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From Baby Steps to Flying the Nest: 30 Years of HGA

Next Spring will herald HGA’s 30th Birthday. It’s a rather large landmark, that my Co-founder Ian Grime and I can’t quite believe. Thirty, after all, feels very grown up, and although it’s whizzed by in the blink of an eye, it’s been a heck of a journey to get to where we are today and where we are heading in the future. Looking back, it’s easy to spot the significant moments in the life of HGA…

The Conception

They say there’s never a “right time” to start a family – and the same is true about starting a business. But, sometimes there’s an itch that you’ve just got to scratch and so in 1989, I decided to bite the bullet, fuelled largely by the naïve confidence of youth that I was going to be the next Richard Branson.

How hard could it be? Much like being a parent, thousands of people do it every year. (I, of course, was not at that stage at the time, so had no meaningful understanding of that role either.) For lots of reasons, it helps to have another “parent” to share the slings and arrows with, and so it was that after more than one trip to the local pub to make our plans for world domination, Ian and I decided to forsake the benefits of secure employment – and go it alone.

The Birth

The gestation period that led to the birth of Henderson Grime and Associates Ltd was worryingly short, largely as a consequence of having a mortgage to pay every month and modest reserves of cash!

Meetings with lawyers and accountants were positive and productive. The same was not true of the first encounters with Bolton’s leading banks, none of whom seemed to share the boundless confidence and enthusiasm we had for our new venture. This was an attitude that we would come to recognise as par for the course – and, 30 years of successful trading later (during which all of the banks that we “interviewed” with have had to be bailed out to some degree or other) it is still the case. We eventually persuaded Natwest that we weren’t complete chancers and secured a massive overdraft of £12,000, held against our worldly possessions. We were up and running.

 

Infancy

The first few weeks were a blur of sorting everything out. From establishing stationery and supplier accounts to contacting anyone who might be persuaded to give us some work – we began delivering our first projects for Sharp Electronics, Leyland Trucks, Royal Doulton and Kellogg’s – not bad clients to start with.

When my first child arrived in 1993, reliant upon his mother and me for every aspect of his life apart from breathing and filling his nappy, I realised that the previous years of tending to our fledgeling business had indeed been exactly the same. Every waking (and many sleeping) hours were spent working – 16 hours days, 7 days a week became the norm, working out how to meet the bills and constantly trying to drum up more business. It was absolutely fantastic.

If you’ve ever seen how fast a baby outgrows his clothes, you’ll appreciate what happened to us! Within a matter of weeks, we expanded beyond our spare room office and set about finding a home of our own. A fortunate meeting with an old contact who had just bought his own building in Manchester and welcomed the prospect of a paying tenant came to our rescue and so off to Droylsden we went!

First steps 

Whoever it was that was looking over us from up above, Ian and I were grateful that for the first couple of years we had everything that we could have wished for – apart from a day off every now and then. The years that we had put in before “le grand saut” paid dividends in the reputation that we had earned for creative, professional and great value events, video and design. It’s gratifying that the grown-up HGA business of 2018 still carries that DNA.

Speaking of dividends, a cash one taken from the business would have been very welcome – but there was absolutely no chance of that. Every parent knows how expensive it is to feed fast-growing infants and the appetite of a business is even more voracious. Every penny we earned was ploughed back in, to fund our investments in equipment, to pay our rent and suppliers and to provide some semblance of financial security (ha, ha, ha) for those inevitable “rainy days”.

 

The Terrible Twos

By the time we hit our second birthday in 1991 we were in our stride – a couple of employees had joined the Henderson Grime family – and we were desperate to find a new home that could accommodate the ambitious plans that we had to grow.

Financially, something big was just around the corner. One of our regular clients introduced us to a new client of theirs who had been dropped in the cart by an agency who’d promised to deliver a significant roadshow for them – only to admit at the thirteenth hour that they hadn’t a clue how to do it. Enter HGA from stage left.

It was a dream project for us – undoubtedly the largest thing we’d done to date. The only question was the ability to fund it – as this job would require significantly more upfront investment than we could make. I was wrestling with this thorny challenge when the client called about a “problem with his cashflow”, setting the alarm bells ringing. If he needed extended credit terms, we would have to turn the job down. But said client made our day, week, month and year all rolled into one. His challenge was that the funds for the roadshow were in his budget for the current year, that ended in 2 days’ time. He needed to have spent the cash before then, so could I possibly send him an invoice immediately for £250,000 that he would pay by return!!

Suddenly, and much to our Bank Manager’s amazement, we had significant funds on deposit – and were earning actual, real interest. The roadshow was a huge success – and so, with the booty stashed away, plans to acquire our own premises were put into action and, within three months, we were on the move to the place that we still call home today; Irlam’s old Telephone Exchange!

Growth Spurts 

The stats for the number of businesses that make it past the first few years are disarmingly gloomy, with more than 4 out of 10 failing to make it to their fifth birthday. We weren’t one of them.

Whilst perhaps not threatening the industry big boys, we quietly carried on doing great work for great clients who were fantastically supportive of us and gratifyingly loyal. Our little infant grew healthily – notwithstanding the occasional and expected hiccup; but ill-judged employees, ill-timed investments in equipment and unanticipated change all added to the fun. We also celebrated huge highs and happy milestones.

  

Teenage Angst

 Before you could blink, we’d hit our teenage years. Those of you with children at that age will discover that they suddenly start to talk in a language you don’t speak. So it was with us. For our first decade, there wasn’t a piece of equipment we used that Ian or I couldn’t operate. We’d had computers as part of our arsenal from day one – a Mac Classic and an Atari 1040 ST for those of you with very long memories! But the digital revolution transformed our world. Overnight our industry became dominated by computer software – and the challenge of learning how to edit in the non-linear world, programme using multimedia interactive CD-ROMs and to get to grips with the universe of website design and production was massive.

Fortunately, we were armed with some amazing digital native colleagues who were happy to explain to the old gits – we were in our late 30’s by this point – what “new media” was all about and what the potential for our business was. Whilst it was astonishing to watch the first dotcom bubble inflate and then, perhaps inevitably, burst, as responsible parents, we had not been caught up in that hype – and were reassured that our approach proved to be the right one for our business.

HGA had grown healthily and was in a good place; well thought of, independent, well-rounded, interested and intelligent – everything that you could hope your progeny would become. By this stage, both Ian and I were the fathers of actual human children and it was gratifying that we were able to balance the demands of the business with our desires to spend time with our boys as they grew; success indeed.

Adulthood and Independence

As I write these words, the famous quotation from LP Hartley is ringing in my ears: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. In many ways, our fledgeling business is very different from the mature, 30-year old of today, albeit with many traits that you can trace back to its upbringing. Every year it evolves, embracing new technologies and learning new skills, developing its offer and extending its talents in exciting and relevant ways.

Today HGA is an independent adult, with the ability to thrive and grow with almost no day to day input from its original parents. But it is still a massive part of mine and Ian’s lives and there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about how it’s doing. The truth is it’s doing fantastically well; we are hugely proud of what we created and what so many talented people have contributed to.

Find out more about what HGA can do for you