From HGV driver, to furniture designer, to fit-out company MD, Neal Maxwell has definitely had highs and lows in building this multi-million-pound firm…
What is it the company does?
Operating nationally from our HQ in Liverpool, Aztec is an experienced fit out and construction company, delivering projects ranging from small works and minor alterations to multi million pound ‘turnkey’ projects. We can handle any project from start to finish, even making bespoke furniture in our own joinery shop.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
I oversee business activity, looking at stability, direction and planning for the future, with an eye on profit and increasing value. I also take overall responsibility for sales and marketing activities, and exploring long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.
Perhaps most importantly, I also see that company values are respected and applied, making certain that all customers are receiving the very best service, which is very important to me.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I was born in Liverpool but moved to London in 1981. After earning my HGV licence in the territorial army, I became a long-distance HGV driver. In 1985 I had a career change - taking a completely different direction – and became a designer for a large bespoke home furnishing company, quickly progressing to managing its prestigious Mayfair store within just 10 months.
A few months later, I felt it was time for a change again and I joined a large office furniture company. I was working for this business when a chap who ran a small company called Aztec carried out any fit-out works we needed. In early 1987, I joined Aztec and set about developing the business alongside the owner.
The following 18 months saw us set the business up as a limited company, create a group structure, develop four new business strands and become one of the UK’s premier fit-out companies. A year later, it was time to move home and we set up Aztec Interiors (Northern) Limited in Liverpool; I was made a senior director with a 25% stake in the new business, but within six months the recession hit hard and business was very difficult.
I was called to a meeting and given an ultimatum; shut the Liverpool office and get another job or reverse the shareholdings 75/25% my way. This sounded easy until I was told I’d need to put my family home up as collateral against a £40,000 overdraft we were running! Luckily enough, I was given a weekend to think about it!
At the age of 30 I felt my wife and I could do anything so we gave our house to NatWest and got our heads down. Within six months the business was in the black, we agreed a smaller overdraft facility with the bank and got our house back.
By early 1989 I took control of the remaining 25% equity stake in the business and the following years spent much time developing and building the company into what it is today.
The rest, as they say, is history.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
To me a great leader is someone who can show humility in everything they do; someone who leads from the front and takes responsibility for their actions.
It’s important for a leader to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses and be brave enough to bring people into the business that are better than themselves at certain things.
I was lucky enough to work with a wonderful boss, John Morgan, who was my guide and mentor but whom has sadly since died. John helped me in so many ways and taught me the importance of communication. John was a true gentleman in every sense; he treated everybody with the utmost respect and cared deeply about the people he worked with, providing support and advice on every level. To me he was the greatest leader I ever had the privilege to know and work for. Much of the way I work today is a result of that relationship and guidance.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Acquiring a building company in 2012, a company which I have been familiar with for 18 years. The deal provided me with a new partner and the ability to undertake building works directly, thus strengthening our position in the market and enabling Aztec to offer a true turnkey service.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I wouldn’t describe it as stress – it’s more about pressure to have things done right and exceed client expectations. I call this my passion because I truly care about what we do and how we do it.
In my time outside work I enjoy the outdoors, particularly walking, cycling and sailing when the opportunity arises, as well as spending time with my family.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
In my early years, I can remember doing many things to make some extra pocket money; I used to bundle old sticks I found in the woods, selling them to local house-bound pensioners as firewood to help keep them warm. I think I got paid tuppence a bundle (that’s old money) but it helped me save a little bit for holidays and buy the odd ¼ of sweets!
I also liked the idea of being a soldier, but after four years in the TA I felt the regulars wouldn’t have given me what I wanted at that time in my life. I genuinely tried all sorts of things but my heart was in art and design, so getting the opportunity to develop my career in this industry was amazing. I never expected to be running a business this size and, to a certain degree, it has taken my time away from the things I really enjoy about the job.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Hate is a strong word but what niggles me is poor design as it can, and does, affect so much.
We encourage our clients to take office design seriously; it not only benefits employees but also the company, with productivity and morale increasing as a direct result of better design. We have proved this time and time again over the years.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
The current market is very exciting as businesses are recognising new ways of working. The digital age has greatly impacted the work environment and organisations are now embracing these changes in the way they work and communicate with each other.
Keeping up to date with trends is imperative in realising Aztec’s organic growth plans and achieving our ambitions to become the go to fit-out company in the North West. Over the last five years we have seen our workforce increase by 50 per cent as we add further skill sets - we see this theme continuing as we develop the business to ensure our clients are getting solid advice and the very best value.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Have total belief in yourself and your product or service.
Concentrate on your business and focus all your energies on making it work. I see so many people who have idea after idea but have difficulty focusing on just one thing - being a butterfly is good in some respects, but if you land on a wonderful flower, why move?
Lastly, make sure you get the best team possible around you. This includes your advisors (banks, accountants and lawyers) and your colleagues.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Be careful who you trust.
I have an inherent flaw in so far as I have huge faith in human nature. I have strong belief in honesty and fair play. Sadly, over the years, many people have taken advantage of kindness and support I have given them; gut feeling plays a part in this and if your gut is telling you a decision you are about to make doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t. Don’t overthink things and enjoy what you do.
Most of all, have fun!