Founder steps down as Freshwater celebrates 25 years in business with strong first half results
Freshwater UK, the Cardiff and London-based communications group, has built on its recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 downturn with another strong trading performance in the first half of its 2021-22 financial year.
Founded by Steve Howell 25 years ago, the business delivered revenue of £1.85m in the six months to 28 February 2022, a 16% increase on the same period in 2020-21. This lifted trading to 25% above the level achieved in the first half of 2019-20, the six months immediately prior to the pandemic.
In announcing the results, the company has told shareholders that it expects to achieve its full-year revenue budget of £3.64m. Turnover, which includes media buying and venue costs, is expected to exceed £5.00m.
Angharad Neagle, Freshwater’s chief executive, said: “This has been one of the strongest trading periods in our 25-year history, with retained clients such as Thompsons, British Telecom and Associated British Ports keeping us busy, alongside new projects for several NHS Trusts and the Welsh Government, including delivering its major climate change event and roadshow, COP Cymru.
At this 25-year milestone, Steve Howell will be stepping down from his remaining operational and client responsibilities at the end of August, while staying on the board as a non-executive director. The business will continue to be led by Angharad Neagle, who was appointed chief executive in 2019, and its experienced team of directors.
Howell set up the business from his then home in Newport after leaving BBC Wales in 1997 and soon opened an office and started employing staff to meet the needs of clients such as Celtic Manor, the then Wales Tourist Board and Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
The company, known initially as Howell Communications, handled the PR for the Welsh Government’s successful bid to host the Ryder Cup and was then enlisted by the PGA European Tour as its Wales media adviser for Ryder Cup tournaments at the K Club, Ireland (2006) and Valhalla, Kentucky (2008), before providing a team for the media centre at the 2010 event at Celtic Manor.
By that stage, the company had rebranded as Freshwater, secured financial support from the Development Bank for Wales and private investors, expanded outside Wales through a series of acquisitions and begun to work for clients such as John Lewis, Specsavers, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and Unite The Union.
Freshwater listed on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market in 2007 but decided to move to the smaller BritDAQ market in 2010 to reduce costs as it adjusted to the recession that followed the 2008 Bank Crash. In 2019, Freshwater’s board led a management buy-out of most of the institutional investors to take the company private to facilitate succession and a new growth strategy.
“It’s been an incredible, 25-year journey for the business and it’s great for our founder to be retiring from a front-line role on such a high note,” added Angharad Neagle. “We’ve worked on some amazing campaigns over the past quarter of a century and forged client relationships that have stood the test of time. But we’ve never stood still. We’ve built a strong and dedicated leadership group, who are supported by a wider team of talented, passionate and creative professionals, to drive the business forward.
“Strong trading over the last two years has allowed us to strengthen our cash position, which should allow us to fund growth – both through recruitment and acquisitions – largely from our own resources.
“None of this, of course, would have been possible without the vision and commitment of Steve Howell, who grew the business from scratch to what it is today.”
From its roots in traditional public relations, Freshwater now offers multi-channel integrated services, including digital, creative, events, video production, conferences, stakeholder engagement, crisis management, marketing and public affairs, delivered by a 50-strong team.
The company has briefed deal brokers that it would be particularly interested in acquisitions that will supplement its existing in-house expertise in areas such as digital, data and insight and in conducting public consultations when major change is taking place in sectors such as transport, property, infrastructure, energy and health services.
- Steve Howell worked in journalism, including spells with BBC Wales and the South Wales Argus, before moving into PR and media consultancy in 1997. As the business that went on to become Freshwater grew, he became active in the Welsh business community, serving as a director of the South Wales Chamber of Commerce and writing a monthly business column for the Western Mail. In 2017, he took leave of absence from his role as Freshwater’s chief executive to work for the Labour Party as deputy director of strategy and communication. On returning to the business, he decided to work part-time to allow him to write Game Changer, an insider’s account of the 2017 General Election, which was a Guardian political book of the year in 2018. He has also written two novels, Over The Line and Collateral Damage.