Interview with Jo Haigh
Founder & CEO @ fds Director Services Limited

fds is committed to the future growth and success of British businesses by supporting their business journey. Unlike many companies in the corporate industry, fds is a standalone boutique corporate finance house, which prides itself on its avant-garde premises, branding and ethos. The company provides a bespoke service in line with client’s requirements to achieve their objectives. fds understands that the corporate finance market is changing and deals are taking longer to complete, but fds specialises in being creative, bringing deals together and bridging expectations. It has a clear competitive edge; its focus is on exploring ways for deals to happen rather than focusing on just deal value.
Hi Jo! Could you please tell us a bit more about your work with fds and what led to your founding the company 30 years ago?
Thirty years ago, I had four small children and wanted to have more time. So I thought, "Hey, why not start my own business?" I didn't get any more time, but I certainly got a lot of flexibility. During those 30 years, my business has changed dramatically. fds originally stood for finance director services and that's just what we did - we provided finance directors into businesses for particular transactions, or to support a business going through a funding, et cetera. Not at all common in those days, now a much more common model. But we've progressed massively, and we now provide not only corporate finance services to companies all over the country, mostly specializing in owner-managed businesses, and we have done over that period nearly 400 plus deals. But we also have a specialist director development program, where we take one of the existing directors through a program that looks at how to make them world-class directors.
What are some of the main struggles faced by owner-managers of SME's - how does fds help them to streamline their finance operations?
At fds we specialize in SMEs, privately owned businesses. I mean, we always say we are a privately owned business ourselves and an SME, so who better to relate to our customers, because we are in the same game as they are. Biggest problem for any business is often funding, and finances, and understanding and managing it. At fds, we can help people find the right funding for their business and structure that appropriately, but can also help them improve their management information. It's all very well getting the funding in place, but if you haven't got the right information to manage it post-acquisition, then certainly some things likely to go wrong. We can help putting systems and help the board members understand their financial processes.
What are some of the biggest clients of fds today - how have you helped to build up a service offering that meets your broad array of clients?
At fds, whilst we specialize in SMEs and owner-managed businesses, we've also been very privileged to work with some of the biggest household names in the UK, particularly with regard to director-level training through our division, fds knowledge. And what I've begun to realize is that these businesses have exactly the same problems on their boards as the SME directors boards, and whilst I can't reveal the names because of confidentiality, you might be surprised to find that actually directors in a PLC are often just as ignorant of their roles and responsibilities of those of the owner-manager. And, perhaps some training and development should be relevant for every director, because to be a director in the UK, actually, it doesn't require any specific qualifications at all. In fact, all you have to be is: 16, sane, solvent and not serving a sentence for an indictable offence and there you are, you could be a director. So perhaps all directors should consider some development. Ignorance is not generally bliss in this area and, as Winston Churchill said, with greatness comes responsibility - so make sure you understand that responsibility is important. At fds knowledge, we can help all directors really get to grips with that.
What are some of the main misconceptions the general public has regarding the different operations that fall under the umbrella of corporate finance?
The world of corporate finance can actually seem quite a mystery to some people, but actually it's quite straightforward. A good corporate finance organization will provide you with an array of advice to help set you on the right road to your destination of exit or acquisitions. So in terms of actually buying a business, what a good corporate finance organization can do is identify those targets; make approaches; help structure and negotiate a deal; and then, find the funding to actually help that acquisition to the end of the line. In terms of a disposal, what a corporate finance organization does is help you identify those parties likely to buy your business and, quite honestly, it's not always going to be a trade buyer. Normal transactions are done on a vertical basis, rather than a horizontal basis. By that, I mean a supplier or a customer might be your perfect acquisition target or disposal target. And what they then do is they approach those organizations, once you've established a desire to look at your organization and prepare an information memorandum - which is a story of your business - make sure appropriate non-disclosure agreements are in place, and then, once again, help structure the deal. Deals don't fail because of price, they fail because of terms, and this is where good corporate finance organization who understands those nuances of a transaction can help get it right.
What's next for your work with fds - what will be your main focus throughout the next year?
Every business must evolve. If you stop evolving, then you're going to fail. fds, like any other business, we're always looking for other opportunities. And one of the things that we've actually started this last year is a new business called Onboarding Offices - please have a look at our website - but that is basically a business that is going to be a membership organization that's linked to a training and development program to take exiting senior military into the boardrooms of Britain as a non-exec director. Very excited by that, and as an owner-manager I have to constantly have new challenges - this is my latest challenge. We're also constantly looking to improve and develop our own internal staff and we're looking at our own succession plans, and I have a great team here that are really important to me, and it's that that we're concentrating on. It's a challenging time at the moment in the economy with Brexit and everything else that's going on, so we always looking for how we can make the best of what we've got, and identify new opportunities and stay close to our client - and our would-be client base - to make sure we bring to them what they need, in the best possible way and the most appropriate time.