Many people begin their lives with uncertainty, unsure of the paths they will take or the heights they will reach. This is the story of Aftab, whose story is one of extraordinary achievement and perseverance in the face of uncertainty and daunting challenges.
Ace Money Transfer started out as the most unprepossessing of fledglings but has grown into a very fine swan indeed. The fintech – which lets customers move money abroad quickly and easily – began life as a little shop. Today it employs 300 people, has offices in 14 countries, turns over £30m a year and is relied upon by 1.3 million customers. It also operates charitable endeavors and is building a town on a 100-acre site near its birthplace in Pakistan.
Two young brothers
However, the bird that cracked the egg in 1992 showed few signs of swan-like potentiality. The business began in Kharian, Pakistan – a town of around 100,000 people between Lahore and Islamabad. There, the father of two teenage brothers – Aftab and Rashid Ashraf – ran a travel agency where barely a day passed without clients asking to send cash overseas. Spotting an opportunity, 19-year-old Aftab opened a currency exchange next door. It did well, and Rashid soon joined the business.
In 1999, Aftab got married and moved to the UK. Three years later, armed with the knowledge he’d amassed at the currency exchange and bags of youthful fearlessness, he opened an outlet in Bolton, UK, to help people to send money to Pakistan. This was ACE Money Transfer’s first branch.
Twenty-four years later, ACE is one of the world’s most exciting B2C fintech companies. It’s been an incredible journey for Aftab, now chair of Ace Money Transfer, his brother Rashid, now CEO, and their team. To put things into perspective, ACE Money Transfer was born amid the aftershocks of 9/11 and sometimes used fax to do business. Then, six years later, it rode the global financial crash, staying healthy despite foundation-shaking market changes.
In other words, since those shops in Kharian and Bolton opened, ACE Money Transfer has seen the world undergo a financial and technological revolution. Yet it has navigated these storms with apparent ease, launching across Europe and overcoming language barriers and law changes en route, growing into a global business. So how did two teenagers without business or technical training build such a formidable operation?
Take the punches, get stronger
Much of ACE’s success is down to the founders’ intensely humble willingness to absorb lessons, change and work smarter. Rashid says: “In the early days, we had fears and self-doubts. We had to learn how to manage company politics and recover from wrong hires. But these experiences taught us a lot – they let us build better systems. And as time went on, I travelled the UK and Europe, learning even more. So we always keep an open mind and try to bring what we learn into our systems to strengthen us.”
Saplings in the wind
Another significant reason for ACE’s growth was Rashid and Aftab’s early decision to embrace digital technology. Where many companies clung to traditional methods in response to the unprecedented market changes, ACE Money Transfer and its young founders flexed like saplings in strong winds.
The CEO continues: “When we started building ACE, I was 17. At first, we always seemed to be in the red. I worked hard but it didn’t make any difference – and I had no idea why! So in 2000, we decided to bring software into the company and hired a programmer. He’d sit with me, and I’d tell him what I needed. I’d say things like: ‘I want to change that; I want to simplify that accounting process; I want to see those figures on my dashboard.’ I just kept telling him what I wanted. It simplified everything, and after two years our balance sheet was more balanced! That was a success story. If you don’t have an effective system in place – a system than works for you – you’re in trouble.”
The company’s flexibility came to the fore again after Brexit. In response, ACE Money Transfer ditched its ‘agency’ model and became cashless. Previously, 1,300 shopkeepers had acted as agents, using ACE’s tech to send customers’ cash worldwide. But today ACE Money Transfer has no agents; it is a purely online business. It has proved to be a good move.
“The agency system was stressful and hard to manage,” says Rashid. “Now we’re online-only and we all feel more relaxed. This model also means we can scale bigger and faster, and the ultimate goal is to build an ACE ‘digital wallet’ that stretches across the globe, empowering our community to send money anywhere at WhatsApp speed.”
A third factor behind ACE’s remarkable talent for thriving in storms is the deep roots the company has put down in Pakistan. Rather than treating Kharian’s relative remote location as a weakness, the team have turned it into a strength.
Rashid says: “Our back office in Kharian houses our compliance, IT, relationships, accounts and HR teams. We hire locals because we want to give back to our community. Building our Kharian office has been challenging – we’ve had to work harder to attract talent. For example, we’ve built employee hostels, run residential courses and we provide transport. But it’s paid off and now we have a skilled, loyal workforce.”
The supportive workplace culture that Aftab, Rashid and their colleagues have built is a fourth reason for ACE’s long-term growth. In Kharian and Bolton – and their offices across the globe – they’ve created a sense of loyalty and pride among the workforce. This, says Rashid, stems from a family-like culture carefully maintained by his brother Aftab, the founder.
Here, Rehan Ashraf, the 22-year-old son of Aftab, joins the conversation. Rehan is a relationship and development executive at ACE and a student at Salford University, and his presence highlights the family dynamic vital to ACE’s success. He says: “Back in the day, Aftab would bring hot food from home and the team would eat together in the office. Now we’ve got 300 employees, so we’ve built a kitchen and cafeteria to carry on that tradition. It’s about eating together, sharing moments and having fun.”
Rehan continues: “Another great thing is our families’ philanthropic endeavors, which was started by my grandfather and then continued by Aftab and Rashid to amplify their father’s and their family’s legacy. This includes daily meals for people – not just the poor but anybody – who can turn up to our office and eat together in the courtyard. It also offers microfinancing and lends vehicles to people who need transport for business. This approach is driven by the desire to address the issue which were faced by Aftab or Rashid on their journey and to offer solutions to other young entrepreneurs.”
The final reason for ACE Money Transfer’s success is the founders’ extraordinary passion for entrepreneurship and creation. The resulting excitement and energy drive not only ACE’s global growth and constant evolution but also spin-off projects, including building a town.
“We’ve bought 100 acres near Kharian,” explains Rashid, “and we’re building homes, schools, a hospital and sporting facilities, including a horse-riding club. We’ve been working on it for nearly two years and I’m loving it because we’re creating a legacy.”
A legacy is precisely what Aftab, Rashid, Rehan and the team are forging, and it’s an amazing outcome from a story that began with two small shops. By flexing like bamboo on the rock-solid cliff-face of a supportive, family-like culture, the founders and their loyal team have created a fast-growing global fintech with enormous potential. And before long, they will have built a town, too.
ACE Money Transfer shows how far you can travel once you start on the entrepreneurial path. Even if your journey begins with a waddle, if you keep going, learn from your mistakes and embrace change as you go, it’s possible to end up swimming downstream like a magnificent swan.
Seven fast-growth lessons from Jeremy Harris, C0-founder and Managing Director of the Tile Mountain Group.
Jeremy Harris is managing director of Tile Mountain Group, and the company he co-founded in 2013 now turns over more than £50m and is expanding fast enough to enter the FEBE Growth 100.
The story starts in 2009, when Jeremy and his former Topps Tiles colleague Mo Iqbal, spotted an opportunity to sell home decor tiles online. So they got their heads together and spent the next three years carefully developing a robust IT infrastructure, culminating in the launch of Tile Mountain in 2013.
When they came up with their business idea, many people thought that tiles were ill-suited to online sales because customers wanted to see, feel and touch them. But this incorrect assumption created a golden pathway for the co-founders.
They took advantage rapidly, using navigation skills rooted in vast industry experience. It turned out that with the correct strategy, people were exceptionally keen to buy tiles online.
In April 2017, Tile Mountain moved into a £10m purpose-built 120,000sqft warehouse, showroom and office complex in Stoke. They’ve since opened eight more ‘destination’ showrooms containing coffee machines and kids’ areas, adding growing offline strength to their online muscle.
But with their powerful IT infrastructure, slick distribution system and huge warehouse capacity, the team soon began to consider what else they could sell. The answer – so far – is flooring and bathrooms.
In 2019, Tile Mountain acquired Kettering-based Walls & Floors and launched Flooring Mountain. Then, in 2021, MD Jeremy, executive chairman Mo and the crew unveiled another brand: Bathroom Mountain. These launches mean that the Tile Mountain Group is now targeting a market that, according to Jeremy, is “probably worth £4-5bn”.
Now let’s find out, in Jeremy’s own words, exactly how he and his entrepreneurial colleagues have achieved so much in ten years.
Make digital sales a science.
“We spent three to four years developing Tile Mountain’s IT infrastructure. It’s the foundation of the business. We have a 300-strong team in the UK, but we employ 100 more in our dedicated IT office in Pakistan. Mo’s Pakistani heritage helped us to do this.”
“Our IT office gives us focused digital expertise and development power.
“For example, we track customers throughout the buying process. Say you’re looking for orange floor tiles. As you search on Google, we serve up a relevant ad (we have a team dedicated to serving up suitable ads). Click on the ad and you will reach a bespoke landing page – if you’re seeking orange tiles, the landing page shows an orange tile.
“Our modelling system monitors image and text click-through rates. If there’s a low click rate, we try different things.
“Next, we encourage you to order a sample tile. We mail the sample out quickly, and our customer service team steps in. Did you like the sample? Would you like us to send you a different tile? Is there anything else we can help with?
“All the way through the sales funnel, we’re measuring – click rate, conversion rate, email effectiveness, bounce rate – you name it.
“We can see real-time sales figures, margin, stock and best sellers. The data allows us to react quickly. Every day we review and adjust – prices, products and marketing. Continual evolution is part of our culture.”
Automate and measure the hell out of everything.
“Automate, automate, automate – it’s one of our mantras. Someone once described us as an IT business selling tiles, and that’s not far wrong.
“If we’ve got a problem, our first response is to try to find an IT solution. That means we’re very data-driven. We track the fulfilment process like hawks: we monitor each pallet from picking to delivery. We take photos of each order. We sit down every Friday in each business unit to review customer relationship management data. If we’ve let a buyer down or made a mistake, we assess what’s happened. We’re trying to continually learn to eliminate errors. What’s gone wrong? How do we fix it? Fine-tune, fine-tune, fine-tune.
“Here’s a small example: we now put cones on every pallet of tiles to stop others from being placed on top – it’s probably saved us hundreds of thousands of pounds in broken tiles over the years.”
Don’t sacrifice customer service on the altar of fast growth.
“One of our business pillars is good old-fashioned customer service. In other words, we look after people and, if we ever go wrong, we put it right fast.
“So we’ve always been careful to avoid growing so crazily that we can’t maintain our service levels. We came under pressure during Covid when our volume went up 300% almost overnight, but we worked desperately hard to maintain standards.
“For customer satisfaction, speed of delivery and good stock levels are vital. If you order a sample on Sunday evening, we’ll pick it on Monday and it’ll be in your hands on Tuesday, enabling you to have all your tiles by Wednesday. It has to be bam, bam, bam, all the way through.
“It’s vital we maintain our high Trustpilot score – we’re currently averaging just under 4.7 – and we continue to pull in good Google reviews. It doesn’t matter whether you’re turning over £1m or £100m, your customer service has to be spot on.”
Build a ‘we’re all in it together’ culture.
“We’ve got a fantastic team; some of whom have worked with Mo or me for 20 or 30 years. If sales increase by 300% again as they did during Covid, we won’t lack people willing to stay in the warehouse till 3:00am. It’s so important to have a team who’ll step up and get stuck in – it’s a big part of the culture.
“But the only way to build that culture is to treat people respectfully and to lead by example. That’s one reason we’ve often been on the wrapping and cutting machines in the early hours. It helps with staff engagement because if the team see the owners getting down and dirty, it goes a long way.”
Evolve (Part A): Move your digital marketing with the times.
“Customer behaviour has changed significantly in the past two years. Today, people don’t necessarily start looking for products with a Google search as they used to. Instead, they begin before that, seeking inspiration from Pinterest, TikTok, Instagram and from their friends. First, they’re looking at what other people – especially influencers – are doing. Then, once they’ve got the ideas, they start a specific search. That change means that our digital marketing is only effective if we aim it one step before the Google search.”
“Also, customers want to communicate more these days – not just by phone and email but also by text chat, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. So today you’ve got to be all over these mediums, all of the time.”
Evolve (Part B): Flex your business model to strengthen the company.
“We started as a purely online business – that was where the original opportunity lay. Back then, we thought physical stores were a headache. But we’ve evolved. We now realise that some people want to touch our products, browse displays and speak to staff. We also know that we can do excellent business offline – the figures add up – so we’ve launched nine showrooms to strengthen the business.
“But we’ve tried to be different. Our showrooms are large, inspirational spaces with coffee shops and kids’ areas. We design them to be destinations located strategically in key areas. Working hand in hand with our website, our new showrooms are helping to drive the business forward. So much so that we’re planning to open more.”
Take a leap of faith.
“Before co-founding Tile Mountain, I worked for a successful PLC in a well-paid, secure position. But I saw a wave coming and I had to catch it. Leaving my job was a massive leap of faith at the time, especially when many people thought tiles would never sell online, but I followed my heart and – thank God – it’s worked so far! And there’s much more to come.”
The Tile Mountain story has a great deal to teach us. Few companies better show the tremendous power of skilled online marketing (there can’t be many home decoration businesses with a 100-strong office dedicated to IT). Similarly, the mantra of “automate and measure everything” has played a big role in the company’s success.
But alongside the tech prowess, Tile Mountain has many traditional strengths: elevating customer service has been vital, and recruiting a loyal team happy to get stuck in has also paid dividends. Moreover, flexing the business model and moving into bricks-and-mortar retail has provided more growth.
Tile Mountain is a rare beast: an ultra-modern tech company with bags of old-school know-how. These two complementary strengths are propelling it to fast growth without the need for external funding. And as Jeremy says, there’s much more to come.
So, next time the co-founder finds himself labouring in his warehouse at 2:00am, he might be tempted to swear…however, his physical presence also means that sales must have rocketed yet again.
James Jackson and Jack Allman co-founded Bumper in 2013. Today, backed by Porsche Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover and Silicon Valley’s finest, they are building something special…
In 2021, Bumper co-founders James Jackson and Jack Allman closed their Series-A funding round. High fives and Champagne followed – and plenty of it. The duo and their team had convinced Porsche Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover and Silicon Valley’s Autotech Ventures to invest. The round snared $12m, allowing them to expand their 20-strong team to 70 – and rising. Bumper is now the UK’s 14th fastest-growing fintech, 83rd in the FEBE Growth 100, and its Series-B will kick off in 2023. Expect more Champers.
Solving a big problem
But why the ruckus? How did James, a former accountant, and Jack, an ex-salesman, convince two automotive giants and a Silicon Valley VC to invest in the company they co-founded in 2013?
Reducing accidents and stress
To answer, we must look at what Bumper does. To understand that, consider this scenario: imagine you’re a young nurse or teacher somewhere in rural Europe. Your car – your only transport – breaks down. You have enough cash to pay your rent but don’t have the extra £600 needed to fix your head gasket. No car, no work, no pay. So what do you do?
Enter Bumper. The digital platform allows customers to buy their car repairs now and pay later interest-free, spreading the cost over several months.
“Before Bumper, people who couldn’t afford to fix their car could either stay home and potentially lose their job, drive an unsafe car, or get a loan and pay big interest. We’re proud to be solving that problem,” says James.
Big prize, colossal competition?
So the need for Bumper is there. And another factor that swayed investors is the car repair market’s size – worth up to £300bn pounds a year in Europe alone.
But what about the more established buy-now-pay-later providers? Why would you back a comparatively small British start-up when giants like Swedish fintech Klarna, valued at $6.7bn, stride the Earth?
“The big providers do an amazing job,” says Jack. “But they’re generalists. We’re experts in car repairs – an industry with many nuances. We’ve built bespoke tech to reflect our sector’s quirks. For example, we’ve integrated our systems into dealers’ software, so our customers can spread their repair costs in two clicks.”
And it’s the partnership with dealers that’s driving Bumper forward at Porsche speed. Indeed, the idea for the company came about after a serendipity moment- a fortuitous meeting with someone who knew car dealers inside out – PSA Group (formerly Peugeot-Citroën). Its head of innovation told James – then working at Paylater.com – that its dealers were losing up to £1bn a year from identified repair work that drivers just couldn’t afford to carry out.
“That nugget stuck with me,” says James. “I could see the possibilities but was hamstrung because I knew nothing about automotive. So the same PSA guy – who deserves a lot of credit – introduced me to Jack, who was working for his family’s automotive after-sales SaaS company. We put our heads together, and that’s how Bumper began.”
The pair were immediately excited by the potential of a buy-now-pay-later service for car repairs. “It felt like I couldn’t sleep for months,” remembers James. “I was so keyed up! If Citroen was losing a billion a year, what about BMW? What about Mercedes?”
Helped by Jack’s family business contacts, the pair began talking to dealers and confirmed that a win-win scenario was – potentially – there for the making. With the right tech, Bumper could provide the finance so that customers could pay the dealers; and the dealers could provide customers for Bumper. It was a virtuous circle that, if nurtured carefully, could only grow.
The nuts and bolts
“We built our financial underwriting specifically for car repairs,” says James. “That separates us from other buy-now-pay-later providers. For example, our machine learning based underwriting assess every customer in seconds, and acquires thousands of datasets from the traditional credit reference agencies, but we also acquire lots of vehicle data. This data gives us a unique insight into the customer and their vehicle. Then, we layer on top all these different datasets to make a responsible lending decision.
“However, getting the right balance is vital: dealers don’t want us rejecting lots of customers, but if drivers don’t pay us back, we lose money. So the key is responsible underwriting that not only protects us but also provides a good outcome for the dealer and driver. It must balance all three.”
‘Finance for good’
So, clever tech explicitly designed for the car repair market is accelerating Bumper’s journey along the start-up autobahn. Another catalyst is more emotional – the mission to do good. Behind all the tech, Bumper wants to make roads safer, reduce stress for hard-up drivers and help dealers. This positive mission not only attracts talent but motivates and smoothes out the process of rapid expansion.
Jack says: “Our mission is finance for good and it’s fairly easy to understand. Most people have struggled to find the cash to fix their car at some point in their lives or know someone who’s been in a tight spot. So everyone understands our purpose, which helps us forge the right culture. We get strong early commitment from people who want to contribute to our mission.”
So, Bumper’s team love what they do and the dealers are on-side, but what about drivers? Do they appreciate the financial flexibility provided by this new company? Are there any flies in the ointment, any grit in the oil? The stats would suggest that the engine is running smoothly – positively purring, in fact. Bumper has clocked up 16,000 TrustPilot reviews, with an average score of 4.9 and 93% of users rating the service as “excellent”.
With high-octane team commitment, turbocharged investment from global powerhouses and a giant market beckoning (and that’s just Europe), Bumper is superbly positioned to break land-speed records in the coming years. Its financial model is already proven and the icing on the cake is its attractive ‘finance for good’ mission, which allows it to stand out from the fintech crowd. James, Jack and the team have already wowed some of the biggest names in the automotive industry. With FCA compliance coming soon, Bumper’s Series-B round – and the company’s long-term future – are sure to be another ‘Bumper’ success story.
Words of wisdom from Jack and James…
“Team up with people you enjoy being with, who are as committed as you are. You have highs and lows as an entrepreneur, and if you don’t get on with your colleagues – particularly your co-founders – then the lows become unbearable and the highs are much less fun.” – James.
“Getting the right people into the business is so important because when things go wrong, you need the team to respond in the right way, whether working through the weekend to make it right or de-stressing in the pub. You can build the best tech in the world, but if you’ve got the wrong people, it will massively inhibit growth.” – Jack.
“It sounds a bit cheesy, but perseverance and resilience are as vital as everyone says. It’s easy to give up during the first three or four years when you’re bootstrapping and putting in huge amounts of graft. You might have two or three bad months that make you question everything, but if you believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got to keep on going and you will eventually grind out a result.” – James.
Steve Adams co-founded Mattress Online from his spare bedroom in 2003. In 2022, the company bounced into the FEBE Growth 100 with sales of £33m. Read on to find out how Steve’s done it and what he’s learned along the way.
Steve Adams felt lower than the price he’d got for selling his e-commerce agency. It was 1999, the year the dotcom bubble popped, and he’d had to trade his start-up for a sickeningly small fee and take a new job. Now, sitting at his new desk in central London, he felt about as ebullient as a creature that suddenly finds itself in the perma-darkness of the Mariana Trench.
The founder-turned-employee now spent his days working 9-5, digitising annual reports – and it left him colder than the Thames in January. The cash was OK, true, and now he had actual free time, but that wasn’t the point. It was a horrifying yawnfest.
Months earlier, he’d been his own boss, creating cool websites and testing whizzy e-commerce tech. More importantly, he’d been building a business – his business – and it had been destined for greatness. But overnight, he’d become just another bloke in London grafting for someone else.
Sniffing out another chance
For three years, Steve worked hard at his unfulfilling job, dreaming of what might have been. During that time, the frustrated entrepreneur, primed like a bloodhound awaiting the fresh scent of deer, saved his corporate wage and waited for a new opportunity.
The sweet aroma finally filled his nostrils on September 29, 2003 – he remembers the date like his own birthday. He was at a party in Yorkshire, sitting at a roundtable next to a chap called Steve Kelly who, he soon discovered, worked in the bed industry.
The two chatted over drinks, and the conversation turned to business. Steve Kelly was looking for someone to help him to build a website selling mattresses. Steve Adams’ ears pricked up – e-commerce was his bag. However, he couldn’t believe mattresses would sell well online – surely people wanted to lie down on them in a shop first – try them before they bought.
“Nope,” replied Bed Steve. “In fact, do you know who the biggest mattress retailer by volume is in the UK right now? Argos.”
Looking back on that 2003 conversation, Steve says: “It was a revelation – a lightbulb moment. I couldn’t believe Argos was the UK’s biggest mattress seller at the time. Back then, people were happy to grab a little blue pen, look through the catalogue, fill in the six digits, hand the form over, pay for their mattress and have it delivered two weeks later. There was hardly anyone selling mattresses online, so I realised what a massive opportunity this was.”
Following the chat, Bed Steve and E-commerce Steve co-founded Mattress Online. Steve Adams finally had what he’d been looking for: a big entrepreneurial opportunity.
A nervy start
Working from his spare bedroom he bought his brother on board as a freelance coder, Steve built and launched the mattress website in two months. It offered five products and went live on December 1, 2003.
On its first day, it received zero orders. On December 2, it pulled in zero orders. Two weeks later: zero orders. Steve says: “I remember thinking: ‘Bloody hell, this website is meant to be my golden chance.'”
But co-founder Steve Kelly remained relaxed, explaining that mattresses were a seasonal product and that people were, for now, focused on Christmas. “Just you wait,” he promised.
On December 16, the first order arrived – a £499 mattress. Then the tumbleweed descended again, with no further orders until Boxing Day. But then it happened. Orders started to fly in and the two Steves – who’d split the company 50:50 – sold £10,000 of product in January 2004 alone – their first full month in business together.
“It was just the two of us, so we literally did everything back then,” recalls Steve Adams. “I’d write website content, answer emails and process orders with my headset on – pretty much all at the same time. I remember Christmas 2005 particularly well. I’d just moved to Yorkshire and we didn’t have a warehouse. But we were stocking up for the New Year rush, so our garages, hallways and living rooms were crammed with mattresses. I literally ate Christmas dinner off a mattress!”
Evolution and fast growth
The business grew and, as you’ll see below, became sharper, smoother and more professional with each passing year. Revenue rose and today stands at around £30m.
In 2019, Steve Kelly left the business to spend more time with his family. Steve Adams – the entrepreneur who’d feared his founder days were behind him when the dotcom bubble burst in 1999 – led an MBO and today remains the sole director of Mattress Online. Moreover, he shows no signs of drift, promising: “In three years, we will hit £50m. In five years: £85m. And in seven years: £100m.”
Five key lessons
Let’s now uncover the five key lessons Steve Adams learned while turning Mattress Online from a bedroom start-up into a £33m business.
1. Focus relentlessly on improving the customer journey – remember that incremental gains add up.
“Everything we’ve done since 2003 has been about making it as easy as possible for the customer. Most people go online to smooth out the buying process: they either don’t want to sit in front of a commissioned salesperson and be sold to, can’t be bothered to travel to a shop, or don’t know where to start. Maybe all three. So, they start researching online, and if they find an excellent buying solution on the internet, they’ll often take it. Therefore, removing small friction points during their online buying journey will increase sales.
“We’ve recently identified 46 friction points in our online sales process. We’re removing them one by one, and every time we do, we gain a small incremental increase in our conversion rate. When we’ve removed all 46, we’ll reassess and no doubt find more.
“Every time we tick one off, we make the customer journey that bit easier. For example, we’ll add a search function – that’s one friction point removed. We’ll add a cross-selling feature – that’s another gone. Next, we’ll improve the checkout experience – that’s a third.
“To succeed in e-commerce, you need the tenacity to be all over the detail, all of the time. You’ve got to keep drilling down to improve the customer journey, going deeper and deeper each time.”
2. There are good reasons to consider a ‘clicks-and-mortar’ model.
“By 2005 – and this sounds weird coming from an e-commerce founder – I knew we needed a bricks-and-mortar shop to complement our website. The thing is, the mattress industry is traditional, and to gain the trust of traditional manufacturers, we needed an old-school shop.
“We found a property around the corner from our Rotherham HQ and called it The Bed Shop. It was strategically advantageous not to call it Mattress Online because some traditional manufacturers were, back then, still a little wary of the internet.
“However, our move into traditional retailing wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. We invited manufacturers into The Bed Shop to chat with us and told them exactly what we were doing. Once you’ve got somebody in front of you, face to face, it’s much easier to build trust. It makes the whole process much easier. So The Bed Shop worked really well for us – and continues to do so.
“And there’s another good reason for e-commerce entrepreneurs to consider a clicks-and-mortar approach. Google is focusing more and more on local search, so if you’re a generic online shop, you may start to drop down the rankings. The more local presence you have, the better you will do in organic search. We now have three bricks-and-mortar shops and plan to open more.”
3. Choose your KPIs carefully and monitor them obsessively.
“I’ve run this business for years on essentially three key metrics: conversion rate, average order value and ‘sessions’ [how many people are coming to the website at any given time]. If those three KPIs are in a good place – if we’ve got enough visiting the website, we’re converting at the right percentage and spending the right amount of money – I know we are in a good place.
“I have a dashboard that tells me these KPIs in real-time. I love being able to monitor them – it keeps us on track. And I know straightaway when something’s not quite right.”
4. Find a mentor who’s been there, done it and can help you holistically.
“At some point in my business journey, I became conscious that I was living in my own bubble. I no longer had a business partner to challenge me, and I began to ask myself: Who am I accountable to now? Who can I learn from – because I still have a lot to learn? Who’s going to ask me the tough questions?
“I almost joined Vistage [an entrepreneurial support group] and through this process I found an extremely knowledgeable mentor. However, that person was relatively inexperienced, and I was searching for a mentor who’d taken some hard entrepreneurial knocks and exited. I also wanted somebody to help me improve my health, fitness and work-life balance.
“Eventually, I found a mentor who’d worked at a high level in tech and run restaurant chains, one of which had failed. He’d been through a similar journey to me, and it felt right.
“Today, I meet him every fortnight for an hour and we go through the past two weeks and discuss my plans for the coming fortnight. He keeps me accountable and makes sure my quarterly targets are in place. He’s an effective sounding board and – crucially – helps me improve my personal relationships, too, which I’m not very good at because I’m too work-focused. He ensures I diarise time for myself, my partner and my family and helps keep my health on track.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work – he gives me homework and asks tough questions! But it’s also brilliant for improving my overall well-being and hitting my business goals.”
5. Don’t get distracted by shiny new baubles.
“In 2015, things were ticking over well at Mattress Online. Everything seemed to be on track. The calm period lulled me into making what turned out to be a mistake. In my wisdom, I launched another business – LUXLO, a gin start-up, which produced lower-alcohol gins.
“I wanted to create something tangible, and I’m passionate about gin, so I went for it – but just because you’re successful in one area doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be successful in another area. Launching LUXLO was enjoyable but turned out to be a major distraction that ultimately bit me on my arse.
“I learned the hard way and ended up selling my new gin business for a loss. Even worse, if I hadn’t spent time, money and energy on the launch, there’s a good chance that Mattress Online would be in an even better place today.”
Steve has many useful lessons to share. His down-to-earth character and self-effacing style make his entrepreneurial journey sound simple, but don’t be deceived. The intense focus and long-term effort required to take Mattress Online from a bedroom start-up to a £33m company – one of the UK’s fastest growing at that – are nothing short of Herculean.
Steve told us that he twice nearly lost the business. The first near-miss came in 2008 when a significant scaling-up project was brutally curtailed by the financial crisis. Then, two years later, the guillotine hovered once again when his website effectively stopped working, unable to keep up with demand. On both occasions, Steve dug in, fought back and got himself and the company back on track.
His resilience can be traced back to his first entrepreneurial experience, which ended in so-called “failure” and three years in the wilderness after the dotcom bubble burst. That “failure” in 1999, while painful at the time, taught him many lessons, built up his stamina and topped up his drive.
This shows that when it comes to entrepreneurialism, that famous old inspirational Churchill quote is bang on the money. The World War Two PM famously said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts”.
Or, to put it another slightly less dramatic way: there’s no such thing as failure, only learning experiences. Any entrepreneur who’s going through a tough time – and there will be many right now – should always bear those perceptive words in mind.
SIX REASONS WHY GRIPPLE WENT INTO ORBIT…
FEBE meets the entrepreneur who:
- Built a £100m company that can never be sold
- Encouraged his staff to invest in their business
- Made it illegal for accountants to take control
In June 2018, Yorkshire entrepreneur Hugh Facey was at Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE. The businessman absorbed the serene, dignified ambience and watched as the Prince of Wales attached a ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ badge to Monty Don’s lapel. Next to receive his OBE was boxer Anthony Joshua. Then, up strode Hugh. The Royal smiled and politely offered: “So Mr Facey. You’re in manufacturing?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the entrepreneur.
“What do you make?”
“Fantastic Gripple products, I see them everywhere. Brilliant. Wonderful. Well done,” said Charles. “And where’s your factory?”
“It’s in Sheffield, and you opened it SIR!” grinned the Sheffielder.
As the future King’s smile turned to laughter, he scoured his memory for the moment in 1994 that he’d cut the ribbon of Gripple HQ in Sheffield, later describing it as “one of the finest refurbishments of a listed building I’ve ever seen”.
The Facey Way
Fast forward to today, and FEBE is in that same building – The Old West Gun Works in Sheffield. We’re chatting with Hugh, 77 but still full of Yorkshire grit and working daily. Gripple – founded in 1989 to make wire-connecting products – now turns over more than £100m and employs 850 people globally. And his newer business, Loadhog – manufacturer of reusable, eco-friendly packing equipment – entered the FEBE Growth 100 last year with sales of £29m.
But we’re not here to look at the products, ingenious as they are. Instead, we’ve come to discover what drives that success; to be schooled in the ‘The Facey Way’. Because Hugh is an entrepreneur of such singularity that he’s become a national treasure, as his OBE suggests.
“Equality and no secrecy”
The anecdote above offers a clear insight into his character. “It’s simple,” says Hugh. “Everybody’s equal. We’re all part of the same family. The King’s the same as me. The cleaners here are the same as me. We’re no different. That’s how I run this business.”
And he puts his money where his mouth is. Equality permeates every aspect of life at Gripple and Loadhog. The boardroom is in the middle of the factory floor, and everyone, from cleaners to directors, sees the sales figures daily. “There’s none of that bloody secrecy round here,” says Gripple’s founder.
But that’s not all. Hugh hasn’t just created a culture of openness and equality but he has built his company on those ideals: he’s literally transformed the business into Gripple’s employee-ownership scheme. More on that later…
It all started at Sheffield Poly, now Hallam Uni, in the early 1960s, when Hugh took a Business Studies HND. “It was a ‘thick sandwich’ HND,” he says,” so called because you spent two years at college and one year in industry.”
Hugh joined Tinsley Wire in Sheffield – located where a giant IKEA now stands. The now-defunct company’s management (“it eventually got taken over by vulture capitalists – bloody awful people,” says Hugh) soon realised that their thick-sandwich graduate had a decent loaf. First, Hugh won a prize that saw him travel overseas to work for a wire company in Canada; then, when he returned aged 24, he was put in charge of the Sheffield sales office.
Two years later, Gripple’s future founder was sent to run a Tinsley factory in Spennymoor, County Durham, which was faring poorly. He turned it around rapidly, recruiting a new salesforce, developing the product range and entering new markets. Five years later, aged 31, he was back in Sheffield, married and promoted to group sales and marketing director.
As sales director, Hugh proposed a significant change. He wanted Tinsley to reduce its reliance on its five leading distributors who “weren’t doing anything except taking a cut”. But the board wouldn’t budge.
In response, Hugh set up his own business – Estate Wire – and went into competition with Tinsley in 1984.
“My decision was not well-liked,” he says understatedly. “The MD sent a chauffeur to pick me up. In his office, he asked: ‘Didn’t you think you could run this business one day?’ I told him I probably could, but not as well as you and I’d run it differently. He said: ‘Well, I think you should have stayed. But now we’ll make sure you fail.’ Fair enough, I thought, bring it on.”
An unpromising situation
However, the new entrepreneur had no factory, nada wire-making machines and zero customers. Seeing this gloomy scenario as a mild problem waiting to be solved, he convinced a Halifax-based company to back Estate Wire 50:50. Together, they bought a factory at Sheffield’s Manor Top and shipped in machines from Germany and raw materials from South Africa and Europe. In six weeks, Hugh bagged his first customer and never looked back.
Estate Wire grew to £5m and, in 1986, begot Gripple. The Eureka moment came on a windy Welsh hill. Hugh says: “I was talking to our sales agent in Wales. On his farm he demonstrated how farmers must tie knots in the wires fences to connect them. That led to an idea: could we create a product that would grip the wires and add tension? It developed into Gripple.”
It was a big moment. Today, Gripple products connect wires all over the globe, including the world’s longest fence – the 5,624km Dingo Barrier in Australia – and in countless vineyards supporting the vines. Evolutions of the original Gripple product are used ubiquitously too. For example, there are 60,000 Gripple ‘No 2 Hangers’ in Chicago’s Trump Tower and 18,000 Gripple’ Corner Saddles’ in London’s Gherkin building.
But back on that Welsh hill in 1986, global success was years away. First, Hugh and Estate Wire had to develop Gripple, decide how to sell it, buy out the Halifax-based business partners and do countless other things, including entering and winning the BBC’s Tomorrows World Prince of Wales Award for Innovation in 1991.
In the same year, Hugh hived off the business from Estate Wire, creating Gripple Ltd, and in 1994, aged 48, he sold Estate Wire for £1.1m, leaving his focus entirely on Gripple.
The company grew dramatically, and in 2001 Hugh and his team established Gripple Inc in Chicago Gripple SARL in Alsace and two years later, they started Loadhog in Sheffield, UK.
The substance behind the story
So, now that we know the main elements of the Hugh Facey story let’s consider – in the founder’s words – what’s driven the growth. Of course, Yorkshire charisma and grit go a long way, but what sits behind them?
Six Gripple growth drivers
“Innovate like heck”
Hugh says: “Innovation drives us: we develop new products and get them out there quick. But we don’t just say it; we mean it: 25% of our turnover must come from products we’ve innovated in the last five years.
Loadhog’s currently running at 68%. And you won’t find many manufacturing businesses spending 5% on R&D as we do. Why not? Because accountants run them.”
“Clip your bean counters’ wings”
“By its Articles of Association, Gripple can never be run by an accountant. Why? Because if you’re playing cricket and want to score runs, you put in your best batsman. If you’re going to bowl a team out, you put on your best bowler. The last person you send in to do either is the scorer.
“That’s what accountants do – keep the score. They’re good at measuring how much it costs to do something, but the cheapest thing of all – doing nowt – will undoubtedly end in failure. So I’ve never worried about the financial side of things. We drive the business but we don’t obsess over the figures.”
“Bonuses can bugger off!”
“We don’t have any bonuses. I’ve never believed in them. It’s madness to give bonuses to individuals; it’s bad management because success is down to everybody in the team, not individuals.”
“Get out there, lad!”
“After launching Gripple in the UK, we didn’t waste time before exporting to Australia and South Africa. Those were our first two big international markets, and building our sales there gave us an excellent platform for growth. We now have 14 sites worldwide, including in the US, Canada, India, Japan and Germany.
“Spending six months working in Canada during my early career helped me to think internationally. And so did getting involved with Junior Chamber International, where I was British President in 1989.”
“None of that secrecy”
“We have our board table right here in the middle of the floor so everyone can see it. The reason is that if we’ve had a bad time and someone’s getting a bollocking, it’s not hidden. Equally, everybody can see when we’re all happy. Similarly, everybody in the business sees the sales figures every day. And everybody gets the monthly report. We have no secrecy, total transparency.”
“We’re all equal”
“When I sold Estate Wire, I thought it wasn’t fair to take £1.1m when the staff got nothing. So we did a deal where 10% went to the team who stayed at Estate Wire, and the rest came with me.
“At Gripple Ltd, I wanted the company to be like that from the start, so we offered the new team – 17 of us – the chance to buy £1,000 of shares. Today, anyone who joins the business has to buy £1,000 shares and we offer loans to help them if necessary.
“Every Gripple shareholder gets one share in Glide [an acronym of ‘Growth Led Innovation Driven Employee Company Limited] – a holding company we set up in 2011 to represent all the employees in its partner companies. I have one share in Glide. Our newest member of staff has one share in Glide. That’s as many as anyone can have.”
“So the business is now employee-owned, and the staff are more committed because they have shares in the business – which can go up or down. That’s real ownership and puts us in a great position to innovate and grow.”
“Glide now has roughly one third of Gripple & Loadhog’s shares has been set up so it can never legally be sold. Also, it can never be run by an accountant. And that’s true – I’m not joking!”
A different breed
Hugh Facey is not your typical 21st-century entrepreneur. A vicar’s son, who regularly worships at 850-year-old Sheffield’s Beauchief Abbey, he takes his beliefs into business. “I’ve never been in business to make money,” he says. “I started wi’ nowt and I’m goin’ to go out wi’ nowt. Business is no different from life – everybody is equal.”
Some people – particularly accountants (!) – may baulk at his approach. But it’s impossible not to admire his entrepreneurial achievements – especially his ability to turn ideas into reality. How many managers blow hot air about ‘valuing their people’ and ‘equality at work’ without actually doing anything to back it up? At Gripple, those values have become legally embedded in the company structure like steel girders. And the results speak for themselves.
We began this article revelling in Hugh’s archetypal ‘Yorkshire’ character: a plain-speaking Sheffielder who sees himself neither below a prince nor higher than a pauper. But we’ll leave you with another, perhaps more telling view of this unique entrepreneur.
As we finish our chat at The Old West Gun Works in Sheffield, Hugh looks towards a colleague – a fellow Glide shareholder. “That lady’s from Ukraine,” he tells us. “And her son is in the army because he has to be, but his wife had a baby. So they all clubbed together, got the wife and child out of Ukraine, and brought them back to Sheffield. They went in and got them out.” And as Hugh speaks, tears well up and his voice cracks, maybe revealing what really drives this entrepreneur – not profit, but a desire to do the right thing and to make a difference. With his company’s pioneering employee-ownership system, he’s undoubtedly bullseying his objectives.
More Facey Wisdom
Nuggets for up-and-coming entrepreneurs…
“The first thing to do is get experience – I was lucky at Tinsley Wire. It was well run and I learned a lot. So my advice is to get experience before you plough on – that way, you’re learning efficiently rather than learning by constantly tripping over things.”
“Don’t be worried when things go wrong. We all make mistakes; you have to make errors to learn.”
“In a business, everybody is equal. There isn’t a top-down. Everybody contributes equally. That’s the way to think about it.”
“I have the smallest desk at work, and I’m not called boss. Trust your people. Believe in them.”
FOUR FOUNDER LESSONS…
When Dr Guy Braverman and Dr Allen Hanouka became businessmen, little did they know that they would build a multimillion-pound company that would save many, many lives.
Their career paths seemed set when Dr Guy Braverman and Dr Allen Hanouka were working at North London’s Royal Free Hospital in the early 2000s. Allen was set to become a registrar ophthalmologist, and Guy was on the path to enjoy a glittering future as a doctor. So when they suddenly decided to dump their white coats – and years of training – to become travelling salesmen, some thought they needed to have their heads examined.
But from Guy and Allen’s point of view, swapping their white coats, ophthalmoscopes and stethoscopes for suits, phones and cars made perfect sense. It was a risk, sure, but a calculated one. And if their plan worked, they would help many more patients than if they had remained as doctors. In fact, they may even save countless lives.
Their career volte-face stemmed from their observations at the Royal Free. Guy says: “I remember seeing the same stethoscope being used repeatedly and thinking, hang on, surely we need a quick and easy way to disinfect shared patient equipment. MRSA and superbugs were big news at the time, so I mentioned it to Allen and he agreed. And that was it – our lightbulb moment.”
Allen says: “Surprisingly, 20 years ago, not everyone believed that sharing patient equipment without regularly disinfecting it had any impact on hospital-acquired infections. Instead, the profession was focused on hand hygiene. So the shared kit – things like the observation trolley, blood-pressure cuff and pulse oximeter – moved from person to person without a second thought. Today, it’s different – environmental decontamination is a huge part of infection prevention.”
The two doctors came up with the idea of wet-wipe dispensers on walls, ready to use at appropriate points in the hospital. No one else was offering this solution but it suddenly seemed vital. Could they produce and market a new disinfectant product? If so, should they? After all, it wasn’t something that they could do in their spare time after work and at weekends. It was all or nothing.
Guy says: “I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and after much thought, I hung up my white coat and started working from my bedroom. I found a factory that pointed me toward someone who creates wet-wipe formulas and commissioned him to make one for us. Next, I located a manufacturer and Allen and I invested around £25,000 of savings to make GAMA Healthcare’s first batch of wipes.”
Guy transitioned from doctor to start-up entrepreneur overnight. Soon Allen did the same. Some of their nearest and dearest were shocked – what were they playing at? There was no guarantee their idea would work, and what about all those years of medical training? Were they going to drop their highly prized vocation just like that?
If their business idea were to succeed, they had no choice. “We basically became salesmen, going from hospital to hospital selling our ideas and products,” says Allen.
GAMA Healthcare sold its first product – universal disinfectant wipes – in January 2006 to London’s Royal Marsden Hospital. In 2007, after a few more successes, Guy and Allen hired their first staff member, who still works for them today.
Their launch timing was excellent – which is partly why Guy and Allen had to act swiftly. To get on top of superbugs, UK hospitals started setting up infection-prevention departments. So it was a brilliant moment for two qualified, hospital-savvy doctors offering a new range of disinfectant products to enter the fray. The co-founders carefully and diligently built up trust with infection-prevention departments, who soon began asking them for a range of new products. For example, could they supply pre-surgery body wipes and cannula-cleaning solutions?
So Guy and Allen returned to the expert they’d commissioned to create GAMA’s first disinfectant formula – Adrian Fellows – and offered him the role of research and development director in exchange for a 5% stake in the company. He accepted.
Growth continued and three years ago, GAMA Healthcare hit £50m. In 2021 – due to Covid – turnover tripled. From last year, as things went back to normal, the business was back on track to continue its longstanding double-digit growth.
So what – apart from great timing, two monumental career changes and tons of hard work – are the reasons for GAMA Healthcare’s success? How did Guy and Allen water the sapling and turn it into the oak tree we see today? The co-founders suggest four main reasons:
1. We provide a uniquely effective service.
Guy says: “We offer products – but that’s only part of the story. At the start of our journey, we realised that training would be vital for infection-prevention departments because they didn’t have the time to do it themselves. So we offered training as part of a complete solution and, as a result, we’ve become famous for our after-sales support.
“Initially, Allen and I would go into hospitals and show nurses how to clean shared patient equipment and high-touch surfaces. Today we’ve got a big training team who work with thousands of nurses every month.
“Our training service ties in with our company culture of focusing on positive solutions and becoming a trusted partner. We’re here to reduce infection rates – it’s a mission that goes beyond a commercial transaction.”
2. We learned how to sell effectively.
Allen says: “We spent years training as doctors but became salesmen overnight, so we had to get good at sales. Today our sales team knows more than we ever did. But there are still general sales golden rules we live by. One is to be polite and nice. Another is to know when to shut up. A third is to always take ‘no’ gracefully.
“In any industry there are times when potential clients are dismissive. That hurts but it’s vital to take knockbacks gracefully because those customers will often come back later. So we never burn our bridges.
“Equally, we never badmouth a competitor. Instead, we spend our time discussing the good things we can offer. Customers don’t like it when someone tells them that a certain brand or product is bad. Instead, they want positivity.”
3. We put absolutely everything into attracting and retaining talent.
Guy says: “Our team is the key to our success – no question. So we understand the importance of attracting exceptional people, developing them and giving them autonomy.”
Allen confirms: “We try to provide clear career progression paths. And we believe that homegrown talent – especially people who’ve gone through different departments – is the best talent. So everyone has a personal development plan and gets half a day off each month to work on it.”
Guy: “We have some great stories. Suzy, for example, joined as a PA 11 years ago and is now CEO in Australia – she worked her way through the business and we sponsored her MBA. Similarly, Carol, our Head of Acute Sales – the department that deals with the NHS – started as a sales rep ten years ago.”
“We also offer great benefits and as much work-home life balance as possible. We give bonuses to the whole company, not just salespeople, which creates a one-win mentality. So if the business hits a certain number, then everyone, whether they’re in admin, the creative team or sales, gets a bonus.
“We devise an individual Contribution Plan for every employee too – basically a target and appraisal system aligned to turnover, profit and company values.”
4. We understand the importance of building the right culture.
Allen says: “To retain excellent people, you need the right culture. So we spend lots of time building a positive culture.
“For example, one of our mantras is to have fun – we believe that to be good at your job, you have to enjoy it. We embody that by celebrating business wins and important life moments. So we mark birthdays in a big way. Every Friday, we sing Happy Birthday together and try to make work fun.”
Guy says: “Another one of our mantras is: we win together. So it’s not just one salesperson winning a new client; it’s not just the procurement team negotiating a lower price; it’s not just the R&D team launching an alternative product. By ‘we win together’, we mean that every single team member is responsible for making us successful in every aspect of the business. And we celebrate those wins together.
“We also work hard on staff engagement. So we run engagement surveys every six months, listen to what people tell us and initiate change as a result.
“Last but definitely not least, we recruit to the company values, hiring the person who best matches our values rather than the individual with the most experience. That’s because you can train someone, but you can’t change their personality.”
GAMA Healthcare started as a gamble involving two people potentially sacrificing their careers to chase an idea that could come to nought. The co-founders ditched years of training and the medical profession’s prestige to become lowly salespeople, running around the country trying to get a business off the ground. However, the gamble paid off – and then some!
The first thing to say is that Guy and Allen’s idea has worked. Their innovation is reducing hospital infections worldwide and saving lives. GAMA Healthcare has published results of clinical trials to prove it.
Their idea worked commercially too. To achieve this, not only did the co-founders have to transition from doctors to entrepreneurs, they then had to evolve from entrepreneurs to CEOs. By mastering this double transformation, they have turned GAMA Healthcare into a fast-growth multimillion-pound multinational company boasting a talented team and an effective, happy company culture.
The two former doctors and their team have played a blinder, and we can’t wait to see where they take the company next.