Back from the garden

Nov 12 | 2018

Steve Jordan visited Russell Start, the new managing director of AGM Group, to talk about his reasons for leaving Pickfords, his 12-month garden leave and his plans for his new role.

Russell Start: - back from the garden

As managing director of AGM Group, Russell Start is responsible for the household names of Abels, Gerson Relocation and Momentous.  It’s a big job, but he’s used to big jobs having been managing director of Pickfords UK for seven years before he resigned in July last year. He’d been speaking to Paul Evans, AGM Group Chairman, for some time, so when the opportunity came along to take the lead role, he jumped at it. “It was just time to move on,” he said.

However, Russell’s contract with Pickfords included a 12-month notice period.  As expected, he was put on garden leave to serve out his notice.  “Pickfords knew that I had accepted another position in the industry but I didn’t really expect the garden leave to last for the full twelve months,” said Russell.  “I thought perhaps after the conference season was over, then maybe after Christmas, they would want to talk again.  But that didn’t happen.”

Instead Russell found himself enjoying a life of leisure, on full pay. Those following his exploits on Facebook did so with some envy and speculation was rife about his plans.  But he was still employed by Pickfords, so he couldn’t do as he liked. “I was only entitled to my normal holiday allowance,” he explained.  “So, I couldn’t go on a world tour or head off to watch England play cricket in Australia for a month.  It doesn’t work that way.” 

So why did Russell want to leave Pickfords after so many years with the company (He’d worked with Pickfords between 1986 and 2003 before joining TEAM and took over as MD of Pickfords in 2010.) “I firmly believe that everything the owner of Pickfords does is for the long-term benefit of the business and I loved the brand,” he said, “but felt I’d grown out of my effectiveness there and was not sure of my role in directing the future course of the business. The opportunity with AGM Group came along at the right time and it’s great to be part of something with a growth agenda. The chance to be a shareholder was also very attractive and that was never going to happen at Pickfords.” Employee ownership is important to Paul and I as all the AGM Group Board directors are shareholders and the company has also recently created an EBT (Employee Benefit Trust) that holds 25% of the Group stock for the benefit of the employees.  

That's what excited me ... there is nothing off limits for us.Russell sees growth opportunities in all areas of the Group’s current business mix.  He said that Gerson Relocation has a good name in the corporate marketplace. “With some effort we will find a position for the company back at the top of the UK relocation market,” he said. “I think the number one spot is up for grabs and Gerson’s will get there.”

He said that Abels has a fabulous brand and a strong management team. “I think there is still growth in that super-prime market,” he said. “We are seen by some as a Suffolk-based business that comes to London, but we want to change that. There are opportunities nationwide and it’s the Abels brand that we will use to take advantage of those opportunities. We will be opening an Abels branch in London in November 2018 that will make us even more visible in the London area. We will also look at other parts of the UK where there is a sufficiently affluent population.” He believes there are good growth opportunities for Abels and said that even if it doubled its turnover next year it would still have a relatively small market share as the market is so fragmented.

The Momentous brand now clearly focusses on fine art, antiques and hotel installations. It may appear to be a relative newcomer but does have long roots in the market. It also has experienced technicians and there is plenty of room for growth.  “The three brands don’t compete, but they do complement each other,” said Russell. 

The moving industry thrives on change and Brexit is likely to produce some of the most radical changes we have seen for a very long time. Russell said that the Brexit debate was holding back growth at present with companies pausing until the position becomes clearer.  “That’s great for the incumbent but not so good if you are trying to break into new accounts,” he said. That said he is confident that, when the questions are answered, there will be a spike as businesses open up the tap on assignments. “After that I think we will find a new normal as the market settles down with more short-term assignments and smaller shipments. Whatever happens, London will be a major player on the financial scene with enough business to allow us to succeed in the foreseeable future.”

As well as opportunities to grow the existing businesses, Russell believes that there are opportunities for greater diversification. “We don’t yet target the high-volume consumer international market which has some benefits to our business in terms of cash flow and insurance sales,” he said. “With the lump sum market increasing, the lines are blurring between corporate and consumer which provides a significant opportunity for us. Particularly as this is not so much controlled by RMCs or scrutinised by auditors which creates unnecessary admin. Nor are we significantly involved in business relocation currently, but we’d need to decide whether we want to be on the fulfilment side or project management. That side of the business is changing a lot as well and my time at Pickfords opened my eyes to the opportunities there.”

Russell said he was delighted to be back working but recognised that organically all the market sectors will be difficult.  But those who know Russell will know him to be a positive person and he believes the ‘glass-half-full’ approach is important. “What got you to where you are is not going to get you to where you want to be, so you have to stay positive and flexible” he said.  “You can talk yourselves into downtimes, but there is more than enough business around for a number of quality companies, at every level, to be successful. That’s what excited me about working with the AGM Group, there is nothing off limits for us.”

Asked what his enforced sabbatical had taught him, he was equally positive.   “While I was off I was amazed that I found plenty of quality things to do. I am enthused and engaged for at least the next ten years, but when I do retire, I now know that will be OK too.”

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