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Robert and Kathryn Hughes Headshot

Robert and Kathryn Hughes – Wesco

Robert Hughes, former owner of Wesco began his career in banking where he worked for an American bank in London. “I was lucky enough to get picked for an accelerated management scheme in California, that was in April 1986. I spent just under two years out there but fairly soon I felt that the big, corporate office life wasn’t really for me. It was all very political, there were great rewards on offer, but you had to climb a slippery pole to get to the top.” Robert enjoyed his time out there, but he felt he wasn’t built for the corporate structure.

While he was out in California, he met a lawyer who had invented a very interesting side-line of products. Robert explains: “He invented an alarm clock shaped like a baseball, and when the baseball went off in the morning you threw it at the wall to switch it off. I thought it was just great. Who doesn’t want to throw their alarm clock at the wall? I reached a point where I didn’t want to work for anybody else anymore so I approached the gentleman to see if I could become his UK distributor. To cut a long story short he agreed, and I started the business on the back of that product., I jumped ship, came back home to Manchester, and set up my business in 1988.”

Garfield and The Simpsons

Robert began his business with the alarm clock range, which included baseball, golf, football and American football alarm clocks. “They all sold very well for about 10 years. The second product we went into was a children’s Garfield wristwatch. Because Garfield was celebrating a big anniversary there was a lot of publicity for it – that was our first licensing deal. That went very well. It just so happened that the same agent had the UK rights for The Simpsons, so we decided to design our first product which was a talking alarm clock. We had Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, to do some wake up messages. That was quite a big moment for the company because it put us on the map with retail. That was in about 1991.”

Down periods

Throughout Robert’s 28 years of business management, the company only had two down periods. Robert said: “We had one in 1999/2000 as people stopped buying because of the ‘millennium bug’, but we rebounded. Then in 2007 we had a bad year for different reasons, and I started to question whether I wanted to keep working and keep doing this.

“The novelty wears off after a while I suppose. Keeping it fresh is quite challenging. When I started the business, little did I know you still have to speak to the bank managers, the tax man and deal with employees, you’re never free of those responsibilities. But other things catch your attention too, things you prefer to do. My wife Kathryn and I had started a family, we had two young children, you don’t get to see them as much as you’d like. There was a lot of travelling involved, as we manufactured our products in the far East. So, I was away in Hong Kong and China regularly. As you get older as well you start to think ‘maybe my time could be better spent doing things that I want to, do rather than things that I have to do’.

“I didn’t have an exit plan in mind, but I had been to a BCMS presentation around 2007/2008 and I remembered it, so I went to BCMS in 2009 to have a conversation with them about the sales process.”

“When it was all over, it felt like I had been through a medical operation, you are nervous about the process and relieved when it is done.”

The hardest parts

Robert and Kathryn found the sale process quite stressful. Robert explains: “When it was all over, it felt like I had been through a medical operation, you are nervous about the process but relieved when it is done. The hardest part was calling the staff together and telling them what we had done. We were advised by BCMS to not tell any of our staff until it was done, and it was the best thing to do. We had been given this advice because if people had known what was happening, they could’ve jumped ship and that would jeopardise the business during the sale. The decision to not tell them was purely selfish. It was the right decision, but it was the hardest part.”

Potential acquirers

“I think what BCMS did well was trawl the market worldwide for potential acquirers. We were pleasantly surprised but almost shocked to see how many companies BCMS produced who were possible acquirers. It all worked on the pyramid system. You start with a broad base and as companies drop out or are discounted, the pyramid gets narrower and you end up with a small number of companies at the top.”

“The company we sold to was our biggest trade rival in the product sector in which we operated. Their chairwoman came to me directly and asked why we didn’t go to them immediately because they always wanted to buy us. And of course, I didn’t have an answer for that, but I do know had I just gone to them and said we were looking to sell, I wouldn’t have got what they ultimately paid. Going through BCMS worked for us.”

“Try really hard to imagine what your life would look like post sale and could you live that life?”

Always busy

Even though selling Wesco has freed up a lot of Robert and Kathryn’s time they have managed to find a lot to fill it up. Robert explains: “Kathryn has written four best-selling novels and a fifth is on its way. Leisure time is very important, but I’m also Chairman of the Parish Council, I do some mentoring and I work in the voluntary sector as well. Kathryn’s also a Samaritan, so we try to do something constructive as well, we’re not just on our jollies all the time.

“I’ve known people who’ve said ‘but working is my life, I can’t imagine anything beyond this’. Use your imagination. There’s so much out there to occupy your time. This may not necessarily give you the monetary reward you’re getting from your business, but then hopefully you’ve banked a sizeable sum anyway, and it will give you satisfaction in many other ways.”



Company name
Knutsford, Cheshire
Business activity
Designer and manufacturer of character gadgets and gifts
Reason for sale
Wesco acquired by Zeon