“We genuinely care about our customers”

Name: 

Chris Holgate

Role and company: 

Director, Refresh eCommerce Ltd t/a Refresh Cartridges. We sell a range of computer consumables, predominately online.

Company turnover: 

In the year ending 31st March 2012 we turned over just shy of £2.0m.

Employee numbers: 

Eleven, all full time.

Growth forecast for the next three years: 

Due to the volatile nature of the market and incredibly intense competition in our niche this projection is more speculative than I would like however we’re confident we’ll exceed £3.0m.

In under 50 words, what makes your business distinctive in its marketplace: 

Without a doubt it’s that each and every one of us genuinely care about our customer and their opinion of us. I feel passionately disappointed if a customer is anything other than completely satisfied and I try to instil this attitude into everybody that works for us.

What’s the big vision for your business? 

If I’m being brutally honest, I’m not certain I’ve worked this out just yet. I’m incredibly proud of our methodology and the loyalty that we’ve earned from our customer base and so I’d like to be able to scale the business to a stage where we employed more people and stocked a wider range of products.

Current level of international business, and future aspirations: 

We already send a large number of cartridges around Europe however due to the regional restrictions imposed on many cartridges shipping further afield would be difficult. There are a number of ideas I have to increase our turnover within Europe rapidly. I’m of the opinion that if we’re currently able to sell to a customer based in Europe from a UK site which is written in English and priced in GBP, then there’s obviously a huge scope for growth if we can make ourselves even more accessible.

Biggest career setback and what you learned from it: 

Our most recent setback was probably also our largest. An Internet company is very dependent on getting good results in the search engines but in early 2012 Google released a number of updates to their algorithm which resulted in our positions decreasing dramatically. We relied on external consulting companies and were too slow to react to the changes. These changes that Google made resulted in revenue suffering greatly for many months.

This was a harsh lesson for me and I vowed not to let an external company be in control of something so important to us in the future. Now all work and content on the website is done in house and I keep an incredibly close eye on everything that we do in this respect.

What makes you mad in business today? 

Without a doubt, tax avoidance. I have absolutely no problem with healthy competition but everybody should be on a level playing field and if you sell to UK customers then you should pay the same amount of tax as any other (ethical) UK based company.

What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years? 

There are some incredibly exciting developments happening in 3D printing at the moment. It will be interesting to see how accessible this technology becomes to the home user over the next few years.

Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things? 

I can’t really speak from personal experience as I started Refresh when I was barely out of my teens with a £1,000 loan from my Grandad. Since then I have only borrowed money to buy properties. Of course, borrowing money for property is obviously very different to borrowing for business development as the bank has something tangible to guarantee they’ll get their money back.

If I’m to speak through observation I believe the current lending situation is somewhat of a knee jerk reaction to previous bad decisions. Banks appear to have gone from a position where they’d lend literally anybody money to one where they won’t even take the safest of bets. There has to be a healthy middle ground.

How would others describe your leadership style? 

I’d like to think most would consider me hands on. While I’m not afraid to delegate, I believe that the example you set from the top flows down the company and as such my staff will always see that I’m not afraid of hard work. I’m always the last to leave the building, I always take the least holiday and I’m always the one who never takes a day off sick.

Of course many bosses reading this will be of the attitude that if you pay someone’s wages then you should be able to rely on them to do the best job they can without having to set a good example yourself. I don’t believe this to be the case. I believe that if the boss is complacent and doesn’t work hard then this has a direct knock on effect to those below him irrespective of how strict he is or however much he pays the workers.

Don’t mistake this as me working hard to pick up the slack. I work hard to set an example, not to allow those that I employ to take it easy.

Your biggest personal extravagance? 

As dull as it sounds, I’m a simple man and don’t care much for flashy possessions. I drive a five year old Seat Leon and I’m sat at work writing this in a £8 short sleeved shirt and a year old pair of combats. I wouldn’t feel any better about myself if I were to drive around in a Mercedes or turn up at work wearing a Versace suit.

Although it’s not an extravagance per se, my weakness is probably property. At the age of 30 I’ve accumulated five freehold properties (one fully paid for and the others with good equity) but this is more of a nest egg for my family than an extravagance.

You’ve got two minutes with the prime minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:

I firmly believe that the biggest changes this government could make to improve independent business would require no real investment whatsoever. I could write an essay on my thoughts but there are two points which I can pull straight off the top of my head.

Firstly, there are a number of large businesses in this country that are no longer improving the lives of the general public but irrespective they continue to gain power over the way that we live. Supermarkets are an ideal example. What started as convenience is soon becoming a liability; horse meat in burgers, farmers selling at a loss just to turnover product, increased air miles on produce, loss of business in the town centre and increased unemployment due to consolidation of workforce from smaller shops.

There are a number of things the government can do such as tighter planning controls and increased business rates for out of town supermarkets. I believe in France if a supermarket opens then as part of the planning permission they usually have to provide a number of smaller units that can be populated by independent butchers, bakers and grocers in order to limit the power that one shop can assert in the marketplace.

Secondly, the UK government (and indeed all governments) have to ensure that the tax system is applied fairly to all that do business in the country irrespective of their offshore tax arrangements. If the tax system is applied fairly then the owner of an independent record store might have a chance to make a living even when competing against the likes of Amazon. Unfortunately if the larger company is avoiding VAT by routing goods through Switzerland and is avoiding corporation tax by basing the entire operation offshore then the little guy is dead in the water. It is not only in the interest of independent business but also it’s in the interest of the government to ensure that taxation is applied fairly for all.

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