Golf, beef and my debt to Prince Charles

Steve Howell had one simple reason for leaving journalism to set up his own PR business: money. But building it would prove more daunting than he’d imagined.

Steve Howell had one simple reason for leaving BBC Radio Wales to set up his own business. Money. In 1997, £22,000 wasn't a bad salary for a journalist, but the 40-year-old had three young children to support, and though his wife worked as a part-time doctor, "it was always a stretch to be able to afford a holiday. I wouldn't say we had a bad standard of living, but we weren't comfortable."

With experience in public relations for local government, he decided to set up his own PR consultancy. But building it would prove more daunting than he'd imagined.

"When I left [the BBC] I didn't have any definite clients. It was a big leap in the dark I couldn't have done it if my wife wasn't working." He began cold-calling firms in South Wales, offering PR services. It was tough going. "Day in, day out, you have to say, I'm going to get up, get to my desk, make calls, write letters and you don't know whether it's going to work," he says. "You have to have a big reservoir of optimism."

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But it paid off. Within two months he had his first client, food processor RS Brookes; after a year, he had five, all of whom came through speculative letters. One was golf resort Celtic Manor. In 2010, it will host the Ryder Cup. But in 1997 it was no more than a building site. "I got in there early it helped that I lived down the road."

Howell's breakthrough came in 1999. Prince Charles attended a Celtic Manor event and was seen eating beef "with a big bloody bone sticking out of it" at a time when beef on the bone had been banned due to the BSE crisis. News at Ten, Today and even Radio Colombia came knocking, and Howell dealt with it all. "I went from being the local guy who is good at what he does but we'll need a London agency to do the big stuff', to hey, he can do the big stuff.'"

Celtic Manor piled on the work. By 2001, Howell had nine staff, and bought a new office in Newport for £110,000. Worried they were too dependent on the golf resort, he brought in an MD from another PR firm to find new business. By 2004, Freshwater was one of the top three agencies in South Wales. But rather than simply "take our good salaries and be content with that", they decided to expand nationally, raising several hundred thousand pounds from family, friends and contacts to buy a number of agencies across the UK, integrating them under the Freshwater brand.

But there was only so much funding they could raise from friends alone. Howell had a choice sell up, get venture capital backing, or go to market. He opted for the latter. "Why shouldn't the private investors who worked hard in the early stages get to benefit from all that work?" The group listed on Aim in 2007, raising £4m. The move has paid off, he says; they are now seen as a major player in PR, important when gunning for new clients.

But the old strategies are still paying dividends. The MD from his first client, RS Brookes, has gone on to head John Lewis, for whom Freshwater are now the PR consultants. "I can say that that speculative letter 11 years later turned out to be a good piece of work."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.