors actually go out and find customers who want to switch, or who haven’t thought about switching,” says Lindsay. “The multi-utility proposition wouldn’t work on a billboard, as you need somebody who can explain it to you in detail. Through this informal recommendation channel you can get the complex message across.” Not to mention how the multi-utility approach is efficient from a company overhead perspective, as one call centre supports five revenue stream. This enables the company to offer competitive deals – not that the savings aspect is really what’s driving Telecom Plus’s growth: “Good customer services is by far the easiest way to differentiate yourself from the competition. People won’t remark on £4 savings but they will remark on good customer service.”

Lindsay is committed to growing the company, and to do so organically: “We see a very clear path to the FTSE100, and we’re going to do it through solid double digit compound growth.” While that probably rules out major M&A, Lindsay is open to adding to the company’s offerings: “We have very strong brand advocacy from our customers. They view us as a safe house for their utilities, because they don’t have to keep changing them because they know they’re always going to get a good deal from us. Why wouldn’t you also logically extend that to other boring but essential household expenses like insurance? […] We think we can bring our brand of ethical pricing policies into the insurance market. We may not make the same returns that some of the insurance players make, but we don’t need to – this is the point.”

Lindsay uses the word “ethical” more than once, and when asked he will certainly describe Telecom Plus as a “highly ethical” company. This does however seem to be more a side-effect of the general principle of how you wouldn’t sell a lemon to your family: “You don’t go and sign your mother up to a one-year loss leading tariff which is then auto-renewed onto a super premium tariff.” With energy prices in focus following Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, aimed at providing “simpler, clearer and fairer” prices, this attitude arguably makes Telecom Plus look like a fresh breath of air to a jaded public: “Our view is that we’re at the vanguard of [the trend towards fairer customer treatment]. The customer who comes to us and gets treated well has lifetime value. This is much, much greater than a short-term disgruntled customer, even if you’re making a healthy margin out of them.”

A lightbulb moment
Lindsay’s had an unusual route to the top seat of Telecom Plus, especially considering he’s 37 years old and has been the CEO for seven years. After Eton and Oxford he spent two and a half years in M&A at Goldman Sachs, before an urge to “taste the real world” prompted a move to Ryness, a small London chain of light bulb retailers. “There was a Ryness just outside the Goldman Sachs offices on Fleet Street. I was laughed out off the offices as I said I was going to join that cruddy little shop down there!” But Lindsay found the prospect appealing, as the founders had just exited to private equity. He oversaw Ryness’s growth from 10 to 15 shops, before he was approached by Telecom Plus in 2007.

“Ryness was a £10m business with 100 staff. Very, very hands-on operations. I learned an unbelievable amount about real people and real business – from the strategy of running a company, to stopping people from pinching cash from the till. You see the whole canvas, and that was a fantastic foundation period layered on top of the academic finances of Goldman Sachs.” Lindsay describes himself as an “intensely practical person”, but still, the move to Ryness was a move to a different life:

“Suddenly I was up on ladders hanging displays, counting stuff on shelves, and learning about the difference between incandescents and compact fluorescents. You get into a whole micro world of detail and you become a bit boring, talking to people at dinner parties about lightbulbs!” He laughs, but Ryness was a priceless learning experience: “I learned about bookkeeping, marketing, IT systems, HR, how to hire and fire people, how to negotiate a contract for supply. […] But the real thing I learned about was people, and that is ultimately about leadership.”

While Lindsay knew he wanted to run a business ever since leaving school, walking out of Goldman Sachs in the 2003 boon times must have been a shaky decision. “I started at Ryness on less than my assistant was being paid when I left Goldman, and it didn’t get much better. You have to somehow justify to yourself that you’ve made the right decision, and I was determined to make it work. It wasn’t a huge success story, but I feel very proud of what we did there.”

Real world approach
The Ryness experience also provided some vital insights into creating a sense of team among staff who were often motivated by different things. “I used to row,” says Lindsay, so modestly: he has an Olympic gold for rowing coxed eights in Sydney. “When I was rowing there was no question about team work. You just got in the boat because you wanted to be there, and you wanted to get to the end as fast as you could, with your teammates.”

But being surrounded by “exceptional bright, talented and driven people who you could rely on to be on your team” is not always how the real world works. While a fellow rower who was letting the team down by not eating his greens could be talked around, because there was a common goal, Ryness staff who were half an hour late every day required a different approach. “That was undoubtedly the biggest eye opener of coming out of this quite institutionalised bubble of a team work at school, university, professional sports, Goldman Sachs. I hadn’t really hit the real world until I left Goldman Sachs.”

Creating an atmosphere of a common goal continues to a key focus for Lindsay at Telecom Plus, as he talks about the 800+ staff who rely on the company, and what it means for the brand distributors to be part of something: “Recognition’s a massive part of being a distributor, to be a part of a community that values you.” A similar motivation drives the CEO as well: “Technology doesn’t rock my boat, to be honest. I’m not interested in billing systems. I’m interested in creating something. We’re creating something through thousands of partners, which enables them to be an entrepreneur. […] That’s highly motivating and hugely rewarding.”

New pinnacles
Lindsay lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and their four boys, the eldest being six years old. “Yes, it’s children and work, basically!” He laughs. He likes to ski and still has his bagpipes: “Scotland is my passion.” He’s very grateful the referendum went the way it did. “I miss Scotland. I’d like to spend lot more time there, in the wilderness.” While his Olympics team still meet up regularly, they do this in the pub now: “I haven’t rowed since Sydney.” Instead, Lindsay prefers to focus on new goals: “Because life’s too short. I did nine years of rowing and I got to the pinnacle, and … onto the next thing.”

Lindsay’s approach hasn’t changed all that much, though: “My philosophy is to find things you’re good at, or you think you can be good at, and then spend time on that.” He laughs. “I suppose I’m a competitive bugger!” At Telecom Plus, this means keeping an eye on the prize: growing from 2% to 10% market share, from 500k customers to 1m, then 2m, and from the FTSE250 to the FTSE100. Lindsay has no plans to leave the company anytime soon, in fact he’s more excited about the prospect of Telecom Plus now than ever: “I think I would struggle to find a corporate environment I felt had the fundamentals and opportunity of this business. […] If you’re going to work for a large corporate, this is best large corporate you could work for, in my opinion.”

Francois Buclez: Start thinking outside the cube

Hedge Magazine, 2013. Original article (p27-29).

buclezFrancois Buclez, founder and CEO of Cube Capital
“Are you sure you don’t want coffee? It’s really good!” Francois Buclez, a Frenchman in London, has made sure there’s a proper coffee machine in the Fitzrovia offices of Cube Capital. Before I leave he will ask about the coffee again, and with an empty cup I will have to tell him he was right. “It’s a good place to work!” says Buclez, proud of how the alternative investment firm likes to look after its people, all the way down to serving great coffee.

Dynamic, curious and independent are the sort of words used to sell the Cube Capital experience, but Chief Executive Officer Buclez has no time for it: “I hate the wording, it’s fluffy, it doesn’t mean anything. I like to focus on real things, as opposed to concepts and words.” The hard facts then: $1.3 billion of assets under management, three investment products starting with a $800m fund of hedge funds, as well as $200m worth of “punchy” hedge funds and about $270m in real asset investments. Fund managers are often reluctant to reveal financial details, but Buclez rattles off the performance figures without prompt. I’m not allowed to repeat them, which is a shame because they look good.

A nimble approach
“Our goal was to create the ultimate investment product,” says Buclez, explaining how he founded Cube Capital in 2003 alongside Oleg Pavlov and Alan Sipols out of a feeling of disillusionment with the industry. “We settled on the fund of funds model, and I think it’s still the top investment product because it’s a one stop shop. With one investment you can reach every region, every asset class and every strategy in the whole world.”

The fund of hedge funds is Cube’s main product: “This is a stay-rich product, a no matter… comme…” Buclez pauses his animated stream of words, casting around for the expression. “Hell or high water! For example, in 2008 the most we ever lost was 12%. Not great but not that threatening, so it’s a reasonably steady product. 10% return is the target, with 5% volatility.” The hedge fund operations, which opened to new investors last year, carries double the volatility and double the return target.

The key to the performance of the fund of funds, emphasises Buclez, is to correct for the model’s potential shortcomings. Cube has identified four key issues which have contributed to bad press for the industry, starting with traditionally long redemption periods for hedge assets. “We have implemented a strategy of overlays, which means we can react very quickly if something is happening in the market, without having to change the underlying manager.” A second issue is fees: “We have implemented a programme of direct investment, so for between 15-20% of the book we keep the exposure very simple, just long or short. This helps us keep fees manageable.” A top-down driven investment strategy and no allocation quotas means Cube can move resources around freely, to where the best potential is seen. And lastly, they like to keep it small, avoiding crowded assets or funds whose size Buclez believes will get in the way of the best returns: “We tend to focus on smaller managers, the guys who are a bit more hungry, a bit more nimble.”

Hello Myanmar
Before Cube, Buclez spent 13 years at Credit Agricole and then Credit Suisse. “I was starting to see the drawback of working for a big organisation. I thought maybe we could do something better, or at least in a better environment. Maybe make people a bit happier.” Buclez pauses. It turns out he’s talking not about his investors, but his staff: “It’s quite collegiate here. We do lots together, there’s basketball twice a week, 15 of us just went away for a ski weekend. People tend to stick with us.” Unlike the world of investment banking, which Buclez perceives as “unnecessarily aggressive”. “And in a bank, you never quite know good you are. I always had the protection of mama Credit Suisse.” This was also part of his motivation for wanting to go it alone: “Obviously I had some success at Credit Suisse but I still wondered, without that umbrella, would I manage? Would I be able to get something going?”

As Cube marks its 10th anniversary this year, Buclez thinks the hedge fund industry has improved since the downturn. Still, he reckons the perception of the public and the media has yet to catch on to this fact, as not all fund of funds are the same. “There seems to be a separation happening now,” he asserts; more passive funds with lower return expectations are being priced more appropriately, and the higher fees are reserved for actively managed funds which provide added value. On that note, Cube Capital created headlines last year as it became one of the first of its kind to enter Myanmar, as the country formerly known as Burma opened up to foreign investors.

“On the real asset investment side we are a bit more opportunistic. We look for unloved themes and put a product around those,” says Buclez. “There was plenty of opportunity in Myanmar in terms of globalisation, the opening up as a boost for GDP, the growing middle classes, et cetera. We have done two deals there, another is in the pipeline and maybe we’ll do a couple more. But in two or three years it’s going to become crowded. We saw that in China and Vietnam, and in the US where we filled our boots with distressed hospitality assets at rock-bottom prices in 2008.”

The next big macro theme for Cube is the opening up of the Chinese hedge fund industry: the government is in the process of opening up for domestic investors to buy dollar-denominated offshore products. Having been active in China for four years, Cube wants to leverage its existing relationships to take a slice of this market as it grows: “We started this six months ago and it’s still early in the process, but it could be pretty big.”

Mind at work
While he takes weekends off, Buclez never really stops working. The issues of the business churn around in his mind whether he’s at home, in the office or on holiday. He rides a motorbike to work every day from the home he shares with his wife and four children, aged 6 to 14. He travels a fair bit: “Every country is interesting, in different ways. I’ve made three trips to different regions of Africa over the past year, and it’s a big investment theme for us. We think Africa could be compared, in certain aspects, to Asia when it was starting to rise in 2004,” he says, explaining how conditions for business have changed drastically over the past decade, and signs are now pointing to an opportunity opening up.

Buclez freely admits he’s the kind of holidaymaker who will survey any destination with a mind for business. I realise this following numerous failed attempts to steer the Africa conversation towards a more touristy tone, but what Buclez wants to talk about is the increasingly sophisticated mobile banking networks; operators in Zimbabwe and Kenya have created innovative payment systems with important social benefits for the low income population. “People the world over react to the same motivations, the make the same mistakes. They want to feed their families and for their kids to succeed, and that drives every country in the world. So when you go on trips to foreign countries, it’s all about recognising where they are in the cycle.”

In order to follow these opportunities as they appear around the world, Cube will partner with local players to tap into their detail knowledge. “Our real expertise is to spot the opportunity, find the right partner, and then control and manage,” says Buclez. Cube may not be experts going in, but they become so by the time they exit. “The market is always changing, and I love that I’m still learning after 24 years. It’s never dull. And there are several layers to it: I like taking the young kid and helping him blossom.” While Cube is small, what Buclez and his five partners want to do now is to build a multi-generational company. Getting a handful of good years under your belt is easy, he asserts, but the real test is to keep up the good performances over time: “The ambition is to last. It doesn’t sound very glamourous, but it’s the biggest challenge.”

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John Innes, CEO of Amor Group

Published in Megabuyte, October 2013. Original article here (£).

innesThe Megabuyte Interview: John Innes, CEO of Amor Group
He shoots from the hip, John Innes, laughing and talking about all sorts of things most CEOs wouldn’t say to a journalist, at least not while coffee is the only thing being served. “My career has been completely unplanned, certainly until I joined this company. I wouldn’t recommend my career path to anyone,” says Innes, counting the industries off on his fingers: music, casinos, oil and gas, tech. We’re in Mayfair, where “everything takes longer and is more expensive”, as the CEO of the Amor Group is down from Aberdeen for a few days. He has a lot to fit in, both for work and otherwise, as he used to live in the Big Smoke back when he played in an 80s New Romantic band. It’s a fond memory although, he presses, he sincerely hopes no photos remain.

But make no mistake: beyond the self-deprecating humour and disarming ‘cards on the table’ attitude is a CEO who has done a heck of a job whipping Amor into shape. The company, which provides software solutions to the energy, transport and public services sectors, is in a growth spurt; Innes has doubled its size since leading the 2009 management buyout, and last year delivered a 27% jump in organic revenues, to £57.2m.

Our meeting took place before 12th September’s announcement that Amor had attracted the interest of Lockheed Martin, which acquired the Scottish outfit for an undisclosed sum. While the deal was unexpected, it also supports many of Innes’ stated goals, such as more boots on the ground and more acquisitions. The funding question has now been answered with the Lockheed deal, after which Innes commented on “the remarkable synergies between our cultures and ambitions”, calling it “a perfect fit at the right time” as Amor looks to meet lofty expansion targets. After all, Innes’ eyebrow-raising plans has Amor delivering £250m in revenues and £40m in EBITDA by 2016. It is the Amor culture that wins it, asserts the CEO; after all the company tagline is to be ‘friendly, entrepreneurial, aspirational’. Or is that you, I ask as our coffees arrive at last.

“I suppose to an extent the business culture is a reflection on its leaders. I’m friendly. Am I entrepreneurial? I don’t know. I’m fairly open and honest, which has got me in a lot of good places and a lot of bad places,” Innes never really wanted to work in a large corporation, feeling he lacked the “political skill” to do so. “When I became CEO five years ago I didn’t really know what the job was,” he says, referring to when he bought out an earlier version of Amor back in 2009. Of course, his success is not as random as he makes it out to be, as he was originally brought in to build up and sell Pragma, the Aberdeen-section of today’s Amor, back in 2001. The sale happened four years later, to France’s Sword, before in 2009 Innes took Pragma and Glasgow-based Real Time Engineering with him in a buyout backed by Growth Capital Partners.

“So in 2009 we had a bit in Glasgow and a bit in Aberdeen, and you must understand, those people have had 100 of years to learn to hate one another,” says Innes.“I’m exaggerating,” he quickly adds, but the importance of creating a cohesive culture is probably his biggest lesson.

“Culture trumps strategy. Not only do you need a fantastic plan, but you also need an environment where people want to execute it. And people generally want to do things when they feel happy, appreciated, and rewarded.” After learning the hard way that handing out matching business cards does not a cohesive culture make, Amor brought in a third party to find out what the problem was: “It was a litany of failure! But that’s normal. That’s where you have to start.” Since starting with two offices, Amor now has eight: ‘’People come up to me and ask questions and tell me what I’m doing wrong. And they can say anything to me as long as I can say anything back. We are getting on quite well. The evidence is that the place feels better and the numbers are going in the right direction.”

Speaking of the numbers, Amor’s notable growth spurt has taken place in a tough environment. How did Innes manage this? “I’m actually quite a lazy person. I’ve had to work much harder than I’d have liked,” he shrugs. It’s a joke, I think. “It’s good that I enjoy it, because if I hadn’t it would have been a nightmare. Everybody’s worked really hard. … There’s all the smart stuff: the IP that we have, the way we go to market, the way we sell. But a lot of it is just really hard work and long hours, focusing on the numbers.”

While Amor “doubled everything from 09 to 12: sales, profits, people, offices”, Innes doesn’t expect the economic environment is likely to get any better, not in the next five years at least. “But I think we can double again. I think our markets will be sustainable. I think we have good products and services. We try and sell things people need rather than want: we need to run an efficient airport, we need to run safe offshore platforms, we need to send kids their exam results.”

In order to do this, Innes wants to invest: hire more good people, develop the products, expand the international operations, acquire some companies, and especially develop the operations in North America and the Middle East. The recent collaboration with Scottish Power is a model that can potentially be repeated in other industry verticals, as a way for little Amor to punch above its weight by accessing IP it would cost a fortune to develop in-house.

Before the Lockheed Martin deal, Amor’s ‘small fish’ status was arguably a challenge in terms of competing for IT contracts against large competitors with big pockets. But even as Amor grows, Innes is conscious of keeping a neighbourly attitude, breaking the company down into business units to make sure the company never gets too big to care: “You will never deal with a big company called Amor; you will only deal with the Amor Scottish government business unit, and you will know most of the key people within it.”

While proud of the business Amor has become, Innes focuses less on his own experience and more on what it can be for others when asked about motivations: “I’m very excited for the people in the business. I’m really proud of creating about 400 jobs over the last couple of years.” Before joining Pragma back in 2001, Innes was what he describes as “primarily a sales person”, meaning the leadership skills came after lots of trial and error: “Normally I figure things out by falling over and skinning my knees. There were people around me who helped, but there’s no substitute for experience.” He describes how he puts new hires in positions where they know they are going to fail, and when he tells them this they laugh: ”They say, ‘You’re not that stupid John!’ But don’t underestimate my level of stupidity. I was born to poor parents, that’s stupid!” He’s joking again, sort of. “Then they go through what we like to call the discomfort zone. That’s the only zone where an individual develops, whether that’s personally or professionally.”

So why choose the significant discomfort it must have been to move from sales to executive management? Innes thinks for a moment: “You know, I realised that unless I did something transformational, I would end up doing manual labour and drop at 70.” Of course he felt driven to take on the challenge and all that, but Innes’ immediate motivation was that he needed a pension. Or maybe it was that a bit of money in the bank could help his family: Innes is married and has three grown children. When he’s not working he spends a lot of time outdoors, often with the dog. And the band still gets together: “It’s perhaps the oldest band ever, but we don’t play for people unless you want a room cleared very quickly.”

Asked what gets him up every morning, Innes is quick to point out that he still hasn’t really made any money. “But I’m having a lot of fun. I think it keeps me alive. You know, my mother trained as a teacher, worked until she was 65 and died at 66. I think what really did it was that she stopped working. People need something in their lives to get them up in the morning. Amor gets me up in the morning.”