Warhorse still charging on home turf

Chairman of global perfomance improvement company Grass Roots Group, David Evans, could be forgiven for feeling he has done enough on the events and incentives track to earn a relaxing time away from the roots of industry problems.

But recessionary pressures to combat, new international deals and projects and some sorting out at the top of the company’s Marlow office has meant Evans is not thinking about moving out to grass any time soon. In fact, the grass is getting greener, with Evans founding a new company in Wales producing sustainable ideas and products.

He founded Grass Roots back in 1980 in the county which houses the HQ to this day. The company is based in a former stables just along the road in Tring from former champion jockey turned trainer Walter Swinburn’s yard.

The 64-year-old Evans is still in the saddle in the race for more business.

He remains true to his roots. “The company colours are red because I am a social capitalist,” he says and admits to being a young communist, a belief picked up from his father, an old trade union official. His mother was a Methodist just for good measure. So, no surprise Evans embraces both steely strands of thinking and claims his goals remain “greater than the wallet”. He owns the theatre next door to his HQ and is a player on the political scene, occasionally, having visited Chequers recently (just down the road from Tring).

“I told the Prime Minister, ‘We’re the real Big Society over the hill from you’,” he recalls.
The man now in charge of a £300m company claims to have met every Prime Minister since 1964.
Evans took his first job in advertising.

“A trendy job for a young man from Rotherhithe,” he says. “There was no fear of failure, I was bright and young and the job paid 10 times what I was on at University.”

He moved once, but got to a point where, Evans says, “I wasn’t achieving enough emotionally”.
Cue a sharp departure up North, where he went to run a cosmetic packaging factory in Bradford, while studying simultaneously for an MBA.

Then came marriage, a move back south and a job at the Maritz agency.

Entrepreneurial desires soon flared and when he put his ideas to his boss was told to wait.

Waiting is clearly not Evans’ game and he started up in business with a partner. He says the then Maritz MD predicted he would last just 18 months.

“I mortgaged my house to buy my first IBM for £48k and within nine months we went from two to 20 staff.”

Agent of change

Evans claims to have gone on to create a whole sector dealing with people changing their work practices.

“I went round like an evangelist saying people needed to change and asking the question of whether managers really understood where the real assets of their businesses were,” he said.
In 1984, the components of the Grass Roots business were spread from London to Leeds. At that point Evans borrowed a large sum of money and brought everything together at a country house
in Hertfordshire.

“At the time, the conventional wisdom was that staying out of London for a services business such as ours was akin to staying out of touch.”

He remains headquartered in the area, however, having grown the business from a turnover of £11m to almost £300m.

Evans claims the churn rate is almost zero at his company, which now employs some 1,200 staff worldwide.

There are seven businesses in the UK, spread over three sites in Tring (400 staff), and at offices in Fleet, Worcester, Putney and Staffordshire.

“If you lose intimacy you lose business,” says Evans, who reckons that teams of 50 are the optimum work collective.

The agency has not been immune to departures, however.

Evans recently went back onto the front line at the Marlow office to put things back on track following the departure of longstanding Divisional Director Nick Bender, whose successor Amanda Litzow also resigned abruptly just weeks after taking over from Bender.

Director of Client Relationships Simon Maier had also left and Evans described the Litzow episode to CN at the time as “the most bizarre event in my entire lifetime”.

A leader who didn’t care would probably not give it a second thought, but it is clear that Evans adheres to the old Quaker principles of ‘trust and verification’ from the way he constantly talks about his company as a ‘family’.

“Bender got carried away with the idea of ‘let’s create an events company’. He forgot about the gardening,” says Evans.

“An event is part of whole. There has to be a business premise,” he adds.

“People tend to get above themselves. But an event is just another form of communicating. Yes, it’s glamorous, but for a short period. Work, however, is grinding. This industry too often can be a ‘beck and call’ girl.”

It turns out there was a lot of unbilled time being spent on clients and a culture more akin, says Evans, to Oh what a lovely war!’ where there was a feeling of ‘if in doubt, put more people in the trenches’.

Were there perhaps too many generals? “Oh yes,” Evans agrees and tells how he shut the executive wing at Marlow. All men are equal at the Grass Roots after all.

Va-va voom

Asked his greatest achievement, Evans turns to the automotive sector.

“When we were young, we pitched for the launch of the Ford Sierra. We lost by half a point, but recommended the campaign be done at Castle Ashby.”

The Ford model in question did not sell too well and Evans insists his campaign would have “made the car a hero”.

He got his chance to rev up his ideas two years later, when the company was asked to do a VW launch. “We made a big splash at branch level,” he explains.

“The results came in an uplift of sales in the car within six months.” Evans is proud of his green credentials and, indeed, was awarded an MBE for social responsibility.

He knocked back one client choice for a car launch event at a location which would have resulted in five million travelling miles for delegates.

“Not appropriate,” was Evans’ verdict. His agency is very much still on the autobahn, running the European launch of Opel’s electric car last year and a Ford Focus launch in France. “That was a small car with all kit on board. In Bordeaux we needed to teach the dealers to sell features the French weren’t used to.”

As distinct from some competitors’ approaches for attacking foreign markets by employing native speakers in the UK offices, the Grass Roots preferred modus operandi is to employ foreign nationals out in the field and it recently spread its wings Stateside and in Singapore.

“Let the locals get on with it is my approach,” says Evans.

He certainly got on with it after he bought out Maritz in the UK in 2006.

There were aspects of that business crying out for change; but then change has always been the name of Evans’ game.

“You have to be willing to see when change needs to occur,” he says. “That’s the visionary in me.”
He seems to like the description of himself as being ‘constructively discontented’.

Forward charge

Going into 2012, Evans is confident that the first loss in 25 years made in the financial year 2010, would not be repeated and is predicting profits when the 2011 accounts are brought in.

With a new office in Putney and an expanding venue procurement team led by Des McLaughlin (“the best operator in the space” – Evans), and a team in Fleet “being mothered incredibly by Giselle Ripken,” Evans’ Quaker-like faith is being restored.

The future is all about IT, he believes, and he has equipped the Fleet business which he acquired from the administrators (the old ‘MICE’ agency) with new software.

“We have software guys all over the planet (Florida, Brazil, Ireland, Bangalore, and 120 in Tring alone),” says Evans.

Meetings management software specialist StarCite changed hands in a deal valued at over $51m recently, did Evans perhaps not regret buying the company when he had the chance?

“I described the product then to Steve Maritz as the fox in his hen coop.

“However, as far as the technology goes, we have capacity to produce stuff quicker.”

“The fact that StarCite needs to be sold so hard, says a lot. I’m not sure if there’s a real number in there,” Evans adds.

Evans does believe “there is still gold in them thar events hills, especially in the pharmaceuticals industry”.

With a client portfolio spread between banking companies, telecoms, major retailers and government, Evans believes the current Grass Roots structure offers good protection for his people.

He is charging still though, and his eight-year-old daughter Matilda has proved the inspiration for his latest hurrah.

The old warhorse has opened up another front on the broadsward: founding a green brand manufacturing company in Port Talbot, Wales.

Matilda’s Planet is an incubator business for green projects, with the company’s first wind turbines installed in the Vauxhall tower.

Evans is also focused on the prospects offered by the new markets, in particular China and India, where he has offices.

He explains his global philosophy thus: “Like the old British empire, I send a Jesuit out then either buy something and build upon it, or build something and buy for it”.

In the future Evans sees Grass Roots Group having a 50/50 Overseas/UK split. At the moment the business is 75 per cent UK centred.

The Grass Roots can always be greener; certainly if Matilda has anything to do with it. 

Any comments? Email conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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