Amy Hope – MD of the Artisan Travel Company – last shared her experience of being a Firebird client back in January 2023. Since then, she has successfully led a management buyout (MBO), securing major financial backing and support from leading UK investor Panoramic Growth Equity (PGE). Today she reveals what it took to get there, and considers the advice she would now give to her pre-MBO self.
Last time I wrote for Firebird there was plenty going on that I wasn’t able to talk about publicly, all building towards the successful sale of Artisan in late summer 2023 – and the kind of adventure I could barely have imagined before it started.
“Ian very smartly arranged an informal introduction”
At an event in 2022, Firebird co-founder Ian Finlay – who had become Artisan’s Non-Executive Director after partnering with the company in 2020 – very smartly arranged an informal introduction between me and two potential investors. I’d had a couple of glasses of wine, and there was no time for me to overthink things or panic when Ian said, “There are two people from private equity (PE) over there; I’ve told them you’re brilliant and they’d like to meet you.”
It was great to talk to them, and we arranged a date for the investors to visit our office, where I’d pitch the Artisan offering to them.
The pitching process – “I realised: I can do this”
My very first attempt at a pitch had been on a Teams call with Ian. I felt completely out of my depth – the most I’d known about pitching before that was from watching Dragon’s Den! – but he was lovely and encouraging even though the first attempt wasn’t quite right. Afterwards, on my own, I picked myself back up and kept practising.
As we prepared for the investors’ visit Ian and I went through the pitch several times. Firebird’s Safia Bhutta watched it too; we also brought in Firebird co-founder and finance expert Stewart Lambert. Rehearsing the pitch with different team members was very helpful for me. Everyone gave constructive feedback, and it was a real confidence boost. I realised: I can do this.
When the investors came to visit our offices, Ian sat in on the actual pitch as I gave it – and on the few times I almost missed a key talking point, would ask me the right questions to make sure things were covered.
The first investors really liked that initial pitch. We had lots of back and forth between them. Not long afterwards Ian introduced me to the team at Panoramic Growth Equity (PGE) – and they came up to our office in November. Again the pitch went well, and we did a second round of meetings with both PE houses at the turn of the year.
“I had a notepad next to me and wrote down anything I didn’t know”
There are bits of that pitching experience that have completely gone out of my head now, but one thing I clearly remember was wanting to kick myself for not having all the answers ready for every investor question I was asked! I had a notepad next to me and wrote down anything I didn’t know. The next day I would find the info, pull it, and send it on.
I later discovered that approach worked in my favour. During a trip to meet our suppliers and better understand Artisan’s product, PGE partner David Wilson told me that what he looks for in pitches is not only good knowledge, but also the right willingness and attitude; for someone who admits it when they don’t know something, then looks for what they’re missing and follows up.
Due diligence – “I found out things about the company that I never knew”
Once the pitching was done, the latest account details were submitted and locked in, and PGE’s offer was formally made and accepted. That was March 2023. But it wasn’t the end of the process, and it would still be months before everything was completed and signed off.
Those months involved almost constant “due diligence.” I was sent well over 100 detailed questions on legal due diligence and about 75 on financial. Answering them all was a massive project – like the most intense company audit you can imagine. Again, Ian was a really helpful guide, helping make sure I didn’t miss anything and that I addressed every part; including acknowledging those that weren’t applicable to us and essentially approaching the process in a very ordered and logical way.
At times staying on top of the process was like swimming upstream for me. The finance side was way out of my comfort zone – I didn’t have much knowledge there, or experience I could draw on. Firebird linked me up with a great accountancy firm, White Hart Associates, as well as a bringing in a dedicated Finance Director. The lawyers Firebird found were great too, and able to give me more hand-holding that someone would need had they done all this before.
By the end of that due diligence period I’d found out things about the company that I never knew – and I’ve been here 15 years! On the plus side it set me up well for what was to come next: the actual running of the business.
“Bringing the right people into the inner circle was important”
Completing the MBO was pretty much a full-time job in itself – and one I absolutely could not have done alone. Without Ian and the Firebird team I wouldn’t have had the right connections; the pitch wouldn’t have been what investors wanted; I would not have had those months of sometimes-daily support and reassurance from Ian and Stewart; or the confidence to say to possible buyers: “This is what we’ve got, this is the info – how do we go on from here?”
I’m grateful to have a strong, supportive management team around me at Artisan too. When PGE’s offer was accepted, I told them what was happening, which meant they gave me a lot of grace in terms of my day-to-day work. Bringing the right people into the inner circle at the right time was pretty important. All the more so since, at the time, the whole Artisan team was in an open-plan office! I spent most of my life on the phone outside in the car park, not wanting my employees to feel apprehensive or concerned by the idea of change.
Post-sale – “There is no sense of ‘us and them’”
The words “private equity” can sound scary to people who don’t know much about it. However, PGE have been an ideal fit for Artisan; Ian found us a brilliant PE house. David has a real interest in, and passion for, the product that we’re selling – just like the rest of the team. Everyone shares the same goal for the business. There is no sense of “us and them”.
Still, post-sale, I was apprehensive about our first board meeting with PGE. Thankfully Ian was there for me once again, explaining it was normal to feel that way; pointing out: “Look, your attention’s been on the deal for months and months.” A period of adjustment was to be expected. He also reminded me that the investment in me hadn’t been made because PGE thought everything would go perfectly. “It’s because you’re going to pick yourself up every time and find solutions to any problems.”
That I could do.
So I took time to reset a bit, and go back to the basics of what I want to achieve for Artisan’s future; remembering this isn’t a one-week plan, nor a one-year plan. Instead it’s “This is Stage One. This is Stage Two,” etcetera. Now the work is about following through on what I’ve promised. That’s my motivator; that’s what’s important for me.
Words of advice – “Focus on the step you’re on right now”
If I could go back a year and give myself some tips about what was to come, I would say: pace yourself. I don’t think I understood how long the process was going to be; about the different stages; about how in-depth due diligence would be, and that it would take many hours of my life on top of my ‘day job’.
I would tell myself: focus on the step you’re on right now… but don’t assume that’s the last step! A lot of things need to go in to a sale to make it happen.
Also: look at the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve. For me it was a big moment when everything had gone through, and that felt wonderful. At the same time I also hit a bit of a wall: having put so much focus and energy into the deal itself, when that was over I needed a little time to re-focus on what came next; my plan for the next few years.
“I was a little bit shell-shocked – but mainly proud”
Overall it was a brilliant adventure with Firebird at my side. Ian and the team picked me up when I needed it, told me off when I needed it(!), help me keep some sanity; helped keep the wheels moving.
It’s funny. Even now a lot of my friends don’t quite get what’s happened. When I texted some of them to say “I’ve just completed an MBO” they were like: “Great. Er… is that something to do with the Northern Lights?!”
The professional community understood, though, which was great. They realised how big a deal this was. And when everything was finally signed and sorted, I was really proud. A little bit shell-shocked – but mainly proud, and very grateful to Firebird! It took a lot of hard work, but this has been a potentially life-changing opportunity which would not have happened without the team – especially Ian and Stewart!
Amy Hope is the Managing Director of Artisan Travel, an independent British business with a collection of three brands specialising in “bucket list” holidays for both families and adults – including Northern Lights destinations, whale watching, husky sledding and volcanic adventures. Visit www.artisantravelcompany.com
Learn about Firebird and get in touch at www.firebirdpartnership.com
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