Is he winging it, or does he know what he’s doing? It seems legitimate to ponder this, given what appears to be the heady cocktail of youth, luck and success that surrounds Charlie Hoult. Actually, 38-year-old Hoult seems pretty grounded. ‘The harder you work, the luckier you are,’ he believes.
A serial entrepreneur, his latest coup, as chief executive of Loewy Group, is the acquisition – sorry, ‘merger’ – of Williams Murray Hamm. Despite a string of deals over the past few years to create what he calls a ‘federation of entrepreneurs’, it is this £7m marriage that has the potential to put Hoult firmly on the design map.
That’s because the other deals have either been with low-key design consultancies or companies from other marketing services disciplines, like PR. But WMH is a real feather in Loewy’s cap, and is to be followed by two more design deals, one of which Hoult promises is a fairly well-known set-up.
Hoult’s boyish affability is as unexpected as it is disarming in this world of besuited moneymen. Unlike his peers at marketing service networks such as Engine, Cello and Creston, Hoult is no old-school professional. ‘Because of my age and experience, I think it’s sensible to be collaborative. I have always thought it’s better to earn respect rather than use authority,’ he says. Hence his lack of overbearing ego.
This approach seems to suit his potential vendors. While at first they sometimes admit to being thrown by his youthfulness and friendly, familiar manner, they come round to the impression that he has inner strength.
For youngish, averagely sized businesses, there is something rather appealing about joining a network where not everything is set in stone. That is certainly how Hoult sees it. ‘There’s a little piece of blank canvas (at Loewy) for everybody. If you join WPP, on the other hand, you know what you’re getting,’ he says. Not that WPP is even looking to buy UK design these days.
Unlike his peers, Hoult sees his role as very much bringing in new business. ‘I’m chief rainmaker, not like Don Elgie [at Creston] or Martin Sorrell [at WPP], who are chief margin squeezers.’
Hoult’s heavyweight finance director Bryan Wilsher structures their deals as 60 per cent cash and 40 per cent shares. So unlike a traditional earn-out arrangement, ‘people are throwing 40 per cent of their potential wealth into their merger with Loewy’, he explains.
While about half the companies he courts are met through networking, half are found through professional ‘introducers’ like Results International. ‘We’ve probably seen over 100 businesses. Our qualification criteria are more refined and we know more what’s a Loewy thing now,’ he says, admitting, ‘we had some right cock-ups in the beginning’, though declining to elaborate on these mistakes.
His entrepreneurial roots stretch back four generations, and he describes his family as patriarchal capitalists. His great grandfather set up a transport business in a railway arch in the family’s hometown of Newcastle. His father set himself up in the same trade. His family has suffered what Hoult calls ‘a lot of death’, and that means, ‘you want to try to make your mark’.
Before he and Wilsher formed what is now Loewy in 2004, he set up brand communications consultancy Wilson Harvey ten years earlier. During that decade, he also ran the Internet salon First Tuesday in London. And back in 1995, he bought a niche newsletter publishing business, rebranded it Incisive Research, and multiplied initial investment six-fold, before selling the business three years later.
Having Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson as Loewy chairman could have been regarded as Hoult’s biggest stroke of luck. They met, after all, on a stag party in Mombasa. But as Hoult points out, Johnson is bombarded with investment opportunities, so there must have been more to his £1m input than chance bonding over a safari.
In fact, Johnson has recently departed, and some in the industry suggested that this would leave Loewy a little ‘lite’ in the eyes of the City. However, his replacement is the lower profile, but highly respected, Mark Adams from PR consultancy Text 100, who is also a partner at management consultancy Pembridge.
So the conclusion must be that, while Hoult doesn’t have all the details worked out, he does have a vision. And if his success looks like luck, that suits him. ‘I’ve always thought it’s impressive to make it look easy.’