The Thinkers - Chris J Birch (1)

Episode 1 of the Thinkers. Accompanying the Podcast

The Thinkers - Chris J Birch (1)

I’m Chris and almost a decade ago, my business partner and I set up a business using twenty pounds and turned that into a multi million pound group of companies that has employed thousands of people and changed the lives of everyone who’s been involved, including us.

Over the Coming episodes, I’ll tell you how we started, the up’s and downs of running a company, how to diversify, when to cash out, how to sell a company and where to go once you’ve sold up.

Also, I’ll be letting you know about how we diversified into Property, Hospitality, Accountancy, Holiday Homes, Training Academies and much more.

First up, let’s head straight in with how we started and where it came from.

For anyone who doesn’t know, we brought a major cleaning company into the world around 10 years ago when we decided that we wanted more money and the minimum wage of £7.21 then wasn’t going to be enough for the life we wanted.

We bought the basic essentials for a cleaning company, mostly being a vacuum cleaner, a mop and a few other bits and got straight to work.

A cleaning company and similar companies generate great revenue because you’re charging your time out at a premium in exchange for pure elbow grease. Few skills are needed for these jobs and once you get busy enough, you bring someone new in to help you.

That’s exactly what we did within our first year of trading.

The only thing you’ll come up against during this time, which is what we noticed is public perception. This comes from two angles:

What will people think of me when I tell them I’m a Cleaner?

What will people say if I fail?

The answer here is obvious and its to care less about what other people think. But in reality, we all care what other people think. There are entire industries built around self doubt.

So, being more practical. Its about managing expectations. We didn’t want people to know we were cleaners and at the time, we weren’t only doing cleaning. We also did the odd bit of property maintenance, painting and decorating too.

Public perception for now had been satisfied with a ‘Property Maintenance’ title rather than a Cleaning title. Although, as you grow and become more successful, you genuinely do care far less because you’ve proven yourself by then.

Then there’s the failure problem. What if we failed? What would people think and how would they judge us? At the time, it didnt really matter so much because the need for money overrode the feelings of potential failure. Plus, I’m a positive person and its mostly a mindset thing when you’re heading into business.

My business partner Jak has always said that I race in and start something then think about it later. It was meant positively and I take it that way. In our team, I’m the creator. I come up with these wild, crazy projects. I get the plane off the ground, usually while putting the pieces together on the way up and then Jak keeps the thing in the air, while I’ve parachuted out and I’m onto building the next plane. We’ll discuss landing that plane in another edition.

So we had this business, which was initially a partnership. We did all the HMRC stuff and at the time, did our accounts ourselves too, which kept costs low.

The first summer we operated, we had our first taste of failure when a client refused to pay for something. Absolute idiot of a guy and taught me the lesson of getting things in writing in advance, even if its a text message. That’s the only problem with a low cost point service; its not enough to bother taking someone to court and sadly, some clients know it.

Still, lesson learnt and thankfully, in our years of work, this only happened two more times, but sadly for much more than eighty pounds.

Then, we employed our first member of staff. A friend of mine. You already know how this story ends if you’re ever employed friends and family. Needless to say, we aren’t friends anymore. I’m a methodic person that does things to the letter, including paying people. I’m a stickler for that. So I always take great offence when people query their pay amounts, especially for holidays et cetera.

As time passed by though and we employed more staff, I slowly became numb to employees querying things. It became a dull noise, like radio static. Your employees are your greatest asset but sometimes, it really doesn’t feel like it.

That’s something else I learned after we’d got to thirty plus employees. We needed distance from the staff. Both physically and through tiers of management. I remember a few days where Jak and I would hide in a maintenance cupboard with our laptops and lunch, purely to avoid being asked hundreds of questions that were repeating from yesterday. No amount of spreadsheets, FAQ’s, CRM Systems and HR Software could outweigh hiding from our team occasionally just to get something done.

Productivity halts without a good management structure, which is where we really drove up a gear.

I appointed myself as a Contracts Manager for the Company. I went out to get the work and as we progressed, I brought three women onto my team to shadow me and do the same. One for Housekeeping, one for Commercial and one for Industrial work. It was an extraordinary success. Our turnover hit a high after 18 months of putting the plan together and training my team in how to sell the way I knew best. These girls though quickly became Team Managers and took a step away from Sales to run the contracts they’d sourced. A fantastic idea but in retrospect; training a new sales division all over again took longer and caused us to remain teetering on the turnover threshold.

By this point, we’d obviously become VAT registered and moved ourselves over to a limited company. Principally the reason was for liability purposes. We did everything possible to train staff but ultimately, some of them were idiots and I wasn’t prepared to have them cause an incident that would result in me losing everything I’d worked for. Thankfully, we’ve only ever had three injuries in the workplace outside the occasional sprain and cut. Two of those were me. One where I wasn’t looking and walked onto a floor that had just been mopped with degreaser, which is incredibly slippery and ended up in mid air, completely horizontally before crashing down onto the degreased floor with a bemused cleaner stood alongside me holding the mop. There’s a fantastic CCTV video of that somewhere. Sadly, the second time wasn’t nearly as entertaining.

Our big hit became when we moved into our own premises and spent a fortune renovating it to be a fit for purpose office with training suites downstairs, a stock room, a laundry facility and our own kitchen and bathroom. Something you never truly consider essential until you’ve had an office in a communal building.

This came off the back of reaching 5 year of continuous growth in the Company.

We then, randomly took a moment and realised that we’d become frantic with success and Jak and I didn’t have the time to enjoy the spoils of what we were achieving outside the occasional award ceremony. The business by this point had run almost continuously for 4 of those years, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. One year it closed at 9pm on Christmas Eve and re-opened at 4am on Boxing Day with calls from the Team on both days.

Our problem there was that we took on too much and I’m able to admit that now but if you’d asked my that then, I’d likely have disagreed.

We made a conscious decision to begin making plans to exit the company, giving ourselves a timeline of around 5 years to setup one or more companies and have them running for us to manoeuvre into before pitching the business for Sale.

Apollo, named from a Lynx deodorant bottle that flung from under the car seat moments before completing the forms to send off to the HMRC brought us the experience of owning and operating a group of Companies in multiple industries and enabled us to understand every part of owning and running a Company, which is why I’m so committed to passing on what I’ve learned along the way.

Setting up the Think Tank Podcast and branding myself a Business Consultant came as a slight shock to me. Until around year 8 of being a Company owner, I saw myself as very new to the game but when I met a Business Consultant one day and quizzed them on a few areas I was thinking of moving into, I realised that some of these guys know nothing about business as they’re from corporate backgrounds and just don’t get how SME’s work. After overcoming a brief spell of imposter syndrome, something I don’t readily subscribe to, I set up this service to accompany the rest of my Portfolio and haven’t looked back until this very moment to tell you about it.

I hope this makes some sense and gives you a better insight into the type of person I am and what background I’m from. In the coming weeks, I’ll give you much more information on how to startup a business for yourself, things to look out for and when best to consider selling. I’ll also chat about my other business ventures including an Accountancy practice, even though I’m not an Accountant, a Tech Firm, A Holiday Home company and much more.