Rejection was the best thing that happened to David Evans. In 1980, he was the European director for an American performance management company. After several years at the firm, he had plenty of ideas about how to improve it. He felt, for instance, that it should sell its services to other sectors, such as banks. But the owner of the company didn't agree. So, confident "I could do a better job", Evans, then 31, left to set up his own company.
"Back then banks were just as unwilling to lend as they are now", so he re-mortgaged his house to fund Grass Roots Group. When former clients heard he had moved on, "they started to contact me". His first was Ford Motor Company, but his big break came when he persuaded Lloyds Bank to let him work with their cashiers.
His first move was to send mystery shoppers' to branches and used their feedback to identify where the bank was going wrong. Then he designed training courses and incentives that encouraged them to sell other banking services to customers.
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Within a year, Lloyds' staff were "selling more products per customer than any other bank on the high street and its competitors wanted to know why".
Evans hired more staff and began working with other banks and then insurance firms. By 1985, Grass Roots had 20 clients and sales had reached £5.2m. For the next ten years, Evans worked to saturate the British markets, seeking "the widest use and geographic spread of our services". Aside from its bread-and-butter performance-improvement work, Grass Roots developed loyalty cards for shops, and conferences and events for banks.
By 1995, Evans "felt confident enough to go abroad. We were working with multinationals and they wanted providers who could work with them around the world."
However, Evans didn't just target countries where his clients operated: "for us to be successful we need to work in countries with lots of discretionary income. To motivate workers we need to be in a place with money and aspiration."
For the next ten years, the firm focused on Europe. "Grass Roots Jesuits" were despatched to train up talented locals. Initially, they would focus on a narrow brief, such as measuring the performance of a client's employees. Once established, they would buy local expertise (a training company, for example) to widen their offering to clients.
Grass Roots' success began to take it further afield, to India for instance. "The trick was to hire people who could give you cultural insight and local expertise. In India, for example, at a certain time of year, the best performance incentive you can offer someone is a basket of mangos." In Britain, by contrast, it's "a paper shredder".
As the firm grew, Evans kept a tight rein on costs "we stored money like salt" and ploughed profits into a strong technology division. "Smartphones and apps make it a lot easier to communicate with employees." He also developed digital services, such as website design and marketing for clients.
The firm now employs more than 1,000 people in 15 countries and sales hit £265m last year. In 2006 he bought the European division of the American firm that rejected his ideas all those years ago "we're now almost as big as them".
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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