The lead interview in the BUILD issue of Essex Director business magazine is with Ewan Dodds, CEO of Whybrow. Published in Essex Director Magazine Summer / Autumn 2023.
BUILD: Carving out a different path
“I never really thought it was a role for me – a place for two, not really for three. I wanted to go off and do something different. I made that choice.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock / Anna-Maria Casas Pictures: Warren Page
Ewan Dodds talks to Essex Director
For those born into a family running a successful business, with a traditional succession model in place for the next generation to take over, it might seem an obvious career path – especially for the eldest.
But for Ewan Dodds, while he has maintained a role as a Non-Executive Director of Sackers, the scrap metal and waste recycling business his father, Tony, bought 50 years ago, he never felt that working in the business full-time was something he wanted to do. Instead, while his two younger brothers, Adrian and David, eventually took over running the Ipswich-based business, Ewan chose to follow a completely unrelated career path as a surveyor.
Today, his responsibility is as CEO of Whybrow Chartered Surveyors – the practice he has owned since 1999, and which was recently acquired by Beresford Estate Agents group.
The early days
So what made Ewan turn away from the family business and take a different career path to his brothers?
“I was the eldest, then Adrian, and David was the youngest,” he reflects. “Growing up, I was more academically inclined than they were. They were always more interested in the yard, and possibly saw their journey as being straight from school and going to work for the family business.
“Both were sent to other yards first to learn the trade and be self-sufficient, and then they came back to run the business. I never really thought it was a role for me – a place for two, not really for three. I wanted to go off and do something different. I made that choice.”
Ewan spent his school years at Westbourne High School and then Ipswich School, where he completed A Levels in maths, english and history.
“I was hugely supported by my parents – they allowed me to go to Ipswich School in the mid-1970s at a time when there were very few sixth forms. It was a real step up in class and one that I struggled with initially – I was a long way behind the eight ball.”
“As brothers growing up, we spent a lot of our time playing in the yard and I learnt a huge amount there during the school holidays, but I knew my destiny lay elsewhere.”
“As a career choice, I had always wanted to be an architect, because I was quite good at technical drawing. I particularly liked the built form. I was fascinated by buildings, houses and streets, and how cities and towns got put together.”
“However, I didn’t want to commit to the seven-year course required to become fully qualified, and as my father knew an estate agent in town, I plumped for Chartered Surveying and headed off to Portsmouth University to undertake a degree in Urban Land Administration.
“I knew that a Chartered Surveyor had a professional bearing on society and that it would be a good accreditation to have, but I didn’t really overthink it – I just decided to follow my gut. It was a bit lonely to start with, but by the second year I had made some strong friendships, which are still in place today, over 40 years later.”
After graduating in the early 1980s, Ewan began working for Oxborrows Chartered Surveyors in Ipswich, as a trainee surveyor in the commercial department.
“I had aspirations to become an associate of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors,” he explains. “I worked hard to learn my craft over the next couple of years and hoped that I would be promoted once I had achieved my qualification.
“However, after passing, I was told that the company could not afford to keep me on, and I was advised by my boss to approach practices in London. I was hugely disappointed, but reluctantly took the suggestion onboard and began applying for interviews, and very quickly I was offered a job in the West End working for one of the largest international practices.”
“Initially, I felt very rejected and London at the time felt big and scary. However, in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened – if I’d stayed in Ipswich, I might never have got the opportunity to do the things I’ve done since.”
Ewan started at the property company, Debenham Tewson and Chinnocks (now DTZ) in 1983 as a surveyor in the industrial and business space department.
“It was a frenetic time due to planning law changes and there were amazing things going on in the mid-1980s that saw a stampede in industrial warehouse development and business parks,” he recalls. “I dealt with a lot of business parks, and I learnt a great deal in terms of property negotiations and valuations.”
“Being in London was fantastic because you saw the explosion of development in places like Broadgate and Liverpool Street. There were a lot of people making a lot of money in the city, in property and banking finance… until it all crashed spectacularly in the early 1990s.”
At the peak of the ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra, Ewan rekindled his love of playing the drums, an interest he first discovered while at Ipswich School, after bumping into two old friends who were keen keyboard players and a guitarist. They formed a band and began occasional gigging at local pubs before family life beckoned.
Ewan married his wife, Julie, in 1987. They lived in Hornsey, north London, before opting for a quieter life and deciding they wanted to move out of the capital to start a family. While the plan was to continue working in the city, that same year Ewan was offered the chance to join Whybrow Chartered Surveyors in Colchester as a surveyor, which he grabbed with both hands.
Moving up the ranks
“Roger Whybrow headed up the commercial team,” explains Ewan. “He’d been a senior partner at Fenn Wright – as his father, Herbert, had been – and he wanted to do his own thing. So, he left with a fellow partner, Peter Arnold, to set up Whybrow in a small office in North Hill. Eventually, they moved to bigger premises in Culver Street West where I joined them.”
In 1989, the business was sold to Halifax, as part of a portfolio that saw the banking group acquire 650 residential and 20 commercial offices.
However, just three years later, Roger Whybrow bought the business back and gifted equity stakes to Ewan and others he saw as the succession team. Ewan became an Associate Director.
“It was a great opportunity. At the time, Roger was still playing a major part and not ready to retire. He had a great name and reputation around Colchester, but he wanted to ensure there was a young team behind him that could eventually take on the business.”
When the time eventually came for his boss to step back in 1999, Ewan negotiated to acquire further shares held by his associates and from then on, he owned the business 100 per cent outright.
“I suppose ambition really kicked in when I first became a shareholder, but I’ve never been hugely motivated by money.”
“I don’t feel that I’ve ever needed much,” He observes. “I’ve never felt the need to go for a meal at The Ivy to demonstrate success to my peers – I don’t care about all of that. I enjoy a simple life and enjoy nothing more than carrying on the family tradition and taking caravan holidays in Cornwall.”
Ewan lights up when reminiscing about caravan holidays in England spent as a child with his parents and brothers.
“My dad had a Hillman Avenger 1300 car towing a caravan, and as soon as we could, Julie and I started using the family van for our annual holidays. For the last four decades, we have regularly holidayed at the same caravan pitch near Padstow, Cornwall with our three children. It is where I am truly happy and at peace.”
Their son, Cameron, is 31 and inherited his father’s love of music. With a PhD, he is now a composer living with his opera singer wife in Sussex. Similarly, one of his 28-year-old twin daughters, Rhiannon, is a singer-songwriter who began gigging in the Suffolk pub where Ed Sheeran started his career. She now lives in New Zealand with her fiancé, while Bryony works in PR for an international company in Amsterdam.
After becoming a company owner while the children were still very young, Ewan threw himself into integrating into the local business community. He became President of the Colchester Chamber of Commerce, and for over a decade, he was the business lead for Colchester’s Local Strategic Partnership (LSP), bringing together representatives from the private, public and voluntary sectors.
“The Colchester LSP was held up as an exemplar around the country,” he extolls. “In any town, disparate business groups go off and do things for their own members, but not for the business community as a whole. It’s like herding cats, but we got some amazing stuff done over the years and I’m very proud of my achievement in pulling the business community together.”
However, in spite of the many achievements, about 15 years ago while Ewan was in his early fifties, he began to question where he was at in life, which led him to discover the invaluable support of business coaching.
“Normally, you’re a hamster on a wheel and you just do what you need to, in order to get by. I’d got to a stage where I just wanted to take a step back from my many commitments.”
“I’d met a business coach at a Sackers award ceremony, and when I got back to my office, I remember asking myself, what are you doing, where are you going, what do you want? Someone once told me, it’s lonely at the top – and it is – it’s very easy to bottle things up and not share.”
It was several years ago that Ewan sought out the expertise of a business coaching company; he has not looked back since.
“I wanted to better understand myself to grow the company further and to hopefully make better decisions,” he explains. “My business coach taught me things like how to manage your energy, how to ‘coach – don’t play’ to build a business, and all about the importance of content versus context. Whenever I need some sage counsel or wise advice, I still reach out to them.
“However, I have always found that the most challenging part of running a business, are the people and one’s ability to get on with others.
“I feel personally that I do get on with people, but some may view me a little differently. I see myself as a cuddly bear when it comes to negotiations, others might see me as tough. However, if I see something that I want or is right, I’ll firmly believe that, and it will be difficult to sway me from it.
“For instance, take going into the family business, which would have been something that was my birthright. If I had gone into that, my circumstances now would be very different.”
A new opportunity
Another major challenge was to present itself, just a few months after Ewan had begun discussions in late 2019 with Paul Beresford, the owner of Beresfords Estate Agents. Ewan had been privately letting out a property through the agency and discovered from his conversations with Paul that there was a mutual interest in a possible tie-up.
“I was facing the dilemma of what I did with this business. I was at a pivotal age. I hadn’t got succession sorted out and I’d always said that was something I wanted to do by the time I was 60.”
“Paul had a great experience in growing and managing his business, which was started by his father in 1965. He had grown the company to 17 offices and 250 staff, but on having a chat, I discovered he was really interested in having a commercial office.”
However, any plans the two had got put back a couple of years due to Covid.
“I remember coming back from Spain in March 2020 and all hell had broken loose. Paul didn’t know if he’d have a business the next day and I felt the same. The decisions we had to make for our individual businesses had to become the focus of our attention for the next year or so.”
In late 2021, once the worst of the pandemic was over, Ewan and Paul picked up where they had left off, and by the following spring, Whybrow Chartered Surveyors officially became part of the Beresford Group.
Preparing a company for sale was a stressful time, but the business coaching Ewan had received once again proved its worth, along with support from loyal staff.
“I just came back to the principles I’d learnt – manage your energy, coach don’t play, make sure you reach out to people and value your friendships and family. It can be very wearing, as while you’re selling your business, you’re still having to run your business.”
“My advice would be, that you need to be incredibly organised. Alongside my business partner, Jamie, my secretary, Emily, was a real diamond and helped me with all the paperwork you need for selling a business. Also, prepare for the unexpected. No matter how well the business is managed and how well prepared you think you are, there will always be something you’ve missed.”
Looking to the future, Ewan sees bright skies ahead with the formidable weight and support of Beresfords now behind him.
“We share the same vision – everything is about people, and we want to grow our commercial business so that we replicate the success of the residential branches, which are number one in many towns in south and mid-Essex.
“That’s the challenge now for me; to demonstrate that I can grow this business into something that is to be hugely proud of – I already am very proud of it.
“The sky’s the limit. I hope that I can make a significant contribution to its ongoing success. I feel I still have a lot to offer.”
Aside from business goals, one thing that has grown in importance, particularly since the pandemic, is the need for a work-life balance. While his children now live far away, Ewan is keen to spend more quality time with family and friends.
“My business coaches brought out a book about more time, less stress, more money. Money has never been a real motivator for me. For me, it’s the other things.
“The children have left the nest, but I’m very blessed in that I have my two brothers living locally, and my parents who are 92 and 89 living around the corner.
“I look forward to spending more time in Cornwall with Julie, who is now an artist, but I suspect that for the foreseeable future, I’ll still be working,” predicts Ewan.
“However, if I can find a balance, I’ll be very happy. I’d be pretty bored spending all of my days sitting on my beach at Treyarnon Bay.”