Having bought back Comtec, the translation company she launched more than 30 years ago, this time around the founder has brought her daughter on board as director
Isabella Moore It's important to have an exit strategy. I had developed other interests and [as president] was very much involved in the British Chambers of Commerce and then the National Centre for Languages (Cilt). I got a good offer for the business from an American firm, which I couldn't refuse.
Sophie Howe I did a master's in business management at Durham University in 2002. I wasn't ready [to join] when Isabella decided to sell the business, I needed to go off and do my own thing. But when she got the call five years later she asked if I might be interested in buying Comtec back with her. I was seriously thinking about what I could do on my own and it seemed to fit quite well. I'd always wanted to be my own boss.
IM The company that bought Comtec mentioned that it wanted to sell the business on. I thought, "this is an opportunity". We bought it back for a lot less than we sold it for. Having lived and breathed the business while she was growing up, it was very much on Sophie's radar. I wanted to make sure she understood the challenges, but she wanted to do it.
SH We bought the business with a loan and a personal contribution from myself, Isabella and [colleague] Hazel Stewart. When we bought it back, Isabella was still working at Cilt. She didn't join the business for the first seven months but helped in the background. She bought J&AB [a grant advisory company], so most of her time is spent on that, but she's always provided a sounding board and a second opinion.
IM When I sold the business, we still came across small businesses that didn't think a website was necessary. Now that's absolutely not the case. Competition is all over the world; you need to respond quickly and effectively. This is where knowledge of language and culture is important. Everybody wants a fast response—that's the one thing that has changed hugely. Expectation among customers is much greater; they want everything now.
SH Isabella's role is about forward thinking, not getting into the nitty-gritty. She's very good at big thinking. I'm quite good at getting into the detail and thinking practically. She's also very good at networking, public speaking and being an ambassador for Comtec. I push her out there as much as I can.
IM The huge benefit is that you're working with somebody that you 100 per cent trust. There is something different about working with another member of your family. We complement each other in the different skills that we have. My knowledge of running a business developed over many years, on the job. She has the advantage of having acquired that knowledge in a faster way than I did. She brings new ideas and dynamism.
SH We've got lots of things in common, but we're quite different. I'm probably a bit more like my dad, more aware of the risks. Isabella is much more "let's just go for it and see what happens". I think about what could potentially go wrong. But that works out quite well.
IM I admire Sophie's absolute doggedness—her capacity to work extremely hard. Her desire to succeed is a very admirable quality. She's always thinking of new ways of doing things. You need that, when you're in business, because at the end the buck stops with you. It does mean longer hours, making sure that things are finished. And I'd say that perhaps hasn't always been my strongest point.
SH If I've found out that a potential client works with their father or mother, it gives us something to talk about and strengthens the relationship. From the beginning we've talked about succession. It was always the intention that Isabella was going to take more of a back seat and I'd take the primary role. We've got plans for how that would work in terms of shares and transfer of ownership.
IM Every business should have an exit strategy. For the medium term, we would like to expand. We're looking to build up a sound customer base and potentially expand through further acquisitions in specialist areas. Our turnover is just under £1m.
SH We're keeping close to our existing customers. That's been very important—we have good relationships with them. We don't let them get pinched by the competition. The recession just means you've got to work that bit harder. We'll be well placed when we come out of it.