Two’s a company

Two’s a company

Life as an entrepreneur can be challenging. But what if your co-owner’s also your other half? Steve Dyson finds out about lovers in business.

James and Carina Ackrill - Centrick Property
James and Carina Ackrill run Centrick Property, a Midlands-based property group with offices in central Birmingham, Nottingham, Solihull and London.

The Ackrills, aged 36 and 35 respectively, live just outside Solihull and established the company in 2005. Carina describes how “our young, dynamic team deliver a friendly, efficient and professional service” in everything from residential sales and lettings, through to estate and block management.

AckrillJames originally set up the company as a property consultancy in 2005, and although Carina came up with the name she didn’t actually work with him initially. James then brought in an old school pal, Shane Bland, to expand into estate management, and with business booming Carina joined in 2007 to launch asset management and sales and lettings agency divisions.

But now they’re both working together, who’s the real grafter? Carina says: “Well, I’m in the office more than James is anyway! But it is, in fact, James who’s overseen the vast majority of new business coming into the company since its inception and has, therefore, driven its incremental growth and the direction of the business over the past decade.

“We’ve found that challenges of running a business together are trying not to talk about work when we’re at home, and it’s not as easy as it sounds! That said, the advantages are great, especially for the company as it’s completely unified in its direction and aspirations.”

Centrick currently employs more than 120 people across the group and last year turned over £5m. It sold over £43m of residential property in 2015 and currently manages over £1bn worth of client assets around the UK.

The company has recently scooped three awards: Gold for West Midlands Agency of the Year at The Negotiator Industry Awards, Gold for Midlands Lettings Agency of the Year and Silver for Midlands Estate Agency of the Year, both sponsored by The Times and Sunday Times. And after celebrating its 10th anniversary last year, Carina says: “It’s been a great decade for Centrick Property”.

She says: “The company has grown at least 30% year-on-year since its inception and in the last 12 months we’ve seen the biggest growth in the company’s history, with little sign of slowing down. We look forward to being at the head of this successful, innovative and, dare I say, influential company and establishing it as the premier property group in the Midlands.”

Centrick’s rapid growth has continued despite the patter of tiny feet: “When we had our first child, Arthur, I ended up only taking seven weeks off, as some bright spark (James!) decided to open a new branch in central Nottingham when I was on maternity leave.

“We’re expecting our second child in November and this time I’m hoping to have at least three months off. Luckily, we have an incredibly professional and competent team behind us at Centrick Property, so I can take time out without any impact to company operations or its continued growth.”

The Ackrill’s three top tips for entrepreneur couples:

  1. Make time for your relationship among all the business stuff. It’s hard to not talk shop with each other in the evenings and weekends but make the effort to consciously put it aside and just be a couple.
  2. Befriend other entrepreneur couples. You can share your challenges and successes with people who truly understand the issues and pressures whilst also learning from them and how you can improve.
  3. Utilise each of your strengths in the business. Carina’s background is in marketing so she looks after the communications side, whereas James is “brilliant” at sales and so obtains new business for the company. “You can even leverage these strengths and learn from each other, making the business stronger as a whole,” says Carina.

Mathew Growcoot and Pesala Bandara - News Dog Media
Mathew Growcoot and Pesala Bandara run News Dog Media, a content agency based in Moseley, Birmingham. This company produces video, pictures and words about human-interest stories to sell to media all across the world. Its main markets are the UK, Germany and the USA, and its biggest clients are Closer magazine, ITV’s This Morning, RTL television, NBC network and the Mail Online.

News Dog MediaMathew, aged 27, came up with the idea after working in media agencies since he was 18. He says: “In November 2013 I was working for an agency in Birmingham and wasn’t happy so decided I was going to branch out on my own.” Meanwhile, Pesala, 28, was working part-time and decided to help her partner out.

“Despite having no formal experience in this field, she proved to be a genius at finding big human-interest stories and quickly eclipsed me as the most valuable person in the company,” says an admiring Mathew.

“Pesala’s definitely the talent. I’m the one who puts everything else into place, producing all of the visuals, selling to clients and sorting out problems. I would definitely say that I’m the grafter!”

The couple, who recently moved to live in Harborne, are currently the only staff at News Dog Media, but consider themselves to be “very successful”.

“It is only the two of us so production can be sporadic,” says Mathew. “But we’ve had several high-profile stories that have gone fully viral. We have almost seven million views on our YouTube channel and have forged relationships with virtually every major media outlet in the Western world – including partnerships with new-age companies like the Lad Bible.”

As for the future, the couple have their eyes on growth, and area already exploring new markets where they want to “get a head start on our competition”. Mathew adds: “This time next year I think we will have a team of employees around us.”
But as far as babies go, he says there are “no plans for that just yet”. However, the pair have just had a puppy, a Teacup Chihuahua called Chico, which he feels has “given us a little insight to what babies may be like!”.

Mathew’s and Pesala’s three top three tips for entrepreneur couples:

  1. Your relationship has to come first. Business decisions affect your relationship differently than if you were with a straightforward business partner.
  2. Patience, patience, patience.
  3. Everyone’s happier when you’re successful!

Adam and Natasha Stokes - Adam’s
Adam and Natasha Stokes run Adam’s restaurant on Waterloo Street, Birmingham.
Adam, aged 34, has been in the industry since starting catering school when he was 16, and so launching his own restaurant had always been his “dream”.  

AdamsHe completed his training at Hambleton Hall, Leicestershire, while Natasha was studying for a degree in physics. As newlyweds in 2008, they moved to Scotland to manage Glenapp Castle, a Relais & Châteaux hotel, and this was where Adam’s dream grew into a “joint aspiration to start a restaurant together”. They moved to Birmingham to launch Adam’s in 2013, and now live in Acocks Green – although Adam doesn’t seem to be home much!

He often works up to 100 hours a week, and once worked 38 days consecutively when he was in Scotland. Natasha, meanwhile, is the “brains for the future”: she found both the initial Adam’s pop-up restaurant and their current permanent home.

She’s also quite honest about the challenges of working together: “Finding the balance of egos and responsibilities is tricky, and working in such a high pressured environment makes even the small things into a big deal.”

That said, the business is booming. Natasha, aged 31, says: “We have 35 amazing employees, with a growing turnover and a very exciting and varied customer base. Our company projections are looking very favourable and the expansion in size that happened at the beginning of this year is already paying off with a full restaurant.”

“Our first son arrived just three months after opening the pop-up and our second son three months before the new restaurant opened. We have a lot going on but it’s the way we like it. The long-term plan is to continue to please our guests with stunning food, service and surroundings. In the future there may be a cookbook but for now our feet are firmly planted in the present.”

The Stokes’ three top three tips for entrepreneur couples:

  1. Really know your industry: work it, live it, dream it.
  2. Try before you buy, much like living together before you marry. Work together as colleagues before jumping into business.
  3. And finally, there is never an ideal time, for anything, sometimes you just have to go for it!

Ben Cook and Jodie Cook, run JC Social Media
Ben Cook and Jodie Cook, run JC Social Media, a specialist social media agency. The couple – both aged 27 – have a team of 12 staff based on New Street, Birmingham, providing social media management and training to local and global clients, with particular success in the automotive and hospitality sectors.

CookJodie came up with the idea during her degree five years ago, and Ben joined the team after a couple of years as the business began to rapidly grow. The pair, who’ve been together for nine years and live in Birmingham city centre, both describe themselves as “grafters” but “just in different departments”.

“That’s one of the advantages of working as a couple,” Jodie says. “You can play to each other’s strengths. We don’t feel like there are any additional challenges to any business relationship. We spend a lot of time together but that’s always good fun.

“Our success is dictated by our clients’ success. If we help them achieve results and help them grow, JC Social Media will be successful. This is reflected in the fact we have household name clients from across the UK and the world, plus a load of awards for our work.

“It’s also provided us the scope to be involved in a couple of other projects including the Clever Tykes children’s storybooks and a new app we’re launching.”

Looking after a dozen staff, scores of clients and new business projects sounds like a busy life, but what will that mean if the recently married couple think about starting a family?
“There’s no chance of kids, right now; we’re not sure where they’d fit in! We’re committed to growing JC Social Media and to become the go-to social media agency in the UK, whilst being on the look out for other opportunities to add value.”

The Cooks’ three top tips for entrepreneur couples:

  1. Play to each other’s strengths and abilities.
  2. Come to each other with solutions rather than problems.
  3. Most importantly, remember that you’re on the same team, with the same goals and that you’re both trying to achieve them.