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Joanna Swash talks beginnings, seeking investment, and the future, with BDO

How did your journey with Moneypenny begin?

Moneypenny’s founders, siblings Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher, hired me as their first sales person almost 17 years ago.

I’d recently had my own small business and I liked the way they embraced customer service and doing things in the right way.

It was very much a family business and I warmed to their entrepreneurial approach and ‘no egos’ ethos.

Ed and Rachel knew they needed a sales expert, so they made room for me to take that role, and they let me crack on.

That’s the Moneypenny ‘no egos’ ethos in action.

That we found one another and have worked so well together since is one of life’s perfect little serendipitous moments.

When did Moneypenny seek investment?

Around five years ago, Ed and Rachel began to think about slowly stepping back from the business.

I took charge of delivering growth for Moneypenny which included creating jobs in Wrexham, North Wales, and across our other locations.

The management team led on the investment process, and in 2018 we were delighted to find ECI Partners who have a great reputation in the marketplace.

We now have a really good relationship with them, and they’ve been super-supportive throughout.

How did Moneypenny fare throughout COVID?

We’re in a marketplace where there have been huge shifts, both from a technology perspective and a ‘ways of working’ perspective.

Business leaders are taking a step back and saying: “It’s time to redraw what my business looks like. How do I embrace things that other businesses are using? What are some things that I haven’t even thought of or have been too risk-averse to adopt?”.

It’s been a time of uncertainty mixed with opportunities for us, and we beat our business plan in 2020.

One bold decision we took in the middle of the pandemic was to run a national marketing campaign across the national press and radio.

We used this space to encourage business leaders to rethink the way the office works and consider outsourcing as the way forward.

That was one of the smartest decisions we took.

But let’s face it, we didn’t know if it would work or not – it was either going to be a giant waste of money or the best thing we ever did. There was no middle ground!

I said to the team, “now’s the time to be brave and bold”, and I think this leadership style that we’ve always had at Moneypenny stood me in really good stead these past 18 months.

I give people clarity and resources, empowering them to go and make decisions and do great things. I say to them, “Go forth and do things that you think will benefit the business.

If you make a mistake, “fess up, and we’ll fix it together”. People need to feel confident to go and do things out on their own because it feels right.

In this way Moneypenny can be really entrepreneurial and pivot very, very quickly.

How are you sharing learnings with other business leaders during this time?

I think we’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? You’ve got leaders of companies that had risk assessments and disaster recovery policies for almost every eventuality, and we all go, “Mmm…pandemic? Didn’t quite get that memo!”

That’s been quite refreshing. At the moment I think it’s okay to say, “I don’t know…but let’s try and make the right decisions”.

What’s been really nice during this time is to hear other leaders being vulnerable; talking about how their business is performing and what their personal challenges are, particularly with mental health.

There is a sense of pressure and responsibility on us. Moneypenny, for example, is one of the the largest employers in North Wales. That’s a big community and a lot of families.

Our investors, ECI Partners, have been fantastic. During the pandemic, the whole portfolio would jump on calls, so they’ve been great as an external sound board.

They have had some great programmes of help – they hired Westminster advisors, for example. At times we had calls twice a week as all the COVID legislation changed so rapidly.

Do you have any crisis management tips for other business leaders?

At certain points during the pandemic, there was information coming from so many different places; everybody wanted to advise!

I found it helpful to pick one ‘channel of truth’ and ignore the rest of the noise.

Another decision we made was to stick with trusted supplier relationships and say: “Okay, I’m going to stick with you now. I’m not looking around. This is not a moment to start speed dating. We are in this relationship and we’re going to stick at it”.

What would you advise other businesses looking to take investment?

I’m a big believer in relationships – trust, openness and honesty; no ego in the room. Ego is just done, it’s so old fashioned. Let’s all just be one version of ourselves.

So what we really looked for in an investment partner was their attitude.

Do we like them? Would we want to spend social time with them? Do we trust them?

We’ve spent years growing our business. Do we trust that they will take the time to understand how our business works?

You can look at a business on paper and make assumptions about how you could make improvements, but you must really take the time to talk to – not just the senior leadership team – but all the middle managers, to understand how a business really works.

When choosing an investor, I would say you need to be able to look them in the eye and know that you trust them.

If you don’t have that feeling from the start, you certainly won’t have it in two years’ time.

To companies looking to scale up into M&A, I’d suggest forming a business change team.

This team is basically a spare bench of people who are so knowledgeable about the business that you can point them in any direction you want.

So many businesses don’t see the value, but I know that if an acquisition opportunity arose tomorrow, resource and bandwidth would not be the reason why we couldn’t go for it.

We’re ready to leap into action at any time.

Tell us about your recent acquisitions

As a management team we’ve always been very motivated and known which direction we wanted to go in. We had a small acquisition in 2018 –  the MadeSimple group.

They are the largest online company formations business, setting up about 60,000 limited companies every year. Moneypenny now owns that business growth journey, so that was a really good acquisition.

They have a great team in London, and the acquisition gave us a work hub and meeting space for Moneypenny clients, so it was a good model for us.

Then, after the ECI investment, we were able to invest in an acquisition in the States. This maps to one of my strategic objectives to increase revenue from the US market.

We had opened an office in Charleston, but to fully maximise our US opportunity we needed a bigger platform, a management team and a location.

We found an amazing opportunity in VoiceNation and Ninja Number – two separate businesses owned by the same people. We literally signed the deal on about the 27th of February 2020, as the world was starting to close down.

I came home after sealing the deal in Atlanta and of course I didn’t get back out there till November.

We had to do introductions and transitions virtually. We even bought 30,000 square feet of office space over FaceTime!

It’s been incredible – and the things that you would never think were possible. And our business has thrived so we’ve done really well.

What are your future plans for M&A?

There’s nothing in the pipeline right now, but we are always open to possibilities.

At the moment, we have this wonderful team in Atlanta that we have amazing virtual relationships with, but I want to be able to go over again soon and do all that properly – that has to be the priority.

How is Moneypenny using technology to stay ahead?

One of the key hires we have made in the past three years is ex-Money Supermarket’s Pete Hanlon who is our Chief Technology Officer.

Pete is a leading voice in tech and is very passionate about how data is utilised, both in terms of keeping the business efficient and profitable, but also to create forward-thinking products and services that make clients’ lives easier.

Moneypenny uses tech to walk in our customers’ shoes and work out what they will need to solve their future problems.

At the moment, it’s all about artificial intelligence (AI) and Pete is working on big projects around speech-to-text and sentiment analysis.

This will change the way we operate and will mean an end to listening back to customer calls to review the service. This is huge for our clients as we handle over 20m calls and chats a year.

We are currently working to create a more seamless switchboard experience for our clients. This means businesses will not have to invest in a switchboard, we can operate their switchboard online using no telephones whatsoever.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give other business leaders?

My top tip is to surround yourself with brilliant people. I look at my management team and I know each one is amazing in their own right; better than me!

My role is to create this team and give them clarity, resources and freedom. I’m simply the glue that holds them together and I’m there whenever they need me.

How do you find brilliant people when there is a war for talent?

I try not to focus too much on what someone has done before, their education, etc. I use personality testing to find people who are the right fit for Moneypenny. I look for people who are forward-thinking and happy to take risks.

Data is a great tool, so use science and profiling to get a diverse pot of candidates who you know are all brilliant in their own right.

It’s so helpful to be able to predict how someone will act in a certain scenario so you can see how they will fit into your organisation.

We have been in the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies six times, so we have lots of people coming along wanting to join the team. They might have the best CV, or they might have worked for the best brand in the world.

And, yes, for the first few months, it might be a really good relationship. But unless you hire for attitude and approach, you won’t get as far as you could do in the long term. If you want to all be in it together, you need to create a culture of ‘one team, no egos’.

About BDO

BDO is an accountancy and business advisory firm. Our global network operates in 167 countries with 1600 offices worldwide. This interview was first published on plugd:in, BDO’s tech content hub – click here to visit’.

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