Call centres are one of the North East's biggest industries despite the rise in overseas outsourcing. And Sunderland firm 2Touch is one of the region's biggest operators and growing all the time. Christopher Knox caught up with its managing director Stuart Gray.
It is this ability to stay calm while under pressure, as well an ability to learn from his mistakes, which has helped Gray to climb to the top of the career ladder, and which has helped 2Touch to avoid the fate of many of its former rivals.
Born in Bradford, Gray says he grew up feeling like a bit of a disappointment to his headteacher dad.
He says: “My dad was a headmaster and lecturer and I did feel like a disappointment to him as I was too busy getting up to the things that I shouldn’t have been getting up to.
“I was into sports in a big way and I didn’t really come through the education system in the way that he would have liked.
“My brother was always destined to go into the motor trade and was a mechanic and then a salesman, which came as a bit of a disappointment to my dad as well. So, when I came along he had greater hopes for me.
“However, I was lazy and distracted, although I did end up with some O levels and managed to scrape through my 11-plus.”
It was at the age of 18 that Gray’s dad helped him find work at Bradford-based consumer credit organisation Provident Financial Group.
He says: “It was one of the quickest job interviews I’ve ever had and must have only taken around five minutes, so they must have been desperate.
“I joined on a six-year management training programme, where I was taught everything about business, including sales, marketing, accounting and office management.
“The prize at the end was that you joined the junior executive scheme and got an office with a window, a metal desk – not a wooden one – with a tiled floor.
“Back in those days companies wanted to make you aware of the hierarchy that was in place, and the surroundings you worked in were all part of it.”
Gray took the opportunity by both hands, working his way up to senior group executive, including a spell at Provident Financial subsidiary James Kier, which specialised in jewellery sales.
But after 18 years at the firm, Gray decided the move on in order to take his career to the next level. He says: “All of a sudden my lack of education caught up with me, as my next move would have been up to main board level.
“The problem was that I was one of many associate directors that were going for the job and I soon realised that most of them would have a degree or two.”
It was at this time that he received a call from former Provident colleague David Craft, who had moved over to outsourcing and bought himself into Liverpool-based business McIntyre & King.
Gray says: “David called me and asked if I would like to help him run this little outsourcing business on the Harrington Dock in Liverpool.
“It proved to be quite a change in direction for me, coming from a major plc with a turnover of around £700m to one of around £4m a year.
“The staff were a mixture of people with no training or education at all and people who were only working for us because the Job Centre had told them that they would lose their benefits if they refused the position.
“I just remember going home after the first day and thinking, oh dear, have I made the biggest mistake of my life here.”
Despite his initial concerns, Gray thrust himself into his new role and was soon given a huge amount of responsibility.
He says: “The fact that many of the admin and support staff were only juniors, meant that much of the responsibility for running the business fell on my shoulders. One thing that I did get right was putting pressure on a customer that had stopped paying us.
“I told the customer on the Thursday that we would stop working with them if they didn’t come back with some kind of gesture by the Monday.
“I remember putting the phone down and thinking, what have I just done, as I couldn’t go back on my word and it was a big client for us.
“Luckily, I received a call that weekend from the bank to say that they had received a cheque. I was more than a little relieved I can tell you.”
However, things didn’t always go his own way at McIntyre & King. He says: “One decision that didn’t work out for me and is something that still acts as a constant lesson, is when I took it upon myself to take on a last-minute order for a client.
“They wanted me to source enough cartons for them to transport their packs of tea, and needed containers that left no room for movement.
“Although it was a bit last minute, the numbers were good for us so I took it on.
“However, rather than pass the order on to someone with a bit more expertise in the field, I took down the container measurements and went to the supplier myself.
“Alas, the containers turned up on Saturday morning with an inch and a half to spare, which meant packing them with paper.
“After telling the customer about this, they told me that it wasn’t good enough and that we had to unpack around 20,000 cartons and buy them in again. It certainly taught me to rely on the expertise of others and not to take everything on myself.”
After Craft sold McIntyre & King on, Gray moved to the North East to head up call centre and fulfillment company Mailcom in Washington and was given the task to turn the business around or move to its sister site in Milton Keynes.
He says: “The Washington site of Mailcom was in a bit of a pickle when I got there. I’ve never said this too often, but part of the reason why I was determined to make a success of the Washington site was that I didn’t fancy moving to Milton Keynes.
“The biggest issue was that the Washington site was handling overflow work from Milton Keynes, and was seen as somewhere that was at the end of the earth, with staff that were seen as secondary to the business.
“All it needed was a bit of business courtesy, and once that was established, things started to improve to the point where were handling work from Milton Keynes as well as growing our own list of customers. Once we were up and running, the Washington site was handling work for the likes of Harrods and BHS.”
The huge success of the Washington operation saw Mailcom establish an additional North East site in Follingsby Park, Gateshead, as well as plan for a third site in the region.
However, Gray was unable to enjoy the sweet smell of success for long, as the company was sold to South African company Primedia which decided to shut the North East office.
Rather than move down to Milton Keynes, Gray accepted an offer from Acxiom to develop a new call centre and fulfillment brand from scratch, an offer that would lead to the creation of 2Touch on Doxford Technology Park, Sunderland.
He says: “Luckily Acxiom called me through a headhunter and were looking for someone that could build a brand and help grow it quickly.
“One of our marketing guys suggested that if you put a number in front of your name you’ll be on top of most search lists, which sounded pretty good to us, and 2Touch came pretty quickly after that.
“We could get 2touch.co.uk but we couldn’t get 2touch.com as it belonged to a business in the US. It was when the president of Acxiom, Charles Morgan came over to help us open the building that he told us that he had tried to look up 2touch.com and that it was in fact a massage parlour in New York. His line that ‘it’s fulfillment of a different nature’ is now folklore around the business.”
After considering a number of offers to buy the business during the early stages, Gray says that the “for sale sign has been taken out of the garden” and that he himself is considering the acquisition route.
The firm is now on track to grow its workforce past 1,000 staff as well as add £2m to its £20m turnover by next year.
Although Gray admits that the market is a lot tougher, with customers putting more pressure on the firm’s prices, he is confident of growing the business over the coming years, with an emphasis placed on relationships with its customers.
He says: “It’s true that there are a number of challenges at the moment, and yes, our clients are putting pressure on price. I don’t like it all the time, but you have to understand it.
“However, the benefit has been that these clients are still with us. They believe we are a business with integrity and know that we don’t talk outside of school.
“We don’t set clients against each other. For example, we have a very big utilities client and I’m approached at least once a quarter by a competitor saying that they can pay us more. However, I have to decline as I have the same responsibility for our customers as they do to us.”