Bob Holt: From Mears to Mfuse

The CEO of one of AIM's biggest success stories talks about leadership, survival in a recession, and why he's confident about the future.

Bob Holt isn’t the hardest man to interview, but he’s not the easiest either.

He calls at the prearranged time, on the dot, and answers every question succinctly and intelligently. There is no dodging, but there are no digressions of the kind that tend to be so revealing.

What is clear is the powerful vision and focus of the man who expanded social housing maintenance provider Mears Group from sales of £12 million when it listed on AIM in 1996 to £305 million today.

Since buying the company, Holt has always been its chairman and, for most of that time, its chief executive as well. He did step down as CEO in 2005, but had to take up the role again when incumbent Stuart Black resigned in January 2007.

‘Let’s be absolutely clear about this – the guy who was in there was not performing and I was dragged back by the board as chief executive – not quite kicking and screaming – but it was not what I wanted to do,’ says Holt.

Holding the dual role has clearly been a strain. ‘Being the CEO of a 7,500-person company and being City-facing is quite tough when you put the two together,’ he says. ‘It’s been quite a difficult two years for me personally.’

‘I’ve built Mears broadly debt-free over 13 years’

Nevertheless, the mission is accomplished. Mears’ success has been such that it was able in June this year to move from AIM to the Official List in search of improved liquidity and a higher profile. In the past six months its shares are down 12 per cent, compared to a 42 per cent drop in the FTSE SmallCap index.

‘I’ve been through [downturns] a couple of times,’ says Holt. ‘I started work in the early 1970s and we were in the depths of one then. In reality, I don’t think we’ve seen any real problems so far, but the first quarter or half of 2009 will be horrendous.’

It’s the prospects for the economy as a whole, rather than for Mears Group, that Holt is referring to. He adds that his advice for companies facing a downturn for the first time is to ‘sell on quality’.

‘There’s no point trying to sell into markets that are already very difficult if you’re not up to the mark in terms of providing great levels of service,’ Holt declares. Then he adds in a gentler tone, ‘It is very difficult. It’s about good financial management of the business and keeping close to your customers.’

And are the banks to blame? ‘I’m sure it’s not just about the banks,’ says Holt. ‘Don’t forget you’re talking to someone who doesn’t like debt. I’ve built Mears broadly debt-free over 13 years, though we’ve used it occasionally at particular points in our growth.’

Mears has done well from its AIM listing, but the market has struggled this year with funds being near-impossible to raise and valuations depressed in thin trading. Holt says he’s optimistic about its longer-term prospects.

‘One thing you do get with grey hairs, or no hairs, is that things move in cycles,’ he argues. ‘AIM will have its day again. Small- and mid-caps will come back into fashion as people see the tremendous opportunities for investing into these companies. Again, you’ve got to hold your nerve and be robust enough to survive a downturn.’

‘Small- and mid-caps will come back into fashion’

Holt is currently sharing the fruits of his experience with Mfuse, a privately held company which provides technology to enable gambling on mobile phones. As non-executive chairman, he brings to the table three years of experience with online betting company Sportingbet, where he was a non-executive director. It may seem a far cry from the necessary work of Mears to next-generation gambling, but Holt clearly doesn’t see anything incongruous about it.

‘Like other companies I’ve got involved with, it’s based around working with people I want to work with,’ he explains. ‘I was impressed with [Mfuse’s] position in the UK market and I enjoy helping young management teams get to the next stage.’

So much comes back to people – and with Holt, you get the sense it’s more than just a cliche. At Mears, his focus on getting a good job done doesn’t detract from the emphasis he puts on the welfare of his workforce. ‘Our 7,500 employees can be secure in the knowledge that this is a business with very, very good long-term prospects,’ he says emphatically.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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