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David Pollock: Smashing up the competition

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He chuckles and shakes his head: “‘Smashing up the competition’? It makes me sound like an aggressive monster!”

An aggressive monster he’s not – but there’s no denying that this ambitious entrepreneur has been devouring his rivals. Pollock is the founder of Chess, the Cheshire-based telecoms firm and one of the fastest growing companies in the country (see Hot 100, RB April). Sales have jumped 91.7 per cent from £2.5m four years ago to more than £17.6m in 2006, and the company’s growth has been rocket-fuelled by a series of smart acquisitions.

He’s bought no less than 21 companies in the past few years and he’s hungry for more. “There are about 40 companies on my ‘hit list’ and six on my “hot list” – those are the ones that I think will happen reasonably soon.” While his takeover targets have typically been smaller, sub £4m-turnover telecoms players, this is one David who is happy to take on the Goliaths. “I would happily buy a company seven times our size.”

Pollock’s path from university drop-out to owner of a multi-million pound business is an unusual one. “I haven’t exactly had a traditional career,” said the 47-year-old. “My old man forced me to do a degree in civil engineering at Manchester University but it was boring; I was always far more interested in organising rock concerts and DJing. So I left after a year and took off around the world.”

He earned his crust by unloading Christmas trees in Canada, riding rickshaws in Hawaii, cleaning windows in Australia and teaching in Japan. He recounts one particular nail-biting episode in St Louis, when he was held at gunpoint: “A friend and I were hitchhiking and a guy pulled over to offer us a lift. Minutes later, he was holding a gun to our heads.

‘If you’re cool, I’ll drive you all the way to Las Vegas,’ he said. ‘But if you mess with me, I’ll blow your brains out’. It was one of those ‘oh shit’ moments. I guess that year abroad was all about survival. It certainly taught me to stand on my own two feet.”

Pollock then spent some time in the States, making rock videos with the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Pat Benatar and producing pilot episodes of Knight Rider, before returning to the UK and starting up a property development business. “By the early nineties, I had two children and school fees around the corner. I realised I needed a proper job.”

So, in 1993, he formed Chess – affectionately named after his two children Charlie (now 16) and Jess (19). The company was originally set up as a utilities reseller: “The Tories, in their wisdom, were deregulating the utilities market. My view is that where there’s chaos, there’s opportunity.”

The company started out in water, then went into gas, then electricity. By the late nineties, Chess started focusing on telecoms, purchasing fixed-line, mobile and broadband telecoms products from operators such as BT and Cable & Wireless, and reselling to 10,000 small and medium-sized businesses, including Sale Sharks rugby club and Bargain Booze.

In 2004, Chess made its first acquisition – Feelfree Communications worth £xx. To help with the deal, Pollock brought Richard Btesh, an old friend and dealmaker within the Manchester corporate finance community, on board as the FD. “I’d describe Richard as my wingman. He drives me absolutely mad and we do battle on a regular basis but he’s a great lateral thinker.”

So keen is Pollock to build up the Chess empire that he says he’ll speak to “anyone who is thinking of selling a telecoms business”. “Some deals take a year to come to fruition, others are much quicker,” he admits. “We’ve learned to keep it straightforward and make it very clear to the company in question how it will work. We’re not ruthless in our approach.”

He keeps the deals simple by holding the lawyers at arm’s length. “Don’t let them cloud the deal or interfere with the negotiations,” advises Pollock. His other tip is to over-communicate with new customers. “The minute we buy a company, we write to all our new customers and introduce ourselves.

We then phone them to say we’re sending them their first bill, phone them a month later to check they are happy with the bill and then call again to see if they’d like any new products. Our customers stick with us because we love them to death.”

Pollock has been banking with the Royal Bank of Scotland for 14 years but it’s only in the past year that he’s needed a loan to fund his deals. However, he admits he’ll need even deeper pockets to support future spending sprees.

Step in private equity. “As an entrepreneur, there’s a part of you that says you’ll never take private equity and dilute your stake [Pollock owns 80 per cent of the business] but there’s another part that realises it’s a natural progression. If we can get the right private equity partner, I think it will catapult our growth.”

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