Paul Rowlett, CEO / Founder – Everything Branded
Interview by Ninder Johal
How does an individual kicked out to school to ‘enjoy extended home study’ build a multimillion-pound business in the centre of the East Midlands, set up offices in the US in Feb 2020 only to then to find themselves ‘punched in the mouth ‘by COVID 19?
You only have to log onto LinkedIn, and it is obvious that Paul who is an avid fan of his home team – Leicester City – has boundless energy, limitless confidence, and positivity.
‘I still remember like it was yesterday’, recalls Paul, ‘I was 15 and the school had given up on me – justifiably – I had an attendance of 51% and they asked me to leave school early and concentrate on getting a job and in the meantime to ‘enjoy an extended study leave’.
He recalls his first job – window cleaning – it was very hard work, but it was very well paid in relative terms. It taught him the principle of hard work. I enjoyed the cut and trust of selling. I can still remember working for Anglia Windows on commission only – it was very hard but if I worked hard – I would do very well and I did.
‘I went from job to job – each time getting sacked – I was just not a conventional employee.
I always wanted to run my own business – I would study and read as much about other entrepreneurs and knew that it was my calling. I would watch Dragons Den and try to learn as much as I could.
My last job before I set up ‘Everything branded’ was with a marketing company that sold promotional products. I enjoyed looking after customers and enjoyed account management. I realised that here was something I could do – I threw myself into selling branded promotional products whilst using this new thing ‘google’. This new technology– whilst it was still relatively new- gave me an edge.
It was tough getting clients but over time the business started to grow.
When asked what the difficult moments were – he admits to overtrading and not knowing it. It was the case ‘the cash was coming in and I was not as tight as I should have been on the numbers.’
But once he had brought into people to bring that financial discipline, he recalls that he made the mistake of being too close to his team which made it difficult to ask difficult questions. I asked whether he had had any leadership training? He shakes his head and admits to not taking ‘HR’ seriously and not to institute ‘proper induction’ as is the case today.
‘We were growing too fast’ he concedes. The pandemic has caused issues around supply and demand. Turnover plummeted and decisions had to be made regarding staff numbers.
‘It was very difficult – we had been used to being a family – going on regular trips abroad to celebrate milestones but this all changed through COVID’.
The business had been doing well in supplying the events and exhibitions industry and found its orders had dropped off a cliff. This was slightly tempered by sales made on supplying PPE.
‘We were fortunate that as a result of good relationships with suppliers – we were in a great position to supply PPE when they were shortages’.
Whilst it was bad in the UK, Paul also had to deal with a brand-new office set up in the States.
‘It was catastrophic – fortunately, as the UK were 5 weeks ahead of the US – we knew what was coming – we flew our training company out of the States back to the UK just in the nick of time. We had to abandon all our offices and leave them unmanned and switch customer service and operate our US office from the UK.
We are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for empty offices.’
Despite managing the USA offer from the UK – headcount has dropped from over 100 to 78 – he shrugs his dead at the pain caused by the pandemic.
So how did he get through this tough period? I did not change my style at all – I have always been open about hitting sales targets but also about failures with all my team. In the case of COVID – I simply told of the problems we were encountering.
He said that he was acutely aware of how the employees were studying his behaviour and that if he showed levels of stress – he was sure that it would trickle down to them.
He is proud of his staff retention and culture which he attributes to the environment in which he provides for his staff to work in.
‘I placed a lot of emphasis on making sure that the environment people work in are comfortable and welcoming – it needs to be if sometimes we have to work 12 hours a day to get the orders out in time.’
On a personal level – he can proudly boast of not having had a drink since last March
So, what are the future plans – He has already set up a number of businesses during COVID using existing assets arguing that if there is one thing that the pandemic has taught him – it is that you cannot rely on one business or on one niche (events).
Whilst he had never thought of expanding to the USA- he will reignite this strategy once he has certainty over the vaccine roll out in the US. Since he has learnt from all the mistakes made of taking a business to the USA – labour laws, tax implications and accounting for time differences within the USA – he expects his re-entry to be much smoother.
He is still a young entrepreneur with a business turning over £24 million annually – so what does success look like for him – he pauses. ‘Contentment’ he replies. ‘Oh – and to build my own house’.
Somehow, despite his good intentions – I cannot see how this highly affable entrepreneur and self-critical marketer could ever slow down – he simply has too much enthusiasm, energy, and positivity that not even a cross Atlantic pandemic has stopped him.