HRD at heart: Fil Adams-Mercer, CEO of Parcel2Go
Peter Crush, August 09, 2011
When most businesspeople glibly boast about ‘ripping up the rule-book’, you can bet your bottom dollar that in reality they do not. For Fil Adams-Mercer though (pictured), the straight-talking, Bolton-born, market-stallholder-cum-supermarket assistant-cum-lorry driver-cum-video rental shopkeeper-cum greengrocer – and founder and CEO of online parcel delivery company Parcel2Go – this business catchphrase couldn’t be more apt. There’s not a rule Adams-Mercer (who recently featured in Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire) says he hasn’t broken – and it’s said with a knowing wink that confirms he’s quite proud of his original Arthur Daley rep.
"In the workplace today, we have got ageism, sexism, every 'ism' you can think of," declares the businessman, who left school at 15 "without an A level, B level or spirit level". He adds: "But I always say to folk: 'Remember, some of the people who gave us all these rules are in jail today; to get a business off the ground, you have to break some rules.'"
As an opening gambit, it's disarming, and he doesn't mince his words about HR either. "It's a sad day when you have to bring HR into your business," he says of the 100-employee – and recently HR-installed – business he started in 2004. Seven years ago, after realising carriers such as DHL and UPS didn't take parcel orders online, he risked £80,000 advertising on eBay and within a week was receiving 3,000 calls a day. Now, he shifts 180,000 packages a month and has seen turnover grow in the past year by 40%, to £18 million. "I have had to succumb to doing things by procedure," he says mournfully. "With so many procedures, nothing becomes nice anymore."
And yet, in as unpredictable a fashion as his business life (his video chain was sold to what became Blockbusters, netting him £720,000 in 1988), the onslaught you might expect to be dealt ('HR-bashing CEO, wanting it done his way') is thrown out with the rule-book too. He may not know it, but for all of Adams-Mercer's apparent HR scepticism, he is arguably the biggest HRD at heart you can find.
"You show me someone who has failed a few times, and I'll show you someone who's got everything they need to succeed," says the boss, who now makes it his business to have an HR-like quality of seeing the best in people – where some HRDs, he says, may not – and to inspire and encourage people to work either for others or himself.
Seeing potential in people seems to be his natural state. "When I ran my video store business, I also wrote articles for the Bolton Chronicle," he recalls. "I used to go to its offices once a week; after a while, I got chatting to one of the cleaners, who offered to type up my pieces for me because she wanted to break out of low-paid work. I liked her boldness and I took her on straight away. Now she is the secretary to a top UK accountant."
That was 23 years ago, but today Adams-Mercer is just as proud of his latest business find – 'Luciano', an Italian front-of-house waiter who worked in Adams-Mercer's local restaurant. "This guy is great, he gives the best customer service you can find anywhere. Last year I said to him, 'you should run a restaurant yourself, and if you ever think about it, call me first'. Two days later, he'd written me a business plan and we opened jointly a few months later. He now takes £30,000 a week."
A restaurant, a parcels concern and even a business that makes iPad covers (Adams-Mercer designed one himself after buying the device in the US and finding it had no decent covers – he now sells 5,000 a week), means this boss has a finger in many pies. "I'm having to take on a chairman for Parcel2Go now, because the company has become too big for me," he admits.
This is also part of the reason some 'procedure' has had to develop. "I enjoy starting businesses, not running them, really," he adds – which means his need for good people is almost as important to him personally as it is to his businesses; having the best frees him up to be an entrepreneur. "I don't want to buy work, buy hassle," he says. "I buy into people, people who are great in their field – not versions of myself. The main attribute I look for is people who are not interested in saving money, but making money." This mentality explains why he initially gave 40% of the Parcel2Go shares to his business partner, if he promised to double its size in a year. He did – in just four months.
"The point about good people is that if you have the best and offer them a stake in you, they'll do anything for you," he says sagely. "If you're a people person, you always get more out of your staff."
Adams-Mercer says he has been affected in life by one or two significant 'people' moments. The one that resonated the most was the death of a colleague in his video stores business. "He sold his four units of floor space to Woolworths for £3.3 million," remembers Adams-Mercer. "He was much smarter than me. I sold badly, and owed the taxman a quarter of a million pounds. And yet, despite getting his cheque in the post on 29 March 1992, he died four days later. It was tragic."
Since then, he says he has never lost sleep over money, and has vowed to always live life to the full, and encourages his employees to do the same. He says he can do this by at least trying to offer them the chances in life he says were afforded to him.
In this spirit, one of his best members of staff, Adams-Mercer admits, has been at Parcel2Go for more than seven years. "He is autistic, and had never been given a chance. But I made him warehouse caretaker. He takes so much pride in his keys. I could not have employed a better person; and I've helped him improve his life.
"Where HR has often made it unfair for businesses," he reflects, "is that it prevents them from sacking a bad employee." In his life, Adams-Mercer says he has only ever had to dismiss two people. He says he found the process profoundly painful, but that it also strengthened his resolve about making sure his businesses "don't buy work". He says: "The only advice I'm going to give my new chairman [since announced as being James Greenbury, who is also chairman of England cricket fan group, The Barmy Army] is this: 'If you're going to get rid of someone, look into their eyes; and if you can see their mortgage, their family, and their livelihood being destroyed, think again. Can they be given a chance? Could you have helped them differently before this stage? Just don't sack them and use them as pawns."
It is a touching response. "It's always best if you can put your arm around people and give them a cuddle," he adds [how many HRDs do that?]. Having once had nothing – he was one of seven children, and was "always the scruffiest at school" – betterment still motivates him to this day. He would rather see how people could change (or how his managers could help them) than have someone's employment taken away.
Workers, of any kind, it seems, will always have his respect – they are people who, in his mind, get out of their beds each morning to try and earn a crust.
He is dismissive of those who do not. In fact, his warm, cuddly side changes quickly when the subject of unemployment comes up. "Those who are able to work, but choose not to, I have no time for," he declares, reflecting on what he saw living in Doncaster while filming Secret Millionaire. "These people steal benefits off those who really do work," he says testily. "When I go into schools today, I say to kids: 'Do you want £150 a week dole or £100 a week paid work?' Most take the £150. But then I add, 'In five years' time, you'll maybe have £175 a week dole, but the person who took £100 will be on £70,000 a year - because he or she got on the ladder, and wanted to improve themselves.
"Life can be tough, but only when you want it to be," he says, pointing to the joint partnership he thinks employers and employees should bring to the table. "When I talk to HR, it shouldn't 'hurt'," he explains. "If employment 'hurts', we're all in for a painful life. Employment doesn't need to hurt. People need to first help themselves, and when they do that, companies such as ours can help them."
When put like that – work, HR, hiring – it all sounds so much easier. Adams-Mercer knows very well modern business today isn't, but says he hopes commonsense HR will be victorious over 'rules' and 'procedure' – although it is more wishful thinking rather than expectation.
"The world is built by entrepreneurs, but ends up being run by corporations," he says, resigned perhaps to a life where rules eventually run things. "Most companies nowadays chase growth targets; I just want to make sure I don't lose money. I'll persevere with businesses and people as long as I'm not losing money. And hopefully, if we can enjoy life along the way, all the better."