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Neil Needham Headshot

Neil Needham - AutoWindshields

When three brothers set up AutoWindshields in 2002 they remortgaged their homes and invested all of their time and money into their new business.

Seven years later, Neil Needham, his brothers George and James, and their fourth business partner Barry Donaldson, successfully sold to the AA for £6.5m, after two interested parties began bidding.

Starting out

The brothers set up AutoWindshields with a different business model from the rest of the industry – they were 100% mobile.

By 2006 the company, which had started from Neil’s dining room table, had grown to 50 members of staff. The brothers sold 25% of the business to Barry Donaldson and he helped progress it even further. By 2008 the firm was the fifth-largest windshield company in the UK.

“The other four companies were huge in comparison to us,” Neil says. “We wanted to get to that next level with the business. We had a turnover of around £5m, while our competitors were turning over £80m.

“We started to open up relationships with insurance companies and won three or four large accounts. The business went through the roof and the work kept coming.”

Deciding to sell

“We got a flyer from BCMS, inviting us to an event,” says Neil. “We went and had a look and we were impressed by how BCMS worked. We decided we wanted to sell, but we never spoke to anyone else about helping us.”

Neil says that the whole sales process went on for a year and he and Barry dealt with it, while George and James carried on with the day-to-day running of the business.

“After working in the industry 24-hours a day, 365-days a year, for 23 years, everyone involved was tired... and had different views on what they wanted to do.”

“A South African business came over to have a look. We also knew one company in the UK was interested but they wanted to shut us down and we didn’t want to do that.

“Then we started speaking to the AA and that was the way we went.”

After working in the industry 24-hours a day, 365-days a year for 23 years everyone involved was tired and had different views on what they wanted to do.

“James wanted to exit at the point the sale completed and we had a discussion with BCMS about that and they advised us that someone would need to stay on to help with the transition. It was decided that Barry and I would remain,” he says. “There were big, painful negotiations between the AA and BCMS about how long we would have to stay. We settled on 24 months and had a bit of pressure to deliver the results for the final earn out for all of us.”

Spreading the news

The fact that some customers had been through acquisitions and mergers before made it easier to tell them than the staff.

“We got all the staff together to tell them,” Neil says. “Some thought it was great, but some thought it wasn’t so good.

“But 12 months on, a lot of those staff were still with the business. The finance team and call handlers were initially upset but they mostly went on to work for the new business, some with better pay.”

Life after AutoWindshields

Neil and Barry became AA employees immediately after the sale.

“It should have ended in November 2011 but Barry stayed another year and I stayed until June 2013, when the AA was being restructured for an IPO,” Neil explains.

“It was quite an interesting, but difficult time. Suddenly I found myself in a bigger business, with bigger health and safety issues, more staff. We had been very agile in how we ran the company, but as the bigger business came in the agility was lost.

“We built the business up from 75 staff when we sold it, to 280 staff when I left in 2013. They did things differently, but it was now their business. That loss of control for me was nice because I had been fully involved 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Neil now works in a communications company. “My friend had a communications company and asked me to join, so I left the AA on the Friday and started in the new job on the Monday,” he adds. “I started as an employee, but in 2014 I bought a third of the business from the other two directors.

“The skills you have running your own business are fully transferable in to other business sectors, which I was quite surprised at.”

 “The most extravagant thing we did was build a house. We have built our dream home and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without the sale.

“My wife was really pleased when we sold as I was away a lot before. That was one of the other benefits too; we had a young family and so my wife was able to take time off and look after the children because that financial pressure wasn’t there.

“Being able to go and watch the kids play football or sport at school during the working day is a fantastic benefit. In the past, this would not happen. The business was in control of my personal life rather than the other way around.”

“You have to let go. When we were going through the process, one of the things we never took in to account was staying on there.”

Thinking of selling?

Neil says that most small business owners have a belief that no one else can run their business, but says that’s just not true.

“You have to let go,” he advises. “When we were going through the process, one of the things we never took in to account was staying on there. I sold it in 2009 but worked there until June 2013 and I was being paid more than I used to pay myself!

“You don’t think of all of these types of scenarios as it is all new, but BCMS advised us throughout the process.

“People don’t like change but unfortunately it happens and it can be a good thing.

“Overall, I would say that 90% of the sales process was a very positive experience for us all.”

 

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Company name
Autowindshields
Location
Preston, UK
Founded
2002
Business activity
Automotive repairs
Annual sales
£5m
Reason for sale
Lifestyle change
Sold
December 2009
Acquirer
Automobile Association
AutoWindshields acquired by The AA