Phillip Venn puts money in people’s pockets, on time. He is the managing director of Liquid Friday, an APSCo-affiliated, UK, onshore, compliant umbrella company, based in Portsmouth, which prides itself on a high-quality customer service to contractors and recruitment agency staff. It is now one of the top 10 umbrella companies in the UK, having grown steadily since 2008, with a turnover of £46 million for last year – and it’s on target this year to reach around £62m.
Liquid Friday has achieved a place on The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for the past two years, a feat that not many other businesses have been able to achieve. It provides services for contractors across construction/engineering, medical/healthcare, social/care work, IT, sales and education. An ambitious entrepreneur, aged 35, Venn’s career is firmly rooted in strategic marketing and finance. Married, with two young children, he lives in Essex, has a working knowledge of three languages – and he’s not half bad on the dance floor.
Tell us how you started your career, moved on to set up this business, and what was the inspiration?
I left Bournemouth University with a degree in strategic marketing, but it was difficult in the late 1990s for a man to get into the sector; invariably the jobs went to women. They just did. I wanted a job which left me free to pursue interviews in the daytime, but what I ended up doing was taking on the role of duty manager at Gatwick Food Village, with 40 people to manage. It wasn’t exactly what I really wanted, but thankfully a banking contact came to me and said ’let’s get you into a proper career.’ I subsequently joined HSBC’s graduate management training programme, holding down a full-time job and studying for a second degree in two years. My next move was to the Bank of Scotland, working on M&A and structured finance in the recruitment sector at a time when it was growing, and was eventually headhunted to move to the National Australia Bank (under the Clydesdale banner).
Recruitment seemed a very colourful sector, with some larger-than-life characters. Secure invoice finance products were being used to fund recruitment companies and the real inspiration for what I’ve built since came from the clients I looked after at that time.
Can you tell me about the growth of the company from there?
I built up a relationship with the founder of Intime Timesheet Technology and together we invested in Blake Technical Services, a two-man outfit in some serviced offices in Portsmouth. It grew from £2.8m a year turnover to what is now £65-72m, tremendous growth in four years. I rebranded it as Liquid Friday and launched it officially at the Recruiter Awards with my fellow directors, Alex Baines (operational director) and Chris Clark (group CFO).
How do you account for your success overall?
I have always remembered the frustration of how long things took in my banking days, so now I think ’wake up and have an idea at breakfast – by tea time it’s policy’. A 13-year career in banking and finance provided the building blocks for what I’ve achieved since, and I’ve learned the value of referrals from both recruiters and candidates. Business has grown by word of mouth.
I have started several businesses during the downturn. Some of our largest competitors had a huge presence but were linked to employment, so as that declined, they shed staff and their customer service levels declined. We were growing and our customer service was constantly improving. I had absolute confidence that we could grow it, and we found good, talented staff and developed them, because the service industry is all about the people.
Who taught you the most important lesson in business – and what was it?
Advice from the Bank of Scotland team – only ever recruit people you think are better than you are, and then encourage the next tier, the level below you, to do the same. You have to continue to promote excellence and take time to find the right people. Don’t shortcut the process.
A favourite commission or design or launch, or does a first client spring to mind?
That would definitely be a launch. Most recruiters are 22-28 years, male and fiercely competitive, so I started Liquid Track-Day. We use three circuits, Rye House in Hoddesdon, Whilton Mill in Northamptonshire and Stretton 2000 in Leicester, and organise go-karting sessions with leader boards. Recruiters refer business to get an invitation, or alternatively we can hand the day over to a client of ours as a networking opportunity, allowing them to take guests, whether they are clients or new prospects. The machines we use on the day are not for the feint hearted; they’re capable of 0-60 in under three seconds and speeds of up to 90 mph. The day ends with a Champagne presentation and video souvenir.
What’s your business mantra?
Exceptional customer service is at the heart of everything we do. All the success has followed on from that, setting expectations and clinical delivery. It’s a young company overall and I enjoy bringing a fun element into it. We have our Liquid Legend, whereby each month employees nominate someone who’s gone out of their way to help others. They win a meal for two, £50 of shopping vouchers and can nominate anyone to make them a cup of tea for a month, that can be me, or anyone else in the office. They also get to wear the green superhero cape which matches our Liquid Friday branding.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy?
I don’t do things I don’t enjoy. We play on people’s strengths here, channeling their skills into what they do well at. Everyone should do what they enjoy.
What about plans for future growth or new ideas?
Board meetings throw up lots of ideas, but we’re currently stifled with a raft of legislation: pensions, auto-enrolment, PAYE and Real Time Information. Every business in the country has to get it right. I have 2,100 employees on weekly pay, 300 on monthly and 150 on a fortnightly cycle; that’s a lot of information which has to be processed correctly.
The way we have communicated has changed so much, what’s your take on what happens next, such as smartphone app payments?
One example is that our contractor expenses receipts are sent to us as scans, and are immediately logged and backed up. We are very much a paperless office. Staff use two desktop monitors, one is for looking up records, receipts and so forth, so they do not need huge paper files to access information while working on the other screen. It saves on a massive amount of physical storage.
Is age a barrier and would you have done things differently?
Age is no barrier to pursuing an idea and we are moving the old finance world to the new, for example with our online contractor accountants, Boox. We are providing the best of both worlds for contractors looking for a better and easier way to operate a limited company. We provide a simple online accounting portal, with access to a dedicated and qualified accountant who is there to support the contractor and their business.
I will never forget hearing someone in banking saying ’he’s too forward thinking for banking’ – not about me, but it made me realise I had to get out. We have a very young staff internally across our businesses but I’ve also just appointed a financial controller who is 58. Here it’s about if you gel well and fit with the company style.
Ideal day off if you couldn’t get into work, or just a selfish me-day?
I can always get into the company server and we’re never more than a click away from emails on smartphones or an iPad, plus I’m a bit of a workaholic, but a day off would be ice skating with my daughter, who is eight, or playing football with my son, who’s five. A selfish day out would be windy yachting or golf. I go to Cowes every year, to race, not to sit on a gin palace.
What would you consider your greatest achievement? There are lots of awards on display, which ones matter most?
We’re NVQ Employer of the Year for Hampshire. We’ve also achieved a place on the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for the past two years; both are great.
How do you manage the home/work balance with a young family?
Home/work balance is important as I have young children, but I’m lucky as my wife is a primary school teacher, which solves the school holiday dilemmas parents face.
Any unfulfilled ambitions?
I want to keep looking at new ways of working, new ideas and channels to market. Boox has been running for two years now, but all the ideas I have revolve around temporary placements, payroll, recruitment and finance.
Factoring Made Simple is one development, a brokerage to help companies negotiate new finance solutions. Boox is very much aimed at the SME market and has diversified to a full service accountancy practice. I also want to get my private pilot’s license in the next 18 months.
Any hidden talents, other than a working knowledge of three other languages and being a bit of a twinkle toes?
The dance opportunity came from a charity donation, where I learned to waltz with Ola and James Jordan, two of the stars from BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. I had to admit though that I’d done it before. I used to have a schoolboy job taking the cash on the door for dance classes in Reigate; when the teacher pointed out I’d earn more as an instructor I soon found myself teaching up to 50 people. I can also windsurf, again a legacy of competitions as a schoolboy.