Adam McGill, the managing director of school memorabilia company Fizz Group was just 15 when he launched his business. Nine years later and with a turnover of £2m, the IoD 99 member is keen to ask our experts if acquisition is the route to growth
Dig into the background of most – if not all – self-made business leaders and you can usually unearth a spark of childhood entrepreneurialism. The retail mogul who undercut the school tuck shop, the sports tycoon who employed friends to take the weight of caddying on the golf course… but how many can say they left school with a fully functioning, profitable business that would experience nine years of 100 per cent growth? Adam McGill can.
In 2007, when McGill should have been dedicating all his spare time to studying for GCSEs at his Solihull comprehensive, he volunteered to produce a hardback yearbook full of photographs, memories and messages for his peers. “The school had previously paid an external company to produce the book but I knew I could do better,” says McGill. “My parents ran an advertising-design business. I saw the high standards of design that could be achieved.”
McGill offered to match the price the incumbent was charging with the promise of an eye-catching, design-led proposition that would appeal to teenagers. He also promised to cut his teachers’ workloads. “I discovered that other yearbook companies put the onus on the client to put the product together – resizing and uploading photos, writing captions… My school was paying £20 a book for the privilege of printing. I said ‘for £20, I’ll handle the whole project’. That’s a very attractive proposition to a busy teacher in the public sector.”
With the first Fizz Group yearbook a sell-out, McGill enrolled in sixth-form college – but having got the taste for business it wasn’t long before he was skipping lectures to tout the idea to other local schools. “I was spending more time answering the phone during lectures than listening. I was academically strong. My teachers and lecturers had encouraged me to pursue an academic vision, to become a lawyer or doctor, but my parents were more business-minded. They said, ‘if an income opportunity presents itself you’d be mad to ignore it’.”
After nine months, McGill quit college. Living at home afforded him the opportunity to grow Fizz Group without having to take on external investment. “From the start, I asked for payment upfront, which gave me all the working capital I needed. At that point there were no wages or overheads to think about. For the next year I worked from an Apple Mac at the end of my bed.”
Diversifying into school portrait photography (and later hooded jumpers emblazoned with leavers’ names) helped McGill overcome cashflow issues that came with the “massively seasonal” nature of the business. “All school leavers graduate in the summer but enquires for books start in September with production lasting until March when printing starts.”
The image of a 20-something producing tangible products in an era when so many young people are building apps isn’t lost on the Fizz Group founder. “My businesses operate in some of the oldest industries: clothing, hardback printed books and photographs. Go to any house in Britain and you’ll still find a photo on the mantelpiece; people want products they can hold, cherish and keep.”
Expansion of Fizz Group has brought challenges. A move to a converted barn in Alcester, Warwickshire, in 2011 offered picturesque rural views but hampered Fizz Group with slow internet speeds and poor mobile signal. “The office featured lovely underfloor heating but no room to run network cables. Moving was a mistake that came from being young and inexperienced but I learnt from it,” he says.
After four years, Fizz Group has moved its base to Redditch, Worcestershire, and purpose-built offices with superfast broadband and the space to realise McGill’s vision to double his 10-strong staff within five years.
“My age worked to my advantage when dealing with clients,” he explains. “Leavers’ books are a product for young people and I was often pitching the product to student committees who saw that we offered something different.”
However, his success came at a price. “As I grew the business and started to employ people, there were times when staff who I trusted thought they could get away with things because I was younger than them. It’s part of a larger problem Britain has with success – at school and college I was actively discouraged from thinking I could go into business without further education.”
While McGill can rely on current Fizz Group staff to share his passion, vision and ethos, he’s aware that to continue to enjoy high levels of growth could mean acquiring rivals with staff who have a different outlook. “We’ve ridden 100 per cent growth for nine years. Acquisition makes me nervous. We pitch ourselves at the luxury end of the market, we don’t discount because the moment you do you take the value away from the product. It’s easier to instil our ethos in new staff than in those of a competitor with a different ethos.”
He is mindful of the dangers of not buying out competitors. “Schools are traditional and risk averse – many have used the same photographer for 50 years and don’t like change even when the service is poor. The question is, do I expand through acquisition or by recruiting and training Fizz Group’s own team of photographers, and what are the risks?” Over to this month’s panel for its advice…
Growth or acquisition – what’s the best way to expand Fizz Group? Three business leaders advise
Dr Nick Cronin, corporate finance partner, Bean Partners
Considering acquisitions is a significant move for a business. And with the current M&A ecosystem currently at its strongest for more than a decade, there are some great opportunities to be had.
However, expansion through acquisition alone isn’t for the faint-hearted, and requires a strong relationship with corporate investors. The company will also need a strong, capable team, robust systems and a healthy balance sheet. In my experience the best approach is a combination of organic growth along with some strategic acquisitions.
The question to ask is: Will acquisition enable you to diversify your business model or are you looking to acquire purely to ‘bolt on’ a balance sheet? If a particular acquisition can diversify your business model – such as opening up a new business channel, acquiring key talent, or even creating a greater functional structure – then it’s well worth considering.
Remember, no matter how well prepared the business, less than 50 per cent of M&A deals succeed, and are a huge drain on resource and time.
Dr Nick Cronin is a member of IoD Kent
Karen Mosley, director, HLM Architects
Growing your business is exciting. But maintaining your culture and quality throughout the process can be a real challenge. Growing through acquisition may propel you further – faster. But it could also bring tensions. Without the right support, you may find your time focused on those areas to the detriment of growing your own team and client base.
Consider what the strategic appeal is to acquiring: your targets may have access to clients you want to reach, but do they have the right skills? Are they aligned in your working methods? How long would it take to bring them into the fold? Compare this with training and recruiting, or even developing a network of associates who understand your brand.
Whichever route you decide, stay firm in your leadership and keep your team travelling on the same journey. Regularly share your passions and plans so everyone can see clearly where the company is going and how they can progress their careers. This will help you to promote your business as a great place to work to attract new talent – as well as new clients.
Simon Fordham, co-founder, Fordham Henderson Partnership
You have shown great ability to organically grow your business. However, we have to keep innovating to keep at the top of our game. The strategic goal to grow should be based on your needs, those of the shareholders, and the future capacity of the team. What is the need to grow?
Analyse what the strategic desired outcomes are, be they increased turnover, employees, client base or market share. Once decided, not only will the reason for expansion become clear, but also the timescale for sustained growth and the implementation plan to achieve it. You’ll then be in a position to decide how you intend to attain your goal: by organic growth or acquisition. You are well adept to grow the business. Your market differentiation, product portfolio and ability to empathise with your client suggests competitors are not in that ‘magic’ space. To acquire would mean challenging the culture and ethos of the acquired organisation, retraining employees to think as Fizz does – and this may not be something their existing client base desires or will understand.
Continuing to market what you do, challenging client understanding and market practices, is a positive strategy to organically grow. Your sense of achievement, when realised, will be great.
Simon Fordham is a member of IoD Essex
Fizz Group founder Adam McGill’s’ response
I’m very grateful to the experts for sharing their thoughts. They have definitely encouraged me to ask the right questions – understanding, as Dr Cronin says, if the drive for acquisition is purely to bolt on a balance sheet or to open a new business channel. Equally I do want to maintain the culture of Fizz, so I think Karen Mosley is right in flagging up the potential pitfalls of bringing in outsiders. I have to say, above all, I like the sound of Simon Fordham’s advice on “continuing to market what we do … as a positive strategy to organically grow”, as I’m not sure acquisition comes with enough positives for us as a business. We have worked hard to build our reputation, something another business may not value or share.
Adam McGill’s CV
Education 12 GCSEs at Alderbrook School, Solihull. “I did very well – As and A-stars.”
Career Before setting up Fizz Group, McGill had a paper round and spent a “brief period” at school washing teachers’ cars.
Hobbies “We’re based in the Midlands but I love popping down to London. As a child I was into sports and music but as the business took over I had to drop these. Work-life balance is important and I like to spend my weekends kicking back and relaxing in London, eating bangers and mash at Langan’s Brasserie and staying at the Savoy.”
Adam McGill is a member of IoD 99
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