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Rob and Alisa Miller headshot

Rob and Alisa Miller - PCM Healthcare

Deferred payments are a mainstay of modern deal structures, but they are not always popular with the seller. But for Alisa and Rob Miller, it turned out to be the best way of letting go of their company.

“Psychologically, the earnout period is really interesting,” Alisa says, “At the beginning it was still territorial. Then the responsibilities fell away bit by bit, including payroll and other headaches. When the transition came it was complete.

“One thing you can’t put a value on is, when running a business, there’s this constant background strain like something wrapped around you. Then I noticed the noise had gone. The acquirer had really taken the reins, and we realised that we had finally let go.”

In truth, Rob and Alisa had no idea they would be in this position when they set up their London agency PCM Healthcare in 2006.

The couple met and married while working together at a large medical communications agency in Kent, and Rob recalls: “In that agency, Alisa and I were the two rising stars, but the business wasn’t in great shape. When Alisa got pregnant [with our first child], we decided it would actually be a lower risk for us to become partners in business than stay as employees.

Spare room start-up

From humble beginnings in the couple’s spare bedroom, the mix of Rob’s digital marketing skills and Alisa’s academic background saw the agency rapidly make inroads in the highly competitive healthcare communications industry, reaching £1m turnover for the first time after just three years – entirely self-funded.

Alisa says: “We quickly got to a point where we were forced to take on staff and become a grown-up business. Soon, we saw ways to improve on what our industry was doing and up the game for our sector.

“To change doctor and patient behaviour, you have to have a methodology that calls on a range of disciplines. In our industry, there was a lot of focus on content or message, but very little on how to drive change and measure results. There are three or four others approaching it this way now, but for a while we were the only one.”

With their unique selling point identified, PCM Healthcare continued to grow, moving into plush London offices and successfully bidding for large and complex projects.

“In spite of having nearly 40 people working for us, we still thought of it as our little family business."

“I couldn’t cope – but I didn’t think we could sell it”

Both were delighted when Alisa fell pregnant again. But the pregnancy got increasingly difficult, with big ramifications for PCM Healthcare.

“Alisa was ill and bed-bound for nine months so she couldn’t really work,” Rob remembers, “I was only working part-time because she needed round-the-clock care, so it became very stressful…we weren’t in the office and our key people started to leave because we weren’t around. We thought we might have to close it down.”

One day, the stress got too much.

“I was in a wheelchair, and they told me I might not walk again. That was a real tipping point,” says Alisa. “I was talking to one of the NHS counsellors when I opened up to her to say we can’t cope with this, the strain of trying to keep the business going, while managing my health and adding a new child into the mix. It’s too much”.

“She said, it’s tearing you apart. Why don’t you sell the business? I didn’t think we could, but then Rob and I talked about it.”

In early 2014, the couple approached BCMS to discuss their options. They hadn’t set up the business with an exit strategy, but during Alisa’s illness, the business had out of necessity become self-sufficient. Alisa adds: “In spite of having nearly 40 people working for us, we still thought of it as our little family business, we didn’t think it would be worth much. We were amazed by BCMS’ valuation.” 

Juggling priorities didn’t ease up over the next months. With two small children, Alisa recovering her health, a business to work on, and now a company sale to pursue, the couple found a way through.

“I can’t say the sale process was enjoyable,” Rob says, “we were glad to get through it. We enjoyed presenting our business and Doug [Edmunds, of BCMS] was really encouraging. He made it feel very easy and kept us very calm. It was great to have someone who had done this before.”

“I was sure I would lose my identity and wondered what we would do. The reality couldn’t be further from that.”

Family time restored

Having completed the earnout period to fully cash out of PCM Healthcare, Rob and Alisa reflect on how it feels to have sold their first business.

“We have got two young children and we want to spend time with them while they’re young,” says Rob. “We didn’t have a proper holiday in 10 years, so it’s liberating to have the cash and freedom to make choices.”

The pair have invested in an eco-hotel project in the USA, started speaking at a business mentor group, and set up a London branch of a US charity that reconnects homeless people with their families to help them off the streets. But as Alisa notes, now their time is filling up again, they are “starting to say no to some things.”

“I have lots of other interests and hobbies,” says Alisa, “They were always things I thought I could have done if I hadn’t gone for my career. Now I have got another chunk of life where I can do all the things I never imagined I’d get to do.”

For those unsure what life might look like post-sale, Alisa offers these inspiring words.

“It felt strange in the final few months. I was sure I would lose my identity and wondered what we would do. The reality couldn’t be further from that. We are making connections with amazing new people and organisations, and extending ourselves into areas we have never thought of before. We can be anything we want to be.

“For me, it’s the working mum guilt too. We are closer to our children now than ever before, and that’s worth everything.”

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Company name
PCM Healthcare
Location
London UK
Founded
2006
Business activity
Medical communications
Reason for sale
Lifestyle change
Sold
October 2015
Acquirer
Cogora (UK)
Cogora acquires leading agency PCM Healthcare