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Stephen Shutler - S P Shutler Associates

Beginning his career as an environmental health officer, Stephen Shutler grew frustrated with the local government service and saw an opportunity to start his own consultancy company dealing with asbestos. But after taking the brave step to enter the hazardous world of business ownership, he was a little apprehensive about a business sale.

Where it all began

Stephen’s first job gave him an in-depth knowledge of the sector, primarily dealing in food hygiene and health and safety legislation. After initially making strides in his career, he quickly reached a stage which meant it would be a long time before he would be promoted further.

Ambitious, he turned his attention to a relatively small company in the private sector. It was in this role that he began to identify a potentially lucrative area overcoming the challenges associated with asbestos.

So he decided to have a go himself.

“To begin with, building my own company was terrible. I was very naïve and didn’t realise how difficult it would be to get work. I became quite despondent on several occasions and I thought I had made a bad move.”

Stephen soon purchased a large box trailer, which he towed with the family Land Rover. In the trailer he had various pieces of testing equipment, which really helped him get going.

“I gradually managed to build up a small client base and then it started to move along reasonably successfully. At that time, I was purely a one-man band, working in my spare bedroom with just a phone.”

“I managed to secure a contract with the county council for surveying their buildings and managing the process of asbestos removal. That was a 12-month contract and really helped me take off.”

Highs are higher and the lows are lower

Stephen had many highs throughout his business journey, even with the lows. “The main high was the feeling of satisfaction when you’ve managed to secure a contract and you are working for yourself. After a number of years, I used a business mentor and he used to say, ‘In business the highs are higher and the lows are lower.’ That is quite correct. When things are going badly it is easy to get despondent.”

It took Stephen around five years before he really started to feel comfortable with the company. “There is always a nagging suspicion that one day customers just don’t come through the door and it is difficult to do anything about that. In my business, asbestos surveys and removal isn’t a purchase people make unless they need to. Quite often with a client, once you have identified their asbestos, explained the significance and erased it, there is no repeat business. It was always a matter of looking for new clients.”

“Over a number of years, we expanded from the spare bedroom, into a small office, then a major move into a much bigger office. By that time, I was up to 60 staff and we had about 15 company vehicles.”

But as the success of the business continued to grow, Stephen found himself moving further away from the role he created and pushed into taking further risks.

“To move further would have been a large step change, potentially buying an office somewhere else in the country, either North Wales, towards London or up in Scotland, and that would have been a major risk at that time. I was making a reasonable amount of money and didn’t really want to risk it, I had risked my future on a number of occasions, and I had reached where I wanted to be. One of the other issues was as the firm got bigger, you end up being an administrator and personnel manager rather than the initial job that you started out doing. So, I didn’t do any asbestos work for quite a few years, I was just dealing with problems, personnel and those sorts of things.”

It was at this point Stephen began to consider an exit.

Stephen saw a BCMS flyer and attended a masterclass at the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. “I thought the presentation was good and I remember coming back to speak to my external accountant about a sale. He was very apprehensive, so I arranged for someone from BCMS to come over and meet with us again. After the meeting he too was impressed, so we signed on the dotted line and started the ball rolling!”

“Don’t take your eyes off the ball during the process, you can get so absorbed with the sales process that the business itself starts to go downhill.”

Everything explained

Stephen was comfortable taking this next step because he felt the process was clearly explained in advance. “BCMS said from day one that it was likely to take 12 months and they told us; don’t take your eyes off the ball during the process. You can get so absorbed with the sales process that the business itself starts to go downhill.”

“As it got closer and closer to the date of sale, I became very aware that things could go wrong at the last minute. But we had a good firm of lawyers who made sure that we would not get trapped by anyone. One of the advantages of my company was that I had a team of seven managers so the company could run even though I was about to disappear. But, a couple of months before everything was due to go through, two of my managers resigned and left to start their own company. Thankfully it didn’t have a major impact on the sale, but it was extremely worrying.”

Completely confidential

Stephen kept everything confidential based on BCMS’ advice: “It could have caused a lot of concern for the employees and the company is the employees. We didn’t have big machines; we were consultants and surveyors. If they had left, we hadn’t got a company.

“I had done my time and I was glad to have waved goodbye to it.”

“When it came to telling the staff I had a meeting over the weekend with the acquirer and we decided to call the staff together Monday morning and I introduced the new company. Everyone was quite shocked, no one expected it. We had managed to keep it completely quiet from the employees.”

Overall Stephen was very pleased that he sold, especially as there were incidents after the sale that he felt could have caused a lot of stress if he had stayed on.

“A couple of years after I sold, we had the economic downturn and I would have found that extremely stressful. Another incident was that the two managers that left earlier in the sale started to poach the better staff from the firm and that would have been very stressful for me. I had done my time and I was glad to have waved goodbye to it.”

What to do next

Once Stephen had sold, he continued working at the company for around six months. After that period, he became very unsure of what to do next. “I had built up a lot of skill in this particular area, but part of the sale agreement restricted me to go into any similar business and there was nothing else I felt I had that much ability to do, but I thought I was too young to retire. So, I bought a share in an asbestos removal company rather than asbestos surveying and consultancy business, which I could use my skills in, but it wasn’t going against the sale agreement.

“I also moved to a new house in a more rural area that my wife and I still live in. I stayed with the asbestos removal company for a couple of years, but I was never settled with them. The main two directors had worked with each other for years and I was a bit of a gooseberry coming in.”

Feeling unsettled working as an employee, Stephen found the chance to build a business again too great to ignore. “I sold my share to the original two directors and then started again in asbestos consultancy once the restriction period had expired. It was just me and one other person who was one of my former managers. We started a two-man band and I went back to my roots, which is what I was doing 25 years before that. I really enjoyed that. I stayed in the business for 2-3 years and he now trades by himself.”

Like many retired people Stephen now wonders how he even had time to go to work. “The house we bought has a very large garden so that occupies a lot of my time, and we have a holiday home and a fishing boat that we go out to a lot. I did have a motorbike which I toured Europe on for 3 – 4 years. Recently my son bought me a metal detector, so I joined a metal detector club. I very rarely sit down with nothing to do.”

Some business advice

Recollecting his eventful business sale journey, Stephen certainly has learnt some lessons for others about to begin the process themselves.

“I was very pleased to have found BCMS. I would have sold for a lot less money I am certain without their help. The training sessions – explaining what to say and what never to say – were invaluable. We really used that information to our advantage.

“Another bit of advice is making sure it is the right time to sell your business. Not only does the company need to be ready but the market as well.”