Profile: Steve Howell, Freshwater UK

Freshwater UK is an ambitious agency on an acquisition spree. Holding the purse strings is chief executive Steve Howell, who as we speak is holed up in the tiny London offices of newly snaffled consumer agency Trew Relations.

But Howell, a businesslike yet unassuming 51-year-old, is not thinking small. He is shopping for rapid growth, aiming to create 'a regional network, with sector specialisms, to offer a complete UK service to national brands.'

Announcements are 'imminent' on two more agencies set to become part of Cardiff-headquartered Freshwater, and further deals are 'in the pipeline'. Indeed, he has timed his visit to London for our interview to coincide with discussions with one such potential agency partner. Freshwater is even considering an AIM float before the year's end.

Eventful times, then, and given the pace of change Howell will need a keen eye to keep up with Freshwater's expanding empire. As well as Trew's W1 base and the agency HQ in Wales, the 48-strong operation now has offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow and Edinburgh. He predicts the agency's annual fee income of £3m will rise to '£4.5m-£5m in a year's time'.

However, Freshwater – rebranded from Howell Communications in 2004 'to get away from the eponymous thing' (his brother, David, is non-executive agency chairman) – remains little-known in the PR industry's epicentre.

Howell concedes 'a bit of a recognition issue' in London, but is far from concerned about low brand awareness in the capital. He wants to 'avoid much of a presence in London' because of operational costs. These, he argues, are 'inevitably passed on to clients'.

He was brought up in north London and educated at Hendon County School. He met his Welsh wife, a doctor, at Sheffield University and stayed in the city after graduating, working as, of all things, a steelworks machine operative. The job came via – 'I'm going to name-drop now' – Richard Caborn, MP for Sheffield Central and minister for sport. Caborn was trade union convener at the factory, and Howell knew him from his student politics days.

Howell, a Labour supporter, acknowledges: 'It would have been quite difficult for someone with a posh accent and degree to get a job there without that help. I was initially just loading pieces of steel, but then I got a job on a machine. You could push your earnings right up if you were good – it was a very incentive-driven process.'

So how have those days influenced his management credo almost three decades on? 'I am an obsessive about client management,' he says. 'We need to be very diligent about how we charge.'

Caborn himself remains in contact with Howell and says: 'Steve is a focused, dynamic guy – tenacious even. Our paths have crossed many times – he's a very hard-working character.'

Howell stayed in Sheffield throughout the 1980s, working as a PR officer for the city council. He spent much of his time on community and race relations, work that took in overseas trips to countries such as Nicaragua. He then moved into journalism, freelancing  before joining BBC Radio in Wales.

In 1997 he launched Howell Associates, whose flagship client was the luxury Celtic Manor golf resort. The 2010 Ryder Cup will take place at the venue and Howell is proud to have helped bring such a major sporting event to Wales.

Today, Freshwater is retained by the European Ryder Cup Board, but Howell admits he is only a novice golfer. He adds: 'I'm working on it, though, because it helps the business.'

Business wise, his ambition is simply stated: for Freshwater to become Britain's 'leading' regional network. Rivals such as Golley Slater, Beattie Communications and Huntsworth's Harrison Cowley – all networks with a strong heritage outside London – will no doubt be watching his quick-fire buying strategy closely this year.

'The industry is changing more rapidly than people realise,' Howell concludes. 'It is very fragmented and will consolidate. Accountancy has gone this way, and PR will too.'

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