The Santander Small to Medium-Sized Business of the Year Finalist Focus:Patrick Howells

Tell us about your business.
We are an industry-leading creative events agency, providing our customers with innovative and engaging ways for them to connect with their audiences.

We offer strong creative design and in-house technical and logistics teams to ensure that everything we suggest we can practically be produced on time, on budget and within specification – a promise solely creative or production agencies cannot make. It’s an approach that client’s have praised and has resulted in regular repeat business, strong client relationships as well as attracting new business wins.

We have a unique ‘joined-up’ way of working, with our specialist divisions being in-house rather than loose collaborations with third party suppliers. This includes creative, design, PR, video, digital, exhibitions and print which are all delivered under the direct control of a single team. Among the benefits to our customers are the cohesion and integration in the work we produce, and the degree of budgetary control we exercise on their behalf. We operate in the marketing and events sector. The core base of our clients operate in the retail and retail banking sectors however our business model has also allowed us to diversify into public sector, out of town retail, commercial banking, and we look to replicate this in pharmaceutical, automotive and IT.

How did you fund your business?
Fresh recently completed a management buyout from joint owners and founders Nick Porter and Julie Besbrode. Manchester based NVM Private Equity has backed fresh’s three-strong management team of Patrick Howells (Managing Director), Antony Wilson (Financial Director) and Damian Besbrode (Operations Director) in funding the MBO.

What is the biggest challenge SMEs are currently facing?
A common issue within the events industry is team morale and wellbeing, due to the long hours required, and people often leave the industry. We’re trying to address the work life balance issue in our sector and we’ve used feedback from our internal surveys to do this. Having discussed this with new starters to gain a wider knowledge of where this happens in the industry, we are the only agency we know of who offer a structured approach to keeping our team happy, maintaining a healthy approach to work and play. Wider issues include recruitment and finding and maintaining the high level of expertise in line with business growth, reducing budgets from clients as marketing is always a target for budget cuts.

Can you give any advice to others starting up businesses?
Be passionate about what you do, and enjoy the work. If you enjoy what you do and can take pleasure from creating it then there are so many places you can go. Foster the talent you have, appreciate the people who have helped you achieve success and don’t have preconceived ideas of where or what your business will become – amazing things can come from somewhere you least expect.

How do you foster innovation throughout your business?
Recognising that innovation can come from anywhere in your business is key and, as a creative agency, fostering innovation is what wins us new businesses and maintains our existing client base, so it is absolutely vital for us. Creating an environment where people from any part of the business can get involved is therefore imperative. Our management philosophy is to lead by example and reward our team on merit and the introduction of the Production Team (which consists of a senior or head of department representative from each area of the business) is the newest addition to our company structure. This ensures thatthere is an appropriate amount of representation of the wider team at management level, necessary to accommodate how the business has grown over the last 18 months. It means there is no detachment from activity happening on the ground and upper management whilst encouraging the whole team to influence how we manage the business. We have also conducted an internal survey to establish how people feel about working at fresh. The results drove a list of actions ranging from changing the format of our monthly business update meeting, introducing a company pension scheme, the creation of the Production Team management structure and the creation of the Social Team and a new internal monthly award, ‘Unsung Hero’. We hope that by creating an open, engaging, transparent working environment, that will foster innovation in our already creative teams and that the added reward and benefit system, and clear business plan and aims, will encourage people to use their skills for the benefit of the business.

How are you managing the challenges associated with fast growth?
Our growth plans are based on strengthening our relationships with existing clients as well as continuing to invest in new business. We are constantly refining our business growth strategy and we have identified key areas for future growth in the events sector which for us include public sector (working to our credentials in this area having already delivered a range of public events), retail based to build on our longstanding credentials in this sector, pharmaceutical (utilising the vast experience and background of key members of our team) and attracting new clients to our exhibition offering – identified as a new ‘route in’ to hard to reach clients.

Through careful growth and monitoring our level of expenditure during the past decade, we have ensured that we are financially robust and continue to invest a proportion of our profits back into the business – as evidenced by the establishment of our exhibitions division and the expansion of our offices.

We are committed to expansion – as seen in our increasing head count – including an increase in the number of our graduate placements, however in terms of fast growth, this is also one of our challenges. Fast continued growth means a need for additional recruits and we are committed to finding the right people for the right roles. To help overcome this, we’ve developed an incentive scheme of a financial reward if a team member recommends someone they know for a role at fresh. We recognise we have access to the wider industry through our current team. Another challenge, as for most businesses, is the challenge of reduced client budgets. By remaining competitive in all areas, by creating solutions that not only meet budgetary constraints but demonstrate added value, by ensuring we have the knowledge to deliver new technologies, we are now looking forward with even greater confidence in our ability to grow.