In the autumn of 2012, NES Global Talent, an international recruitment business backed by UK firm Graphite Capital, was on the verge of a third lucrative buyout in ten years. CEO Neil Tregarthen was in full-on deal mode, working 19-hour days as he personally checked and rechecked every last detail.
And then he got an email from Geoff Lloyd, one of the original founders of NES, about a young man in his home village in Devon. At the age of 16, Howard Wicks had suffered a massive stroke at home one day; he lay prone for eight hours until he was eventually discovered. About two-thirds of people who have this kind of stroke don’t recover at all, and if they do, it’s generally because they’re found within the first hour (the ‘golden hour’, as it’s called). Howard survived, but he now suffers from a rare condition called ‘locked-in syndrome’ – where he retains full brain activity, but can only move his eyelids.
In the midst of the deal frenzy, Tregarthen put aside his BlackBerry and his management accounts, and started to read about Howard and locked-in syndrome. Seven hours later, he was still reading. He decided there and then that if the deal went through, he would do something to help Howard.
Fast forward to today, and Tregarthen is no longer with NES; he left the business in April. But he’s very much involved with Howard: he and his wife have set up the Howard Wicks Trust, and they’ve just bought a bungalow in his home village that (once properly fitted out) will allow Howard to be moved back near his family, rather than languishing in an ill-equipped NHS hospital 50 miles away, as he has been since the stroke.
What was it about Howard’s story that resonated so powerfully? He thinks for a moment. “When you read the story, you can’t think anything other than: ‘Christ…’ It just couldn’t be any worse, could it? Nobody could be more unlucky.”
RAGS TO RICHES
Tregarthen enjoyed his share of luck in his own private equity back story. As a young man, he fled to London from an unhappy family life in Cornwall, arriving with just £200 in his pocket and no qualifications to speak of. He got in a taxi at Paddington Station and asked the driver what he should do. “Go back to Cornwall,” was the eminently sensible reply.
But when Tregarthen made it clear that wasn’t an option, the taxi driver took pity on him: he took him home to his wife, who let him stay in a linen room at a hotel where she worked as a housekeeper. Eventually, he found a job selling cars and earned enough money to get a proper flat; later, he worked his way up the corporate ladder at Hays, where he ended up running the mail services business.
By this time, Tregarthen had ambitions of a move into private equity. He did an MBA, to bolster his CV (“I had two A-levels, one of which was sociology; it was pretty clear I wasn’t getting into private equity with that”). And in 2003, when it became clear that Hays wanted to spin out the mail business, he persuaded Permira to back him in a £300 million buyout proposal. The deal fell through at a late stage when Hays chose to float the division instead – but after a disgruntled Tregarthen gave an interview to the Financial Times about it, he found himself with three alternative offers from buyout firms within a fortnight. One was from UK group Bridgepoint, who asked him to go and turn around an ailing recruitment business on their books called NES.
At the time, Tregarthen says, NES was making about £4 million a year in profit; it had five offices in the UK and three overseas, all of which were loss-making. “At the first meeting, the founders asked me when I was planning to close the overseas offices. So I said: ‘Well actually, I rather thought I’d close all the UK offices and open more overseas.’ And Brian [Sullivan, the co-founder] said: ‘You’re a ******* idiot’. I said: ‘Yep, and that’s who you’ve got running your company.’”
In the end, the UK offices stayed – but NES now has more than 30 offices overseas, everywhere from Houston to Rio to Papua New Guinea. And largely thanks to this overseas expansion, the business has been growing rapidly, despite the recession: last year’s sale (to US group AEA Investors) valued the company at £234 million ($391 million; €292 million), and it’s expected to make over £40 million profit this year. In the process, Tregarthen succeeded in making a lot of money for himself, his private equity backers and his staff (who shared in the proceeds of both buyouts via an employee trust).
So why get out? “I loved the business. Still do, in fact – if it was just me and the business I’d still be there now. But as you get bigger, more and more people get involved – you have more people on the board, you spend more time with the banks, you have to use Freshfields instead of your local lawyer in Trafford… It all just got a bit highfalutin for me. I didn’t struggle to do it; I just didn’t really enjoy it.”
Plus, of course, by this time he had a new cause. “At the end of the day, I made a commitment – that if we did this deal, I’d do something big for Howard. And that’s proven to be the case. If you come from the all-consuming world of private equity and you get involved with a story like this, the balance it gives you is just amazing.”
And what does success look like in this new chapter of life?
“When I first got involved, I told Howard we needed a plan to rewire his brain. The brain is very plastic; if one route stops working it can rewire itself over a period of time. And there’s more and more work going on. It will take time, but he’s young enough – in 20 years’ time, he’ll only be 38. So it’s really a case of keeping him sane and happy until we get to a point where medical science can take over.”
One of the first things the Tregarthens did with the trust money was to buy Howard Sky TV for his hospital room, so he could watch football. They’ve since also bought him an FES machine, which exercises his muscles by passing electric currents through them, helping with tone and posture.
And there are some small signs of progress, Tregarthen says. “He can now hold himself upright unaided for six or seven minutes. To him, that’s nothing, because he can’t play football. But to everyone else, it’s momentous.” He can now swallow by himself, rather than being fed through a tube. And he can move himself around in a specially-adapted wheelchair that he steers with his chin.
Tregarthen shows no sign of missing his old world (at least not yet). But he would love to persuade some of his old sparring partners to help him out with his new cause. “On the spectrum of social responsibility, the world of private equity isn’t always best positioned, to say the least… But if we could just get a few people to think about this and maybe even chip a bit into Howard’s trust fund, it would make such a difference to the lad.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Howard’s story and donating to the trust, please visit www.hopeforhoward.co.uk