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His peers said his company wasn’t worth selling, but under new ownership Mel Atkins’ 18-year-old events company has flourished. We meet the man behind The Finishing Touch
Today, Mel Atkins is smiling. But this is not just the polite, pleased-to-meet-you beam of business greetings; it’s a smile of real contentment. And with good reason: in 2005, he completed the sale of The Finishing Touch, the bespoke events company he founded with his wife, Julie, in 1989. He’s also awaiting news of three contracts, the third of which will require an extra 15 staff. So you could say we’ve caught him at a good time. With his new 4x4 Porsche parked outside the company’s Wembley headquarters, he relaxes into a boardroom chair and says he’s doing his ‘ultimate job’.
Things haven’t always been this good for Atkins and The Finishing Touch. Twelve years after starting the business, the aftermath of 9/11 cut swathes through the events industry. ‘We suffered, like everyone else at that time,’ remembers Atkins.
The company ended up doing public sector work, running 250 events a year for the Department for Education and Skills. ‘We were a typical events company with five or six staff, punching hard above our weight with far too many events; never saying no, always saying yes.’ So he took on extra staff – a move that put even more pressure on the company.
‘Originally, we were a £4.5m business with six staff doing 130-140 events a year,’ he says. ‘We then crept back up to a £4.5m-£5m turnover with nine staff delivering 400 events a year.’
Atkins had to make a decision. ‘We needed to find an exit route. Julie didn’t want to stay with the business; she just wanted to sell up. I wanted to stay because I love it; it’s what I do.’
The couple decided to sell, and for Atkins to remain with the business. ‘Industry colleagues would all say: “Who’s ever going to buy you? You’re a service company, you don’t own anything, there’s nothing to buy”,’ he recalls. But despite the misgivings of his peers, Atkins forged on with the plan.
Finding a mergers and acquisitions company to identify potential buyers was never going to be straightforward, but after meetings with four ‘extremely negative’ companies, the clouds finally parted.
‘The last company I went to was BCMS,’ he explains. ‘I had a meeting for an hour and a half, and they didn’t once ask about our bottom line or to see our accounts. All they wanted to know about was the company, about myself, about Julie and our staff, what we wanted from the sale of the business, our aspirations, expectations and ambitions. I made it very clear that I wanted to stay.’
Atkins’ commitment to the business was ‘a big factor’ in attracting buyers. Of the 285 companies BCMS identified as potential purchasers, 87 requested further information. Ultimately, five offers were made.
‘All I wanted to do was to go out and tell all the negative people who’d said that no-one would ever want to buy us,’ he remembers.
Unlike most acquisitions, the initial discussions were as much a means of Atkins vetting the buyers as vice versa. ‘There were two out of the initial five offers that I was not very interested in because they just wanted to make money. I wouldn’t have lasted past the first week,’ he explains.
Although the future of the company and the security of his staff was Atkins’ top priority, he also had personal considerations. ‘I wanted my life back,’ he says.
‘Whoever took us on had to take over all the finance, all the HR, all the admin and hard work that goes into running a business. That would free me up to develop the business and do what I enjoy best, which is the face-to-face with the clients,’ says Atkins.
The company that ultimately took on The Finishing Touch, sports management agency First Artist, had been right under Atkins’ nose all along. It entered the bidding at a late stage through his friendship with First Artist’s then financial director, Richard Hughes.
Hughes, now managing director of the group, says: ‘We oversaw a long list of sporting events as promoters, but we were looking to broaden the basis of the group and needed an events management company to support that. The Finishing Touch was an excellent strategic fit.’ The sale was completed on 13 September 2005.
Asked whether the sale has changed things, Atkins shakes his head. It has involved a move to First Artist Corporation’s Wembley headquarters to become part of a portfolio that includes wealth management, sponsorship, media marketing and sports and entertainment representation (see box, previous page). But the new parent has given Atkins and his team a long leash. ‘First Artist has handled the whole process immaculately,’ he explains. ‘It has just left us to adjust to the culture.’
It has proved a fertile environment for The Finishing Touch and its clients, both old and new. As part of a full-service group, the company has direct access to specialists in event promotion and sponsorship strategy – both vital aspects of the modern corporate communications campaign – as well as a star-studded list of sports and television stars.
That’s the biggest change: its new connections have transformed The Finishing Touch from a small event specialist into a serious proposition for corporate budgets. ‘Big business used to be Christmas parties for 1,500,’ Atkins says. ‘Now we’re in talks about contracts for 30-plus events a year.’
Having an events arm has proved a smart move for First Artist Corporation, too, as Hughes explains. ‘It’s working very well. We’re broadening the service to our clients. Events and sponsorship cross through every area of the group’s business. Now we can run the events that we are helping clients to promote and sponsor.’
Atkins sees it as a coming of age. ‘It was time to grow up,’ he says. ‘We’re a proper company now. And we’d never have become a proper company without someone to buy us.’
He is the first to admit he enjoys the freedom of his new managing director role. ‘I never used to tell people I was the MD,’ he says. ‘I was too embarrassed that I was out there showing them round a venue. Now, I’m enjoying it. People tell me: “You can retire. You’ve made your money”. But I don’t want to: it’s such an exciting time here.’
The Finishing Touch
Tel: 0844 477 1667
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2007.