Category: Events

An evening in conversation with David Hosking, CEO of Tusker

Smedvig Capital recently held an evening in conversation with David Hosking, CEO of Tusker, a Smedvig backed start-up success story and now a PE backed growth business in the FT top 1,000 fastest growing companies in Europe.

Tusker is on a mission to help businesses and organisations be more productive through happier employees. They do this by offering a ground-breaking Car Benefit Scheme. It means employees get a brand-new car and they don’t have to worry about the hassles and extra expense of running a car.

After starting out with Yellow Pages as a trainee telephone sales rep, David has spent much of his career in vehicle leasing. David joined Tusker in 2003 as sales director and two years later stepped up into the role of CEO.

At Home House David shared his experiences on ‘Plan B – making it happen,’ from becoming CEO of Tusker, to reenergising the business and dealing with its very rapid subsequent growth, as well as discussing the process of changing ownership.

How did you come to join Tusker and how did you become CEO?

I wanted to do something I was interested in and as I’d always been a petrol head, cars seemed the right thing. During the interview period at Tusker I was told ‘the business isn’t doing very well they’re going to shut the doors in about three months unless you can persuade them not to.’ That was quite a challenge and I was up for that. To put it into perspective, in 2000 the business plan was 0-10,000 vehicles in three years. I think they burnt through the best part of £5.8 million of cash in that period, with 436 vehicles to show for it at the end of those three years. When I came on board as Sales Director the business was burning £185,000 a month in cash. I was given three months to turn it around and then I was told that if I did a good job, over the next eighteen months to two years, I would get the opportunity to run the business. True to their word, I got that opportunity in 2005.

Plan A didn’t work for the business, so what was wrong with it and what made you realise it wasn’t working?

The original business plan was a good one, it was just about five or six years before its time. The idea was to set up an online leasing company. When I joined in 2003 we were going in to see prospective customers and saying ‘We can run your fleet online. Can we log onto your computer and show you how it works?’ They would get under their desks and unplug the fax machine to plug their computer into an ISDN line! Wi-Fi wasn’t there in 2003 – had it been five years later, I think the original plan would have worked. It’s fair to say, customers didn’t understand the concept at that point so we changed from ‘the e-leasing people’ to actually being all about delivering first class customer service and customer excellence.

What triggered the change?

My first challenge was to get the business through breakeven in 2006. After that, we continued to grow until 2008 when the credit crunch hit causing several issues. At the time, we had three funders, (to make it clear the business process is as follows: we take an order for a car, we buy that car and then we fund that car. As we don’t have enough to fund the thousands of cars we buy every year – last year we spent £125 million on cars – we fund it through asset funders.) But during the credit crunch our three funders became one. Subsequently, our one remaining funder, Lloyds, did what any business would do and doubled our interest rates which made us very uncompetitive in the market. This was when we came up with the pivot of the business; we went from being a traditional leasing company delivery company cars to a salary sacrifice car scheme provider.

What was the most challenging aspect of redirecting and reenergising the business?

We had a massive issue in only having one funder, so we looked at how we could address that. None of the other funders were interested in lending money in 2008-2009, so we went to one of our main competitors. They had plenty of money but they weren’t able to offer their customers a salary sacrifice scheme. We did a deal where we white labelled a salary sacrifice system for them and in return they lent us several million to buy vehicles at a much lower rate than we were getting from the bank, which made the whole thing work.

How did you cope with subsequent rapid growth?

It wasn’t immediate growth in the first instance. We came up with the idea of salary sacrifice car schemes in May 2008 and we were first to market. We launched on 1st October 2008, (we beat our main competitor by about eight weeks) but in 2009 we only took 61 orders for cars on the scheme. It was a challenge as we knew it would take off, but nobody else believed it would on the back of 61 car orders in 12 months. To put that in perspective, in the second year we took 790 car orders on salary sacrifice and the following year it was nearly 2,000. The growth didn’t start to happen until 2010-2011. 2009 was laying the ground works and going to see all the employee benefit providers who hadn’t heard of this new product. This then put us in a very good position for when they did get it.

Changing ownership is always challenging, how was the process for you?

The process was fantastic. People always say, going through a P.E transaction is a nightmare, it’s loads of work, which it is, but it’s great fun. It’s exciting and you’re working 14-15 hours a day then going home and doing the day job, so you’re working 18-20 hour days for the months during the transaction. It’s great from a team perspective as well and the rewards are fantastic if you get it right. We were lucky as we had a huge amount of interest and a long shortlist of potential new investors.

Explain a bit about customer service at Tusker

I think we do things quite differently at Tusker, things we’re not contractually obliged to do. When we looked at how we wanted to differentiate ourselves from the market we came up with the elephant manifesto. It’s about doing the right thing for the customer and treating them as you would like to be treated yourself. Everyone in the business thinks that way now and hopefully we have a good reputation for it. That’s not the reason we do it, it’s just about doing the right thing. As far as I am aware we’re currently the only leasing company that has dared put themselves on Trust Pilot. We have a score of 9.2% with over 550 reviews, it’s a completely independent gauge of our customer service. Treating customers the right way should be a way life but it pays dividends at the end of the day and it differentiates us against all our competitors.

How do you work with your board of directors?

We have a senior management team of ten and four operational board directors. We’re very inclusive with each other – we share decisions, no one makes them by themselves and if we have issues we share them with each other. If you don’t communicate, you end up making bad decisions for the business. We talk every day, even in the evenings and at weekends – we all know what we’re working on and how projects are going. If you’re lucky enough to be in a business that you love, it never feels like work.

If you were running a masterclass for entrepreneurs, what would you tell them?

I don’t think I would be running a masterclass for entrepreneurs, I might get a guest pitch! I think I’d talk about how it’s all very well coming up with the idea for a product or concept but that’s not the difficult part, the difficult part is delivering it! Then it’s turning it into a commercial success, as well as planning, implementing, launching, relaunching and scaling it to make it worthwhile. There are lots of companies who have great products, but they haven’ been able to scale them to create the value that we all want to generate as part of the P.E community.

Philanthropy is important to you, why? And do you think entrepreneurs should be incorporating philanthropy into their businesses?

I didn’t really get involved in charities until seven years ago. In 2010 my 21-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia and we spent the next four months in and out of hospital with chemotherapy. She was on the Teenage Cancer Trust Ward in Birmingham which was just fantastic. I don’t know how she would have coped without the support that they were able to give her. During 2011 she went into remission and then at the back end of 2011 we lost her during a bone marrow transplant. When you lose somebody that close to you, it makes you think differently about life. As a family, we wanted to support Teenage Cancer Trust because they’d been so fantastic. So, that’s how we got involved personally and then Tusker became a corporate sponsor of the charity. In 2013 a group of 26 of us, about half the business at the time, decided to do Tough Mudder and we raised more than £25,000 for Teenage Cancer Trust. From that we have continued to support the charity. We did Tough Mudder again in 2014, we do cake bakes and dress down days amongst other activities. We’re actually doing Tough Mudder again on 6th May, there’s 61 of us doing it this time – it’s a big part of the business now. Doing things for charity are the best team building events that you can do, it helps to create a great culture. I think it’s absolutely a good idea to incorporate that into any business.

What’s your future and the future of Tusker?

I think I’m still young enough to have another couple of turns at this. The last two years since Smedvig exited and ECI came on board have been great fun, the business has gone from strength to strength. We are now, as of last week, listed in the FT as one of the top 1,000 fastest growing companies in Europe, we came in at number 605 across 31 countries. And about six weeks ago we were number 28 in the Sunday Times Profit Track. It’s been a good three years for us. To put that in perspective, EBITDA’s gone from £3.6m to £7.4m to £9.5m and we’ll be somewhere around £11m this year. I think ECI’s typical investment hold is three to five years, we’re two and a bit years into this and I think their aspiration is to get an EV well north of £200m –  I don’t see that being far away. In terms of my future, I’m having a great time. We’ve invested just over £3m in the last six months with new finance and back office systems, as well as new telephone systems – we won’t see the return on that until next year but it’s a great thing to be managing. I think I’m still young enough to be around in five to seven years’ time through the next transaction and then maybe disappear on the one after that to go and sit on a beach somewhere.

To donate to Tusker’s Fundraising page for Teenage Cancer Trust, Cancer Research UK & the MS Trust, click here


Talking Tusker at the BVCA High Growth Conference

On 1st June Smedvig Capital’s Rob Toms joined a panel at the BVCA High Growth conference alongside Paul McCreadie of ECI and David Hosking, CEO of Tusker. The panel outlined Tusker’s journey from 2000 when Smedvig initially invested until today, a year after the buyout by ECI focusing on the need for different support from investors at different stages of a business’s evolution.



My Home Move’s Annual Conference: A Fresh Perspective

On Wednesday 18th May My Home Move held their annual Housing Conference offering guests ‘A Fresh Perspective’ on the UK property market.

The morning included a talk by Economist James Knightly discussing Brexit. Whilst trying to remain impartial Knightly’s words and supporting slides demonstrated the logic of remaining in the EU.

In the afternoon Ryan Webb, CRO Director of Search Star, talked about changing consumer behaviour and technology. He focused on how mobile experience is finally starting to drive multiple areas of the property market, and will be the battlefield of the coming years. He noted the gigantic US property market is leading many of these innovations.

The conference was followed by an awards dinner and charity auction which raised over £4000 for the My Home Move Charitable Trust.

An evening in conversation with TrialReach

On Thursday 14th April Smedvig Capital held an evening in conversation with Pablo Graiver and Keith Lovell, CEO and CFO of patient-focused technology company TrialReach. Founded in 2008, TrialReach connects patients and researchers to drive medical science forward. It has raised almost $20m in venture capital and grown to become a leading player in the digital health sector.

CEO Pablo is a seasoned entrepreneur who has built high-scale businesses in the online retail, travel, mobile, media and health sectors. His past firms include, and Value Click. In 2008 he founded TrialReach.

CFO Keith has more than 20 years’ experience of financial and commercial management, ranging from small entrepreneurial enterprises to large blue chip companies. Prior to TrialReach Keith spent over nine years at Shazam as CFO and a member of the executive team that grew the business from a small start up to a global mobile media brand.

Serial Entrepreneur and professional speaker Philip de Lisle compered the conversation with Pablo and Keith focusing on their extensive experience of scaling up a start up. Below is a short excerpt from the evening’s conservation:

Where do you start when you’re trying to scale up a business?

Pablo: You have to start way before you actually want to scale up the business. You need to think about the problem that you’re trying to address, and keep yourself in check with the question, ‘Am I solving this problem?’ From that core problem you draw your plan: it’s about the technologies, the people and the business model you will be operating. When I was at Kelkoo in 2000 we were a small company in Madrid with around 12 people. We met another small company in Paris and we had to decide whether to compete or merge. We decided to merge and then we were 20 people with a great idea and some tech that we wanted to build. Suddenly 3-4 months later we were 125 people with 35M Euro in the bank and offices in 5 countries. That’s not something that’s healthy or easy to replicate but it’s an example of what happens when something really accelerates and you can’t really plan it, when to scale to that speed. I don’t think there’s a recipe for where you start, but you have to be very clear about what you’re trying to do and always check that the elements you’re addressing are solving that initial problem.

What is the biggest challenge?

Pablo: In hindsight, for TrialReach, the timing at the beginning was a bit early, although now it seems like being early was actually a good thing. We were talking to the market and very few people understood what we were trying to do. The industry didn’t understand, the customers didn’t understand, and neither did the investors. I think now the market has changed and the industry is much more sophisticated and digital health as a sector is robust and flourishing, which is great for us. But in the beginning it was very hard to articulate our idea in a way that the market could understand.

How do you create and foster the right culture?

Keith: It’s easier if you have a really identifiable mission about what you’re doing. Shazam was easy because we had music. Music is something everyone can buy in to and be passionate about, so it was quite simple to have a fun, easy going culture. With TrialReach it is more about the fact that we are attempting to do something meaningful, we want to transform the way clinical trials are being carried out. We’re trying to bring together Pharma companies and patients, two sides of what should be the same equation, to advance together in a way that they haven’t done before.

Pablo: I think culture varies from one company to another. It’s essentially what we’re doing, how we behaving, and natural things that happen when they are not forced. It comes from clearly identifying the values of the company and what it is trying to do and then identifying people who feel they are passionate about that and want to participate in it.

You have a lot of experience with VC money, so the first question is, does it help or hinder?  And secondly, what does it bring with it?

Keith: It can be either. Hopefully if you do it right it’s a help. VCs obviously have a time and place and it’s not just about VC money it’s about having the right VC. I think the most important thing is to make sure you’re getting the right people for your business. All VCs provide money but also important is the experience, contacts and potentially the name that’s attached. After that it comes down to who’s actually getting involved in the business and also, if you’re dealing with the right VC, that they’re joining the business in the right way.

Pablo: I agree with Keith, it could be both, or either. I think the key thing is to try to understand what the plan is and what the investment you’re asking for is going to fund. Then try to communicate that as openly and transparently as possible. Even if it’s not the best plan, if it’s the right investor it will create a great synergy.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Pablo: In 1999 I went to New York for the first or second edition of the Internet World Conference. I went to meet the founder of a company called Linkshire which was one of the most important affiliate marketing companies of the time. I was explaining my idea to this guy and he looked at me and said ‘it’s all about the execution in end hey?’ It’s a very small piece of advice but when you’re in starts ups and you’re building a business, you realise all your plans and ideas come down to how persistent you are, how much you actually get done and how well you do it. The quality and speed of your decisions and how you implement them is all that matters.

CEO Johnny Hewett presents at Pitch on Tour, Manchester

‘Pitching should be a two way thing, choose someone that you like and will enjoy working with.’

CEO Johnny Hewett was invited to present to entrepreneurs at the regional Pitch@Palace on Tour event in Manchester earlier this month.

Pitch@Palace was founded by the Duke of York to support the amplification and acceleration of business ideas by connecting the founders with potential supporters including CEOs, Angels & Mentors.



Smedvig Summer Event

Despite the English weather being against us we had fantastic attendance at our summer event held at Tom’s Terrace, Somerset House on Wednesday 2nd September.

It’s always lovely to be able to bring together people from across the Smedvig network for an evening of catch ups, introductions, drinks and canapés.

Thank you to everyone who joined us and made it such an enjoyable evening!


In conversation with… Ed Bussey, CEO and founder of Quill

Smedvig Capital and Entrepreneurs Universe recently hosted an evening with global content marketing specialists, Quill at Home House. Founder and CEO, Ed Bussey was our guest speaker, in conversation with Philip de Lisle. Attendees included CEOs, as well Founders and Chairs of interesting growth companies.

Founded in 2011, Quill is purpose built to deliver high performance content across an unparalleled number of topics, formats and languages. Quill is a trusted content partner for global brands and agencies including Shop Direct, STA Travel, LA Fitness, Reckitt Benckiser,, WPP, Aegis and Publicis.

Prior to launching Quill in 2011, Ed was Chief Operating Officer at ZYB, an award-winning mobile social networking pioneer acquired by Vodafone Plc in May 2008. Ed was also part of the founding team and Global Marketing Director of online clothing retailer, acquired by N Brown Plc in Oct 2010.

In March 2014 Smedvig Capital led a £5M investment in Quill  to accelerate growth, consolidating the business’s position as a European leader in content marketing and advancing the roll-out of their proprietary SaaS Platform.

Here’s a snapshot from the event:

Philip: Where did the urge to become an entrepreneur come from?

Ed: I never planned to be an entrepreneur – it happened by accident. I wanted to do something adventurous so joined the navy, but then I got a place at Cambridge. The navy paid for me to go there on a salary so I guess that was entrepreneurial! I joined the Young Entrepreneur’s Society at Cambridge and ended up becoming President.

I entered the ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ competition with a business plan around a publishing idea ironically. As one of the UK winners, I was sent to San Francisco and found myself in an environment I had never been exposed to before. I was so inspired – not just by speakers like Steve Jobs and Michael Dell but by the 17 and 18 year olds running amazing businesses – that I went back and set up a business from my room which was completely against the college rules.

One afternoon I was called to the bursar who wanted to know what I was doing; after some moments of silence, he said he was impressed and I could continue the business as long as I was going to lectures. At the end of my third year I sold the business and went back into the navy.

I re-emerged in 2000 when the internet was kicking off and, regrouping with the guy I had sold the business to at university, started the journey that was to become

Philip: You’ve done a lot with PE, but also with your non-exec hat on you’ve done a lot with non-PE. Could share with us what the differences are between the two, and how you found working on both sides?

Ed: I’ve had experience of both; Quill’s Series A round was almost entirely made up of angel investors, plus Ariadne Capital. Our Series B round was led by Smedvig Capital with a number of angel investors following on.

I am a massive believer in the value that angel investors can bring to a business like ours – the battle scars gained through having built and exited businesses of their own are valuable beyond money.

In the UK now it’s much easier than it was five or six years ago to find enough of those people to pull together a million pounds. We raised just under a million in our Series A; almost entirely from former and existing entrepreneurs looking for new ventures to back. That Series A group has been incredibly supportive in terms of introductions to potential candidates and clients, but also as a sounding board.

There is a very complimentary and important role for Private Equity alongside that as you reach a stage where you need to access bigger sums of money.

Both are important and bring different values to a business like Quill.

Philip: What’s been the scariest thing that’s happened to you on your journey?

Ed: I think the scariest thing for any entrepreneur is running out of cash. In the early days I was funding the business whilst persuading good people to join me out of good jobs, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

The moments when you can see the end of the runway and your cash burn running to zero are the most frightening.

Philip: If you were running a master-class for entrepreneurs today, what would you teach them?

Ed: The first thing would be honesty. Is your business plan and concept really going to make money? You’ve got to be really honest about your plan, but also be honest with yourself; at Quill we believe the people who perform best in an early-stage business are those who are self-aware. I think if an entrepreneur is not able to self-audit, it can be a recipe for problems down the line.

Secondly, I would teach stamina; it’s a marathon, rarely a sprint. There are going to be moments of elation, but also moments of massive stress and extreme disappointment. You’ve got to have the energy and the stamina to keep looking for the solutions to problems.

The third thing is about people; people are critical to a business. The good entrepreneurs make a point of hiring really great people – even if it takes longer. In some cases those people might well be a lot better than the entrepreneur themselves.

Philip: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs today?

Ed: I think the barriers to entry are coming down, especially in digital and tech. The biggest challenge now is speed to market.

Availability of capital and of talent is also a key factor; one of the biggest challenges Quill has faced over the past few years has been finding great people.

I would probably put finance as number three; it’s never easy to raise money, not least because it takes time to do it properly and the process is very competitive.

Philip: How do you actually go about finding people?

Ed: In the early days, through my network – as a founder entrepreneur it’s good to be continually keeping an eye out for great talent. However, we’ve grown from 3 to 30 people in three and a bit years and at some point you need to hire dedicated search people. The best people are not necessarily looking for work right now, and businesses like Quill need to entice them out. Recruiters and search firms are an effective way of doing that.

Philip: Given that you need to hold onto your top people, how do you grow them?

Ed: It is difficult for early stage businesses in some respects because we don’t have big budgets, training departments or HR.

What we offer fundamentally is a stake in the business, which for me is almost a point of principal for the first few years. I look for people who are going to come and work with me – not for me – to help realise Quill’s vision. That’s a lot of work and I’m expecting people to go the extra mile. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to come in and do that without some share in what we are creating.

Also, in my experience, the best way of learning in areas such as new technology and digital marketing approaches is on the job in businesses like Quill and – at the time –

P: How would you define success and could you share your personal drivers?

Ed: For me success is a very relative thing; it’s about making choices – not just material choices but personal, health and lifestyle choices – and then seeking to fulfil our potential and realise those choices.

Success is also about trying to mindfully enjoy the journey; the danger for people like me – who tend to be quite results orientated – is that it becomes all about the destination and we forget the journey.

Philip: What’s the future for the company and what’s the future for you?

Ed: In terms of Quill, we want to become the global leader in our space. I think we have got the timing on this right; when we started there was almost no talk of content, and now you can hardly move for mention of it. We have a huge opportunity, a fantastic team, and good investors behind us. I see our investors – Smedvig – as partners.

Personally, I want to build a great business but I also really want to have quality time with my family. I will keep doing both so long as I feel motivated and inspired by what we are trying to create.

Audience: Why would you choose Smedvig for funding?

Ed: When we did our Series B, we were fortunate enough to have multiple term sheets in and multiple institutional investors looking to invest.

I chose Smedvig for several reasons. Firstly, their questions were the most intelligent during the ‘dating process’ as we were getting to know each other.

Secondly, their fund structure is different, and that for me is a benefit because they aren’t doing investments all over the place. They really get behind their portfolio businesses. They are very partnership oriented and I actually trust them, enough to include them in as much as I possibly can.

I want to work with Smedvig over course of the next few years to build a great company.

Smedvig Capital and Entrepreneurs Universe event – Tuesday 4th March 2014

Earlier this month, Smedvig Capital and Entrepreneurs Universe jointly hosted an event at Home House. The evening included a lively conversation with Streetcar co-founder and entrepreneur Brett Akker, and Sir Trevor Chinn, whose previous roles include Chairman of Lex Service PLC that became the RAC PLC, Kwik-Fit, Chairman of the AA, ITIS holdings and The Mayor’s Fund for London.

Sir Trevor Chinn was appointed as Chairman of Streetcar during Smedvig Capital’s investment in the business. Brett worked closely with Smedvig Capital and Sir Trevor for a number of years during Smedvig’s investment in Streetcar, a pioneering business which revolutionised the car-sharing market. Brett is now moving on with his second venture, LOVESPACE, exploiting a current gap within the self-storage market.

Sir Trevor and Brett were in conversation with Philip de Lisle, a serial entrepreneur whose last venture had a $1.5Billion valuation when he exited.

Below is a snapshot of what was said.

How did the idea for Streetcar come about?

Brett: Myself and Andrew went through quite a structured process, we knew that we wanted to start a business but didn’t have a clue what business to start. Whilst we were both in corporate jobs, we used to meet up regularly. We talked through all sorts of things that would have failed horribly.

We happened upon an article on car sharing in the States and in Europe, and had this sort of WOW moment of ‘this should work well in London’. That was when the seed was planted. We then did 9 months worth of research, focus groups, business planning etc before we launched in April 2004.

Moving onto Lovespace, do you want to give us an example of how it works?

Brett: Lovespace is effectively bringing the Streetcar concept into a different arena – self-storage. What streetcar did to car rental is what we are looking for Lovespace to do with self-storage.

We collect and deliver from your home anywhere in the UK, and you can store one box at a time rather than forking out for a minimum of £70/80 per month for a traditional self-storage unit. You can store as little or as much as you like and you can store from anywhere in the UK as we can come wherever you are to pick up and drop off.

It is a new paradigm; a new way of doing things.

Sir Trevor, given your range of interests, how do you choose what projects to get involved in?

Trevor: What I’ve learnt in business is I better get involved in things I understand, and my record is that whenever I have been involved in things I understand I have made money, and whenever I have been involved in things I didn’t understand I’ve lost money. So it’s pretty straight forward, and for me that really means automotive.

Moving to Private Equity, what is the difference between chairing a Private Equity company vs. a non-PE company?

Trevor: I spent most of my life in a public company, and I think basically the private equity model is a better model. Interests are aligned; everybody sitting around the boardroom table has exactly the same interests, they realise that what is good for the business has to be also good for the customers.

I think the private equity model works brilliantly; not for all companies and not at all times for companies, but certainly for a period of time, particularly in the building up.

Smedvig was involved with Streetcar, and is involved with Lovespace, so Brett it is clearly a happy relationship for you. How have you found working with Private Equity?

Brett: The fact I am working on Lovespace with Smedvig as well says it all I think. They were very supportive with Streetcar, and they were challenging when they needed to be challenging.

A lot of the reason why we chose Smedvig over others was because we felt that they would challenge us. We felt that others may give us an easier ride but they wouldn’t add as much value to the business, outside of just money, as Smedvig would.

We also saw both sides of success and failure. When Smedvig came on board, and in our first meeting with Trevor, he said to us, ‘whatever you do don’t get yourselves into a position where you need money again because it won’t turn out well for you’. We spectacularly didn’t do it once, we did it twice. Smedvig were very fair with us and saw us through that. So that was another big positive from their side.

What’s it like working with a heavy hitting Chairman? What have you learnt?

Brett: I think if anyone asks me what the best thing that happened to Streetcar was, I will always say it was Trevor coming on board as Chairman. He was a fantastic sounding board for myself and Andrew; he really was a mentor.

He gave us structure in terms of the processes we went through as a business, in terms of board meetings, that we just didn’t have beforehand.

He also single handedly opened doors for us that changed the business overnight. For instance we had been knocking on the door of Volkswagon who were our vehicle partner for 3 or 4 years, trying to do more with them; telling them all the good stuff that we were doing but we didn’t get anywhere. The second day that Trevor came on the board, suddenly they were calling us.

What have you learnt from Trevor which you can take forward?

Brett: I am chairing Lovespace at the moment; so I think if, when I am Trevor’s age, I am half as good as him, I will be pleased with myself. He was fantastic at giving us time whenever we needed it; he was always there for us. We always had a monthly meeting that never got pushed, he took them very seriously and that meant a lot to us. He was also fantastic at managing a board; when you’ve got execs and non-execs there is sometimes that healthy tension there and Trevor was great at managing that.

Trevor, most entrepreneurs cut their teeth two or three times before they get private equity backing. Streetcar was Brett’s first attempt. How does he differ from other CEO’s you have worked with?

Trevor: When Smedvig were looking at Streetcar, two things really impressed me with Brett and Andrew, their enthusiasm for what they were doing, and their total commitment to customer service. I happen to believe that in service businesses it is all about customers.

When Smedvig were looking at the business, they saw that in the call centre they employed graduates, and the first thought was, ‘they can save some money here’, until they understood what it was about. Brett and Andrew realised that if you want to give great service and it’s a call centre business, you better have damn good people in the call centre, and that’s what they set out to do. People would consider themselves members, not customers.

It was this enthusiasm, and dedication to customer service, very high standards and clearly two very bright guys that impressed me. It was a pleasure.

If you could re-run the clock, and do the Streetcar story again, what would you change?

Brett: I think the Zipcar deal happened at a good time; it was the right time for us. We had been approached by them and a few others over the years, but it just felt like it was the right time.

When we were very small, we had 5/6 employees in one room, and therefore the decision making was generally was all encompassing, so everyone felt a part of that decision making process. I don’t think we did a good enough job bringing those people along the journey with us as we grew. They obviously were not going to be part of every decision, but I think we could have managed that better.

I am very interested in the way that we interact within companies and society. How important are your people to you, and more importantly how and where do you find them?

Brett: People are absolutely crucial; the success and failure of the business is down to the people. I think one thing we were good at was not being too proud to get in people far better than ourselves to look after different areas of the business.

In terms of how you bring them in; we use advertising, we might use agencies, but I think at the end of the day a lot of the senior people always come through recommendations from friends or recommendations from other businesses.

What do you think the biggest challenge is today facing entrepreneurs?

Brett: With an unknown brand I think it’s one of trust, and that goes across all aspects of the business. Being perceived as trustworthy in terms of people investing in the business; do people actually believe that you’re the right person to take that business forward; do customers, members believe enough in you, in the brand, and in the business to actually join in the first place?

In conversation with…Tim Bleakley, CEO of Ocean Outdoor

Earlier this month, Smedvig Capital and Entrepreneurs Universe jointly hosted an evening with Ocean Outdoor at Home House. Tim Bleakley, CEO of Ocean Outdoor, and previous MD of CBS International Outdoor and Viacom Outdoor, shared his career journey with the audience. Attendees included CEOs, as well founders and Chairs of interesting growth companies.

Smedvig Capital initially invested in Ocean Outdoor, the UK leader and innovator in spectacular and iconic out of home advertising sites, in 2008. In May 2012, the business was sold to UK-based mid-market private equity house, Lloyds Development Capital (LDC), for £35m.

Here’s a snapshot of the conversation:

Where did the urge come from to become an entrepreneur?

I was entrepreneurial in early life, and that stayed with me well through corporate life – running businesses and turning brands around – but I never really shared in the value creation.

I feel almost born again in the world of private equity where there is freedom to run the business, support, encouragement and drive, with little red tape around it. I find that really invigorating.

What made you take the jump from the corporate world into the PE world? And, why Smedvig Capital?

When I was making the decision, it was about trying to match the things I was passionate about and being relatively bold about those things I was good at. You have to be honest with yourself – know your strengths and weaknesses. Building teams, turnaround across a three or four year period, innovation and ideas, and energy have always been things I have had in abundance.

The great thing about private equity is that for a lot of the things I wasn’t as qualified in, a good VC house has in spades, but they don’t necessarily have some of the attributes that their CEO or management team might have.

You have somebody in the background to guide you through the labyrinth – particularly in a business that’s failing – to get it back on track. I think that’s a lethal combination.

I found myself lucky in a small business that had the potential to have a really large profile, and was at the beginnings of something very exciting which I understood; the transition from analogue to digital. You could recognise very quickly that this was a business that had massive potential.

I’d like you to amplify what you found are the key differences between PE and non-PE?

You have to be able to think quickly and move fast in this day and age, and in large corporates you can get a lot of unnecessary stagnation and red tape.

In my experience of private equity, strong chairmanship is very important for corporate governance, and also integrity of shareholders and the board are very important. I found there is more cutting through what really matters in corporate governance versus what is just red tape.

In order to move quickly and move fast you need support – you don’t need the red tape – and you need strong chairmanship, as well as shareholders and investors with integrity.

On your new journey in the PE world what have you particularly enjoyed?

There are a number of things I have enjoyed. In my view if you’re not learning you’re not living. I found the learning experience really invigorating, and felt I was becoming a better businessman on the back of their expertise; it wasn’t a one-way street from a development point of view.

I found the entrepreneurship, drive and pace motivational because there is a focus on what really matters. At Smedvig and LDC, they are very good at helping management teams focus on the key metrics for growing a business.

Those things lend themselves to freedom to operate, and agility. That sort of environment encourages innovation, ideas and people moving at the right pace, under the right sorts of pressures.

What do you think the world of PE can do for the wider economy? What do you think it can do to kick-start the economy?

The more that can be done in really understanding the nature and the mind sets of the teams you are investing in early on, the more there will be to share at the end of the day as the business is a success. I encourage all PE firms to invest more in the early stages in how they analyse people skills.

We need people to invest in those who have ideas and energy; people who are willing to say they have a good idea but need the help, skills and management set, and need capital.

What do you think the biggest challenge facing entrepreneurs is today?

The pace of technological change is phenomenal – I think that is both the biggest opportunity and the biggest risk. Personally I am a huge believer in people and team building. I think having the right people around you and spending a lot of time on that in the early stages of any start-up or business will pay dividends in the end.

Firstly because it can protect you from the risk of changes in technology – you should have the right people around you who are adaptable and understand it – and also because one of the biggest challenges right now is around retention of talent.

You are known for building leading management teams, and for your leadership. Where and how have you found your top people?

It’s a combination of experience over time; I have always spent a lot of time recognising talented people early on in their careers – marking them down mentally – as one day it might be worth giving them a call. Hopefully I create an enjoyable environment in which people can work. As I have moved I have been able to take people with me and recruit good talent.

I have often looked in other sectors as well. I think it’s usually important in a fast turnaround or a brand turnaround within a media organisation to drop a few grenades in there to change the status quo. That usually means going to a different sector that has some similar attributes but perhaps quite a different way of thinking.

When you have put your team together, and you have a clear picture of the progression that they are going to make, what do you do to grow your team and people?

In large businesses open communication is very important; you have to get messages out so that people understand change. I am a massive believer in development; a lot of that is around transparency. I like to allow people to come into their working life and it to be an extension of their lives.

Abstract training is something I am a big believer in – putting people in an environment where they can ask stupid questions and learn is very important – particularly at a senior level. I am also a believer in taking people out of the comfort of their environment and getting them to do different things.

In PE in particular, it’s very important to do things in an all for one, one for all basis. We created an atmosphere at Ocean where everybody is sharing in the value. The talk of exit is banned – people don’t want to work in a business that’s going to end – people want to work in a business where they are going to grow, and they’re taking it somewhere.

MBAs or managers? (Experience based vs. book based?)

There is huge value in technical development; a lot of people are massively successful having had that sort of training and education. In terms of actual management and leadership, there is no text book in my view. Your experiences in life are the things that influence your style of leadership, and your ability to relate to and interact with other human beings.

What are your own drivers and values?

Firstly, challenge is very important to me; the idea of being able to do something that somebody has said is not possible is a big personal motivator.

The second thing is people; I need the energy of people around me and I enjoy the interaction between people.

Honestly, I am more interested in building a media brand that has a reputation for changing the model in our sector, or doing something that people didn’t think was possible, than the cheque at exit.

Who’s had the biggest influence on you, and what was it?

Sir Robin Miller and Kelvin MacKenzie, from an inspirational point of view. Sir Robin Miller always said management isn’t about privileges, he was very people orientated and instilled the ethos at Emap. Kelvin MacKenzie was hugely influential personally because of his sheer front against the establishment.

Also Tom Goddard, who was Global Chief Exec at CBS, and is now Chairman at Ocean (and a number of other companies). My father was also a huge influence on me; he was a state educator in the comprehensive system and always saw the good in people. He is someone I perhaps get some of my people skills from.

Looking back on your career, what would you have done differently?

I would have left corporate life 8-10 years earlier. I should have probably followed my instincts and moved into this entrepreneurial part of business life earlier.

What does the future hold for Ocean, and for Tim Bleakley?

We specialise in large giant format digital out of home displays, and also spectacular displays such as the Imax at Waterloo. We specialise in those stand-out locations, and operate 35 to 40 of those locations. I think our smallest competitor operates about 6/700 billboards. There are four players, who control 90% of the market, and they all have tens of thousands of billboards; we are a precision specialist in the part of the market that is growing the fastest.

The future of our business – what will take us from a £35m business to a £100m business – we hope is all around Ocean being the bridge between the old and the new. We have put technology on the streets that’s not being driven at full speed in many ways, and the next part of our development is trying to form that bridge between the technology that’s on the street, which can display fantastic looking full motion pictures and video etc., but also can connect machine to machine. The next stage for us is around mobile out of home; how are we going to connect this fantastic kit we put on the streets to tablet devices.

For me personally, perhaps move into another sector and turn something around on a larger scale where I have some share of the value creation. After that opportunity, what I’d like to do is try and legitimise some of my theories and share them in a collegiate way.