EY's UK Entrepreneur of the year went from owning a cleaning franchise to building a £1.4bn global healthcare company. He tells Business Voice how he did it – and what he wants to do next
The founder of Synergy Health and EY’s UK Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 demonstrates that people don’t have to follow traditional paths to the top.
Growing up in Canada, Richard Steeves left school at 16, bought a cleaning franchise, then sold it to put himself through university. While studying for a PhD at Cambridge, he ran two small businesses on the side – renting out TVs and selling rowing kit in college colours. Then he went into corporate strategy.
But it was what he did next that led him to achieve national – and international – recognition for “creating a world-leading firm from virtually nothing”.
Clearly one for spying an opportunity, Steeves had kept an eye out for assets of distressed companies. He found and bought a clean room (a controlled environment with low levels of pollutants and airborne microbes) and, in 1991 when fears of HIV were rife, he set up a business with a £120,000 government-backed loan providing protective packs for surgeons and patients in the operating room.
When he sold Synergy Health for £1.4bn to its larger US rival Steris in November last year, the FTSE 250 business had 6,000 employees, and was responsible for, among other things, sterilising more than 100 million surgical instruments a year.
For Steeves, Synergy’s sale had not been part of the grand plan – and, as the acquisition was initially contested by the courts in America on competition grounds, he was prepared for it to continue as it had been.
But, he explains: “The synergies between the two companies were very strong. The businesses belonged together. It would have been nicer if we had been the acquirer rather than the other way around, but [Steris] was twice the size of Synergy and also had the tax advantages of re-domiciling to the UK.”
So what has driven Synergy Health’s growth to this point? “I think it’s hard to boil it down to just one or two factors,” Steeves says. “Building a good team is hugely important, and, within that, having a very diverse group of people leading the organisation.”
He adds: “So too is marrying a vision with attention to detail. People need to know where you’re trying to take the organisation, but you have to match that with an understanding of the business model.”
But although it has “gone quite well”, Steeves singles out internationalisation as the biggest challenge for the business.
“When you’re setting up in a new country, you’ve got to understand the culture. You’ve got to find a way of weaving that into the culture of the organisation that you’re trying to grow,” he explains. “We had our core values, we had our culture, but exporting that was quite challenging.”
As an example, he refers to Synergy’s “devolved leadership structure” through which it expects everybody up and down the organisation to behave as leaders and to take the initiative. It was not easy to replicate that in China, where people are used to a model of seniority, he says.
Yet now he has sold his business, this is the area Steeves wants to focus on – finding a small business, with a good business model, and trying to help it expand overseas.
That international experience will also come in handy for understanding the competition he faces in the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year competition, taking place in June in Monaco.
Steeves says the UK government has been supportive as Synergy Health has grown – from its original government-backed loan to taking part in a trade mission to China with the prime minister and chancellor.
“If I was starting a business again, I would quite easily choose the UK,” says the dual national, although he doesn’t think entrepreneurs get as much recognition in the UK as they do in the US or Canada.
“I have not celebrated success along the way as much as I should have,” he admits. “Partly because I’ve always been paranoid. There’s a famous saying that you’ve got to be paranoid to survive.”
But he also goes on to emphasise why the UK’s best entrepreneurs should get more recognition – and why he entered EY’s UK Entrepreneur of the Year in the first place.
“It’s hugely important. Entrepreneurship is tied with innovation, it's tied to wealth creation and these are some of the driving factors for the wealth and prosperity of the country.”
EY is now searching for the Entrepreneur of the Year 2016, celebrating the most innovative entrepreneurs who are helping to shape the future. The deadline for entry into the UK competition is Friday 11 March. For more information, go to www.eoy.co.uk
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