Jeff Dewing, 58, had made a fortune and lost it at age 39. He started out as a fridge and air conditioning engineer and in 2012 started his second business, facilities management company Cloudfm, from his garden shed and invested £10,000 savings. In four years the company’s turnover grew from £1m to £70m.
Based in Colchester, Essex, the company started in 2012 with three employees – himself, his wife and daughter. By 2018 it employed 350 people with offices in Newark, Harlow, Dublin, Barcelona and a training academy in Colchester, although staff numbers fell to 180 as a result of the pandemic.
The company’s 14 customers today include Tui, PizzaExpress and Chiltern Railways. A further 50 staff will be hired by Christmas to serve new clients in finance, leisure and hospitality.
Born: Walthamstow, London, February 13, 1964
Education: two state schools in Walthamstow:
Ages 11-14: William Fitt School; 14-16: Sir George Monoux, left with two O levels
1980-85: City & Guilds Refrigeration Course, Willesden College of Technology
Career: 1980-83: Trainee Engineer, Carter Refrigeration, Hanwell
1990: Essex Air Conditioning launched
1997: bought debt-ridden Clacton FC for £35
2002: Clacton FC sold for £100,000
2003: EAC goes bankrupt
2012: launched Cloudfm
Lives: Albufeira in the Algarve with Mrs. Michelle, Key Account Supervisor at Cloudfm. His daughter, Kelly, is a supply chain manager and his youngest daughter, Hayley, is a mobilization leader.
Dewing founded Essex Air Conditioning in 1990. However, after investing time and money in Clacton FC for five years, he lost focus on his business and it went bankrupt in 2003. He wrote a book about the experience do the oppositepublished in 2021.
Did you think you’d get where you are?
At 16 I had no idea what was to come, but I couldn’t accept the status quo. I didn’t want to work for a bank and then come home and watch TV. My parents told me to do what I love. I said I wanted to improve everyone’s life. Exams meant nothing to me. What mattered was emotional intelligence and streetwise.
My father was a refrigerator engineer and he said you will never find a good refrigerator engineer without a job. I took his advice because I loved my father and he was my role model. I always wanted to go in the opposite direction because everyone was trained the same way to do the same thing.
In refrigeration, there’s a device called a compressor that weighs half a ton and used to take three men to lift. I said I can do this on my own. I changed the dynamics by using a floor jack. Now everyone has learned how to change a compressor with a man.
Was your first million pounds a major milestone?
The first year we made a profit of over £1m was 2016. In 2013 our first client, Republic Clothing, went bankrupt and owed us £250,000 which we needed to pay for the supply chain. We were two weeks away from closing our doors on this debt. At that time we were in negotiations with Pret A Manger.
We managed to negotiate an upfront payment of around £400,000 from Pret which, unbeknownst to them, saved us. Your deal has bought us time to onboard our biggest client, The Gondola Group, the parent company of PizzaExpress, restaurants Ask and Zizzi, and Byron Burgers.
Gondola Group was worth £10m a year for five years and that turned us into profit. We made £1.6m profit.
Of course we celebrated. The 12 of us on board sipped champagne, relieved that we had weathered the greatest adversity we could ever face. The next big client, KFC, came in 2015, valued at £13m a year for five years.
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business?
It did, but in a good way and by changing our focus. While everyone was on furlough, which we were, there was one team we weren’t furloughing, our software development team of 18 people. While everyone sat at home on vacation and did nothing, we kept paying our IT team. With no distractions, we asked ourselves how can we create technology to change the world?
Before lockdown we were raising £6million a month from our customers. From 3 April 2020 this has been reduced to £200,000 per month. What we had was a capital reserve in the business, £5m or £6m, which enabled us to invest in our IT development team to run at 100mph.
You have developed a new technology. During Covid we linked up with the University of Essex and added six PhD students to our team. The PhD students didn’t understand the words “we can’t” and they could do anything. IOT – the Internet of Things – consists of thousands of sensors. We wanted to achieve the same result without sensors.
We monitor the electrical harmonics, which give us more information than any sensor ever could. The PhDs allowed us to predict the failure of a mechanical device four weeks before it failed. Without Covid it would have taken us 10 years to achieve the same result.
During Covid we had to reinvent the business and go from 350 to 180 employees. However, we were looking for three people who were interested in starting their own business. We have helped them establish three new companies as part of our supply chain. By getting this right, we were able to put the 170 employees who would have been laid off into the same type of work that they were used to.
Have you had difficulties recruiting staff in the last few months?
No, because when we came out of lockdown we changed our working environment. Although we had to close offices in Newark, Harlow and two offices in Colchester, we converted our two remaining buildings in Colchester to offer them a home away from home with sofas, a canteen and free food. It was a fantastic idea.
We’ve told every employee you decide how you work and where you work, and you only come into the office to solve problems with your team and have fun. Nobody looks at the clock. We had no problem recruiting people. Once they understand our culture, they want to join us.
What did you have to sacrifice to start the business?
If you want to change the world, you have to make great sacrifices. I didn’t spend nearly enough time with my kids like I should have. I am now the grandfather of eight children. I take care of her two days a week and never stay on time. You are my second chance to be with my family.
What was the most challenging phase of your career?
Bankruptcy was the lowest point of my life because I had let down my wife and family. I didn’t leave the house for three months, then I had to receive unemployment benefits for six months.
I was known through the football club, so people saw me at the employment office. One day my wife asked me to buy bread. I put my card in the ATM to withdraw £10, the minimum, but I only had £7.60.
After nine months, I realized I had to find a job. I found one at a refrigeration company as a contract officer. That was the start of getting back on track.
What was your best preparation for the business?
It went broke because you know how easily that can happen and what’s important when you’re running a business. At the football club I didn’t learn how to score goals, but that I can motivate people to achieve 50 percent more than they do. I knew I was good at inspiring people.
What do you consider indulgences?
I live in Portugal because I feel guilty about enjoying life the way I do. Our very first vacation was in Portugal. We then traveled all over the world but came back to the Algarve for the next 15 years. We’ve lived here for two and a half years, but I’m always available. Engineers often approach me in difficult situations to show me wiring and control cabinets and seek my advice.
Do you believe in leaving everything to your family?
Absolutely not. My view is that I will give my children the best opportunity for the best life, but they will only get opportunity. I will put money aside for the education of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. None of my children will receive more than a down payment on their first home. They have to do the rest themselves. I have five children, three with Michelle and two with my first wife.
Have you made a pension plan?
I have a pension. It’s called cloudfm. I’ve always paid into a small pension, but nothing of significance. I absolutely believe in pensions unless you are an entrepreneur. I don’t want anything in my life right now. If at some point the work gets too boring for me, I sell the business and live off the capital.
Do you believe in giving back to the community?
We are the main sponsor of Essex County Cricket Club which has Sir Alastair Cook. We own the soil naming rights. It’s called The Cloud County Ground.
We pay £500,000 a year which helps coach youth aged eight to 25 or 26 through the club. Essex had not won anything in the Championship for 20 years. Since our engagement in 2017, they have won a trophy almost every year. In 2019, Essex became the first team to win both the Championship and the T20 tournament in the same season.