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Jon Neill Headshot

Jonathan Neill – Sportsafe UK

One of the most common reasons employees become entrepreneurs is when they realise that their industry offers poor customer service.

The drive to offer customers a better deal provides the impetus for those who care to make the leap into business ownership. And that’s exactly how Jon Neill began his journey.

Upon leaving school with low exam grades, Jon’s working life began as an apprentice, eventually leading to a job as a maintenance engineer for a school sports equipment firm.

Difficulties in a new start-up

Often on the receiving end of customer dissatisfaction, Jon felt compelled to start a venture offering something very different to the then-industry standard.

It wasn’t easy. First, Jon approached his bank asking for a £4000 loan for a van. The bank manager replied: “No, it will not work. Your idea is flawed.”

Undaunted, Jon talked to his wife Jaci about his new start-up idea, only to discover she was unconvinced too. Jaci was about to give birth to their first child. However, once Jaci realised Jon was determined to go ahead, she gave him her wholehearted support.

A few weeks later, Sportsafe UK was born in a small garage near Colchester. Jaci managed the office tasks, while Jon serviced and repaired school gym equipment. Within three months, Jon’s reputation for great service led to an inbound enquiry from a Norfolk school, which in turn led to a council contract for 300 schools.

Business was booming

The couple won a second contract in Bournemouth a few months later, followed by two more elsewhere, and Sportsafe moved to a small office.

This turn of events convinced Jon he didn’t want to run a local company, but to go national. The next contract secured was for 55 schools in Shetland – a tricky job involving ferry-hopping, and the occasional Cessna landing on a remote island beach. Further tenders were won across Scotland, so Jon opened an office in Fort William and carried on staffing up.

Business was booming, and with Sportsafe winning contracts nearly every month, Jon learnt about sales as they grew.

Jaci had returned to her nursing career, and Jon hired more people, developing initiatives such as guaranteed appointment times, staff security vetting, and improved quality standards to stay ahead of the competition.

Challenges of a young business

As with any young business, managing rapid growth brings its own challenges. Sportsafe had opened several offices around the country and moved into a new headquarters in Colchester.

Jon says: “It was a time of panic recruitment. We interviewed people and employed them simply because they could walk and carry a toolbox. We quickly realised that some employees weren’t right. Although unwritten, we had a clear culture, and we were losing it fast.

“A can’t do attitude began to pervade all the offices. And in the way one bad apple spoils the rest, this negative culture began to take root. Attitudes, workmanship and customer relations all suffered.”

Jon and his co-director Charlie – one of his first hires when the Scottish office opened – took radical action. A company culture document was produced, clarifying the company values and behaviour expected. Every employee had a one-to-one meeting with the directors and was asked to sign the agreement. This ended the panic recruitment but resulted in 80% of staff leaving – or being asked to leave – over the next year.

Jon recalls: “Everyone who stayed on or was newly recruited bought into our culture. They knew what was expected, and our growth aspirations.”

“The UK is a limited market, and I love growth. I didn’t want to hold Sportsafe back.”

A need for more

Jon grew his senior team, with a new financial director (FD) arriving to find Sportsafe growing so fast that working capital was underfunded. The FD quickly put robust accounting systems in place to handle the next growth phase.

Between 2011 and 2017, turnover grew to £7m, serving 16,000 schools via 120 contracts. Jon and his family had a comfortable life, but he wanted more.

“I still had a lot more fight in me,” he says, “The UK is a limited market, and I love growth. I didn’t want to hold Sportsafe back.”

The senior team began looking at international expansion, and research trips were organised to France, Germany, Australia and Saudi Arabia. But the scale of the task was immense.

Jon began to wonder if it was better to join forces with local companies in these markets, when a BCMS flyer landed on his desk.

Although he wasn’t ready to exit Sportsafe, BCMS advised him of ways to structure a deal to help him make this international growth stage happen.

“People had told us the sale process would be the most stressful thing in our lives. But I used to turn up with a tray of doughnuts for the staff on each visit.”

The business sale process

Jon found the process exciting – the research, the enquiries, the negotiations. 

“People had told us the sale process would be the most stressful thing in our lives. But I used to turn up with a tray of doughnuts for the staff on each visit. I enjoyed the process, and the people we met along the way. We had a good time of it.”

As multiple acquirers placed their offers, Jon weighed up the price, the cultural fit with the potential buyer, and of course his own position and influence post-deal.

Jon recalls the “magic moment” he met with the final buyer, global sports equipment group ABEO. “The research that BCMS did brought ABEO to the party, and the cultural fit was so great it revitalised me.

“We were shocked at how similar our operations were. It was as if we were living parallel lives without having known each other. ABEO are also wanting to double in size to £300m turnover, and that was another perfect fit for us. It took the risk off the table, which would have been too risky and daunting without ABEO.”

“We did negotiate hard on price and rightly so. But everyone involved had a strong will to make it work, so the process was fairly painless.”

After the sale

Jon treated himself to a Bentley Continental, and the family moved into a 200-year-old farmhouse. Philanthropic activities included a charity music festival at his home, lecturing local business students, and even sleeping rough with co-director Phil and local MP Will Quince to raise money for three charities.

Jon has no regrets, and is still working hard on international growth with ABEO.

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Company name
Sportsafe UK
Location
Near Colchester
Business activity
Sports manufacturer
Annual sales
£23m
Reason for sale
The company was becoming too large
Sold
2016
Acquirer
ABEO
Sportsafe ABEO BCMS