10s: I welcome back Guy Phoenix! We did a previous podcast on cybercrime. Today, this podcast is about Guy Phoenix, the businessperson. I met Guy back in March, and I found his background fascinating. I would describe him as an international man of mystery, a workaholic and a playaholic. He’s a businessperson, local and international, he’s worked for mega organisations like Rolls Royce and has owned smaller IT companies. He’s bought a new IT company in Leeds recently.
1min 11s: How would you describe yourself? I really don’t know! I’m like anyone else, trying to make their way through life and find their way; I’m not even sure now I’m doing it right.
1min 43s: You’ve written a book entitled “Two Funerals” about your experience with hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands. You’re in the middle of another book called “Get Up”, so you’re an author as well as an international man of mystery? I’m not sure about that, it’s for others to judge. Although Two Funerals is published, I didn’t make it available for sale because it was such an intense personal experience that I’ve only given the book to close friends to convey to them what it was like. It’s practically impossible to put into words. They all told me they liked it, but they would as they’re friends and family! However, because the book fell out of me, I decided I’d write a proper book on my experience of the past ten years of moving to the British Virgin Islands and what’s gone on since then. It’s entitled “Get Up” because there have been several challenges on numerous occasions where I have felt poleaxed and the next day, you get up.
3mins 7s: You were born in Worcestershire but moved to Dubai as a 7-year-old, tell us about your early years. I was born in Kidderminster, my mum and dad’s house was in Bewdley so I was brought up there and went to infant and junior school there. It was during the 70s and the economic times were tough in the UK, there was a construction boom in the middle east. My dad was in the construction industry, so he made the decision to take us all out to Dubai. The Dubai today is unrecognisable from the Dubai I was brought up in; it was basically a sand pit.
4mins 13s: You were schooled in an international school? Yes, I went to the newly opened Jumeirah English speaking school and then I moved to a brand-new school called Dubai college; I was one of the first students there. I did the international baccalaureate when we moved to Abu Dhabi and I went to Choueifat international school, a Lebanese school.
4mins 57s: Your schooling has had an impact on you as to where you wanted to live? When I got my first job after university, I said I really want to work overseas. That is undoubtedly from living overseas as a child for nearly 9 years.
5mins 25s: Where did you go to university? The University of Nottingham. I did a joint honours degree in engineering and mathematics. It wasn’t a 50/50 course, more like 80/80! But I got a 1st class on this degree in 1989.
6mins 19s: What was your first venture into work? I joined a company in Nottingham which was a joint venture between GEC and Plessey telecommunications as a software engineer. I didn’t enjoy the job and after a year, I applied to Rolls Royce PLC and spent the next 10 years there. Which side of Rolls Royce did you do? Rolls Royce motor company is not part of Rolls Royce PLC. The motor company had to licence the use of the Rolls Royce company logo off PLC. The PLC that I worked for, most people would recognise them from aircraft engines, when you go on holiday. I worked in the industrial sector then the nuclear sector, and latterly the marine sector.
7mins 44s: What positions did you hold there? Started out as a junior software engineer, I then moved into a commercial division. Luckily, my manager had previously been the area manager for an office in Tokyo and he put me forward for that role and I was there for just under 3 years. It changed me. It gave me a Japanese business education.
8mins 39s: Is that a good education to have? Aren’t the companies slow to make decisions, male-oriented, working from 8am-8pm? That’s all accurate but understanding how business works is what I mean. Being a representative for a UK business and the time difference being 8/9 hours, at about 5pm when you’re winding down, the phone would start ringing from the UK and you could do another half day. Everything they do is geared towards building relationships and you have to learn this very quickly when working in Japan or with Japanese businesspeople. They want to make sure they’re going together as a team which can make it appear as being slow. When you go out socially, you’ll have a dinner and then karaoke – this is quite serious in Japan and they won’t ridicule you. They will choose quite “woe is me” songs, so I wanted some Elvis to liven it up and I got up to do an Elvis jump and knocked myself out on their low ceiling since I’m 6 foot.
13mins 28s: After Japan, where to next? Rolls Royce brought me back, there had been an opportunity in the South Pacific, but they wanted me to come back and do a proper job, so I joined the marine division and became worldwide head of marine sales and contracts in Coventry. My boss reported to the board of Rolls Royce, so I was getting up there. By that point, I decided I didn’t want to be in one company all my life. This was when the dot com boom came along, late 90s, and I joined them.
16mins 1s: What was this dot com business doing? Buying and selling machinery online which was cutting edge stuff at that time. My role was to foster relationships with corporations who were offloading machinery and equipment so we could set up a second-hand machinery hub online. Working at Rolls Royce meant I didn’t have a great deal of savings behind me, the dot com had stock options. One morning, my stock options went to 7 figures but regrettably, had tied in for a certain period before you can realise them and in that interim period, the dot com crash came about. As I was already on a lower salary than Rolls Royce, and the stock options no longer being a possibility, I came back to reality.
18mins 19s: After that? I applied for a job at a railway company and the appointed me as their commercial director. Somebody said they could parachute me into a country, and I’d sort out what was going on. At that point, I decided to strike out on my own and I looked for an acquisition which I achieved in 2004. I bought a small diesel generator distributor.
20mins 0s: How did you choose this business? We had a business advisor and I had some criteria: 1. that I could afford to buy it 2. I would like to have an export onto it 3. It needed to be broadly in engineering. This was 50/50 in the UK and export. Money was flowing easily so it wasn’t hard to get the financing to achieve a management buyout, to allow the owner to exit and retire. We started out with 10 or 11 staff.
21mins 39s: Tell us about this time period. I was all about growing it because I would be bought if I just sat there and ticked along, I would be bored. We grew organically because of the UK construction boom; new buildings need standby generators and in Africa and the Middle East which were our exports. Particularly in Africa, with the mobile telephony boom, every single mobile mast needs two generators. We also had a few more acquisitions, one didn’t do so well and the other was similar to this one and the fit was perfect which allowed us to increase the turnover 10-fold and we had about 55 people on the team.
24mins 38s: What happened around 2009? In 200, there was a financial crash. We took out a huge loan to buy the business and the bank wanted the money back. We re-financed the business, but it was such a painful process that I exited.
25mins 39s: How did you end up in Harrogate? The business was based near York and I met my girlfriend who was living in Harrogate and I moved here once things became serious. I’m still with Jane now.
26mins 5s: You divide your time like Richard Branson, who you’ve met! How did you end up with the British Virgin Islands? Having exited, I wanted some leisure time and as did Jane. She had been offered a job interview in Bristol, but the job is in the British Virgin Islands. We didn’t take it seriously, so we said to them we wanted to make an inspection office and you wanted to bring me to make sure I was happy with it and they told us to book our flights. You have to have a work permit to work there and I needed to find a way to normalise my status and I did that by getting a trade licence to construct digital marketing and software distribution.
28mins 54s: What was it like, the first time out there? A lot of the heritage has gone, and people have built different buildings. They are beautiful islands, 66 of them. The digital marketing business is called Phoenix Caribbean. I knew my email would be guy@phoenixcaribbean and my friends would be reminded that I’d moved to the Caribbean!
31mins 30s: Explain the link between there and Harrogate. I heard about a company where the owner wanted to sell the company in the British Virgin Islands, and I bought out the majority shareholder. They also had a small IT arm to the business which we grew as well. We need local IT support as well. I wanted to grow the team and it’s hard to recruit in the British Virgin Islands. We recruited people from outside of the country, but it would dawn on them after a while that they aren’t on holiday and they would leave. I looked at an acquisition in the States and that fell through, so I had a sulk for 24 hours and got up again. I had a look in the UK and there was an IT business for sale in Ripon. In 2015 I purchased CCS 2000.
35mins 51s: It’s a great story. The governor of the British Virgin Islands came to celebrate our business called Fresh Mango. He said this is one of the first examples of a British Virgin Islands company actually buying a business from the mother country. He said we are like TATA Steel.
36mins 37s: Tell me about the last few years. We had to bring up the standards for the UK business to the Fresh Mango business. They wanted this first-class support. We brought up the standards and I’m glad we did because on 6th September 2017, hurricane Irma, the strongest, biggest, Atlantic storm in history went directly over the British Virgin Islands and wiped out our business. I don’t think there was a building that didn’t sustain damage; most of them being concrete helped immensely.
38mins 15s: Your business was destroyed; how did you get up from that? I wasn’t there when the hurricane hit, I was at CCS. I knew the hurricane was coming but they normally go north but this one didn’t. It hit Barbuda and we couldn’t get anything from them the day after. When the hurricane hit, it was 3 days before I could ascertain if Jane was alive because she was there. Luckily the house was really strong with a concrete roof. There was a point that the back doors were ripped open in and they spent 35 minutes holding them there whilst the tail end of the hurricane went through.
40mins 6s: It was 4 months until I could go back because the airport was shut and wiped out. The British Armed Forces did a magnificent job of coming in and the Royal Fleet of Auxiliary too. HMS Ocean was on standby in Gibraltar. It was months before the airport was opened. I wanted to find a jump seat in a Hercules, but they refused because it would’ve taken up a seat for someone who could help. They survived on a massive stock of tinned food that we’d built up.
41mins 58s: So, the business was closed for 4 months? The building was destroyed but we moved in with one of our clients temporarily, who’s house was hurricane proofed. There’s no electricity at this point so no Internet but we could start to recover. I set up CCS as our communication hub for all of our clients. Most of our clients had been take out but because they are global clients with offices in Hong Kong or London etc, they took on the work of their client base. Jane found one working mobile phone mast by the Pub. The team would walk and convene at the Pub at 9am and I would relay all of the requirements from our client base. The general manager from one of our clients got evacuated and was back in the UK, they were going to establish a temporary office in Antigua with a view to moving back in 12 months. They wanted to repurchase all of the equipment they had lost through us. I financed everything through my own savings.
44mins 27s: When were you back on track? I got back 4 months later, just before Christmas and electricity had been restored. We established new premises, bigger and better than before. Our clients were recovering as well, and business was running as normal by the end of 2018.
45mins 17s: You’ve just purchased a business in Leeds. The hurricane set us back also in my development plans for the company. I was actively looking for a business and I was able to negotiate and agree a retirement sale of a similar sized company in Leeds, just last week.
45mins 57s: How many businesses have you bought? I don’t know. That suggests that the number is high! Do you have any tips for people who are looking to buy a business? The first time you do it, you’ll look at the professional advisor fees, they are worth every penny. Do not even consider skimping on it, get an advisor for your first deal. Someone who can give you commercial advice. You will also need a lawyer to take you through the deal. The most challenging thing in a retirement sale is that this is the vendor’s baby, they have a lot of their life invested in this business; making sure they’re happy and comfortable in it is the most challenging thing. It’s not about the money, it’s 90% an emotional decision. First time round, you might not recognise that, and you need someone to guide you and be the bridge. They will act as the mediator and bring the temperature down.
48mins 29s: What other tips? Be absolutely sure of your reasons for doing it. My reason is X, well why and then ask why again. For setting up a first business, my advice is, what’s the worst that could happen and what are you waiting for? The worst thing that could happen is that it fails. Be careful how you do it, you don’t have to put everything on the line for it. Make sure you have enough saving sin the bank. Set yourself a reasonable cut off point, year 1 might not go so great but year 2 will be better and you’ll wake up one day and think actually this is going alright.
50mins 45s: I’ve heard that 80% of new businesses collapse in the first 5 years. Even with those odds stacked against you, you would say to go for it? I would say yes for people like me. If it’s something you really want to do and it fails in 5 years, at least you’ve tried. Would you rather be in retirement in 35 years’ time, looking back and thinking what if? Spending those 35 years going through the motions?
53mins 6s: What advice would you give to people running businesses over 2 sites? Make sure your IT and telecommunications are integrated, you can come to me for that! You need to ensure your processes and systems are in place to do that. Once you’ve got the people in place and they understand the processes, as you improve your processes, it all falls into place. The most important thing is getting people used to virtual working – everyone’s got a camera, Skype etc, and you should use it.
54mins 55s: Tips for networking? I overdose on networking. I did 5 networking events last week including BNI, B2B, profit club, action club and another B2B. I overdose on them because we’ve tried so many different marketing approaches for lead generation and the most successful ones are through networking and building relationships. For the Japanese, they naturally network on a smaller level.
57mins 30s: Do you have tips for businesspeople dealing with banks? I’ve not had a great experience with the bank as you know. Go into it with your eyes open. Don’t sign guarantees you aren’t comfortable with. If you fail, how much are you prepared to lose? They are in business too so do it carefully. It’s harder to form a relationship with the bank and they will only deal with bigger businesses. Get yourself to a point where you are no longer dependent on the bank as soon as humanly possible and then don’t take on any more debt unless there is a really good opportunity and a genuine reason for doing it.
1h 0mins 19s: What is next for you? I have to integrate the new business, IDT. All of the staff have embraced the new ownership. I want to do more with Phoenix Caribbean over here. I am about to launch a software as a service which we’re very close to launching, within the next few weeks. About 5 or 6 years ago at Fresh Mango, as we grew, we needed a system of recording the support requests which is better than Excel. We couldn’t find anything we liked, we had a bunch of clever guys to write the software and we started to increase its capability to a complete business management system. It can now have support tickets and projects for a customer, it can now integrate with major accounting packages. We implemented it as CCS successfully. We will market it to UK and US businesses to begin with and see where we go.