How CEO’s adolescent dreams have become a multi-million pound reality

PUBLISHED: 06:00 24 July 2019 | UPDATED: 08:42 25 July 2019

Stephen Fenby, Managing Director of Midwich in Diss. Pic: Archant

Stephen Fenby, Managing Director of Midwich in Diss. Pic: Archant

Most teenagers want to be pop singers or football stars – Stephen Fenby longed to be an accountant. Caroline Culot spoke to the chief executive of Diss-based Midwich which is enjoying meteoric growth with a group turnover last year of £574m.

Midwich, Diss. Pic: ArchantMidwich, Diss. Pic: Archant

"I'm good with numbers," says Midwich boss Stephen Fenby. That is apparently something of an understatement.

Since the age of 13 he was determined to be an accountant.

But he is modest - he reckons he couldn't manage the mathematical equation on Channel Four's Countdown in the given 30 seconds, probably more like just under a minute. I don't believe it would take him that long.

Stephen, a Yorkshireman who hails from Leeds, is now spearheading the Midwich Group which is a specialist audio visual distributor to the trade market. This week the firm published its pre-close trading statement for the six months ending in June which show another rosy picture with four new acquisitions this year alone in Italy, Switzerland and Norway.

This follows a record set of profits announced back in March with revenue up 20% and operating profit up at £24.7m compared to £20.8m last year.

So, yes, he's good with figures.

"I do like numbers, I like the financial reporting side because of what it tells you about a business - people can tell you anything but when you see the numbers, that, is the truth, that tells you actually what is happening," the father of two said. And the numbers tell a success story.

"One of our long-term goals was to keep growing, if we could grow the gross margin percentage, if we could do that year-on-year consistently then that told me we were providing a service which the market was valuing and doing a better job at doing that.

"We are a service business, I wanted to provide a better service, the gross margin is an important measure of that, and we have grown it for the last 13 years which has been very satisfying."

It was a management buy-out by Midwich that introduced Stephen to the firm, when he was appointed as the accountant on the deal in 2001.

"I kept in touch with them and the finance director wanted to retire a couple of years later and I joined in this role in 2004. Then one day in 2010 the managing director walked in and said he'd like to step back and would I like to take over? I then woke up one morning in 2015 and told my wife: 'I think I'll float the company'."

The result has been a stratospheric rise for the firm with its headquarters in Diss where it employs about 250 people. It's also meant some very big pay-outs in dividends. Established in 1979, Midwich, based on an unassuming industrial estate in Vinces Road, is a distributor of technology solutions to the audio visual trade with more than 800 people across 24 offices, dealing in everything from large format displays, projectors, LED panels and digital signage as well as IT services helping improve the efficiency of businesses through the use of automated data and credit services.

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Some of its growth is down to the acquisition of smaller companies - such as Sound Technology, one of the UK's biggest distributors of musical instruments, live sound equipment and recording products.

"My aim is to grow the business further, we've built more of a European presence as well as in Asia, Australia, South East Asia, so it's how we can roll out our business to the wider world such as north America and Africa.

But with a business you deal with it in steps, you do it a step at a time so when we bought our first little company in 2006, Midwich had never bought a company before, we learned a lot, the team builds confidence from buying integrated companies and then you go further afield.

"But the biggest trading operation is in Diss, Midwich was started here, we've got some good people here, got some scale and with that, it brings experience, we've got a lot of home-grown talent and a quarter of the whole group workforce."

The son of an engineer, unlike most other people in his class at school, Stephen wanted to work indoors in an office. After graduating and working for one of the big four accounting organisations, Deloitte, the job brought him down south to the Cambridge office and he's never looked back.

He does, however, have a second home near Ripon where he and his wife enjoy spending weekends, walking their two dogs in the countryside.

"My job is so varied, I enjoy variety, dealing with the teams, getting updates, looking at reports, acquisition targets and going about the business of buying companies. I spend my time dealing with investors and brokers in the city, yesterday I was talking to the bank with our finance director. But my role has changed as the group has got bigger. When we did the first acquisition, I did everything, I did the whole process myself, I cant do that anymore, we now have built a team.

"I'm still interested in working out margins in my head, but being in business is also about people, not just numbers. It it is all about the relationships too; people run the business, develop it and are the reason for the success."

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