The agency was formed as a sole trader in 1997 by former BBC journalist Steve Howell and recruited its first employee in January 1999. Based in Newport, the agency focused initially on media relations and established a reputation for excellence by handling the PR for The Celtic Manor Resort’s £100m expansion programme and Wales’ bid to host the Ryder Cup. In the first three years, the biggest challenge was the difficulty a small team faced in meeting ever-expanding client needs. With success came higher client expectations – which were met by having a highly committed and tightly-knit group of staff. In September 2000, the agency was incorporated as Howell Communications Ltd with a seven-strong team (six of whom are still with the company). At this point, the new challenge was to extend the client base, partly by expanding geographically beyond Newport and partly by broadening the service offer with the establishment of a graphic design team. This process was given fresh impetus when Jonathan Smith, former managing director of Golley Slater PR, joined in February 2002 as a shareholder and executive director. The other major developments in the last three years were the acquisition of the Cardiff-based Petersen Partnership in October 2002 and the opening of a London office in May 2003. These steps were part of a new business plan that envisaged the creation of a UK network at the heart of which would be a service centre and head office in Wales.

Success Factor

A major success factor for this business has been strong client relationships and commitment to service delivery and, from the outset, the agency has lived and breathed for its clients. As the business has grown, it has invested in senior staff and introduced structures and systems with the aim of ensuring that high service delivery standards are maintained at all levels. Adherence to solid business principles, such as cost control, cash flow management and re-investment of profit have also been a key to sustainable growth. Too many start-ups get carried away by early successes and often squander hard-earned resources. In contrast, the agency generated funds for growth organically and was in a position to invest in its own office premises in Newport by April 2001. It has recently moved to new purpose-built 4,000sq ft offices at Cardiff Gate. Finally, leadership, corporate governance and support from independent shareholders and non-executive directors have been key to the continuing development of Freshwater. For example, shortly after incorporation, the company had its first non-executive director. It now has three who bring with them a diversity of business experience from local to national level in several different sectors. The executive team has been reinforced with the addition in January 2003 of a Finance Director, Haydn Evans, who has senior experience in a major international company.

The Future

The rebranding of the business as Freshwater UK is part of a UK-wide three-year growth strategy. Through acquisition and organic growth, the agency aims to be one of the top providers of regional PR services to major national brands, while also retaining or developing strong client portfolios in each region. As well as its existing presence in Wales and London, Freshwater will make acquisitions or open offices in the North, the Midlands, Scotland and Bristol. The client-facing regional offices will receive support from the Cardiff service centre, including back office functions, sales and business development, and marketing services for clients, such as graphic design, new media, advertising and event management. Since adopting this plan in February 2004, the company has raised new funds from private investors and completed the acquisition of The Knowledge, a successful Cardiff-based corporate events and hospitality business. Other acquisitions in England and Scotland are currently under consideration. The plan envisages the agency trebling in size in the three years to 2006-07. During that period, it is anticipated that the company will seek an AIM listing to raise funds for investment and allow equity to feature more prominently in acquisition deals.