Lead Interview: Ian Hacon

Founder, Energise.me
Our lead interview in the GUIDE issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is Ian Hacon, Founder of Energise.me and partner at Zaks Diners

Published in Norfolk Director Magazine Autumn 2021
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Advise, Lead and Support

“Whilst I am a carbon copy of my late mother, I think I got some of both my parent’s genes. I picked up the entrepreneurship, business brain from Dad and the caring side and work ethic from Mum.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock
Pictures: Warren Page

Ian Hacon talks to Norfolk Director

With a businessman father and a mother that was a psychiatric nurse, it isn’t too much of a surprise that Ian Hacon now runs a business that helps local businesses to enhance their employees’ spiritual, physical and mental wellbeing.

“I was born in 1969 and had a perfect childhood really, growing up in Gorleston with Mum and Dad and my older brother, Graham. Mum had a very tough upbringing. She lived in Peterborough and was one of eight children. Dad grew up on the Magdelen council estate in Gorleston.

“When I was young, Dad worked as a mechanical engineer at Pertwee and Back, and Mum just grafted, doing two or three jobs to make ends meet, whilst still finding time for us. As we lived by the sea, Mum was the favourite auntie in the family, and I remember that on most school summer holidays, the house was full with uncles, aunties and cousins staying with us.

“Over the years, Dad worked his way up in to personnel management, before starting his own employment agency in the early eighties. Called Petrogramme, and based in Lowestoft, it specialised in the supply of workers and services to many sectors of the oil and gas industry. At about the same time as he started his own business, Mum decided to go to night school and train as a psychiatric nurse.  

“I went to Claydon High School in Gorleston. I enjoyed it but didn’t reach my full potential. I was really good at Maths and was the top student in my year by quite a long way. Back then the careers guidance was quite narrow; it was literally – oh good at maths, become an accountant. So I said Ok!

“However, because of the school’s lack of drive to get you to work hard, I failed my Maths O level and left with only a handful of CSEs. I went on to Great Yarmouth College to do some resits, plus take a few extra in Economics, Accounting and Business & Industrial Studies.

“I managed to pass everything second time around and went onto to study for A levels in Economics, Accounting and Business Studies. When I did my mocks, I achieved great results gaining A, B and C grades, but rather than firing me up, I switched off, and as a result ended up with an E, D and an F.”

Surprisingly though, this was enough to get Ian a place on the Accountancy Foundation Course at Norwich City College, which he passed with flying colours.

“I then got my first job as a trainee Chartered Accountant with PKF, working in their Great Yarmouth office. By then, I had married my first wife and settled down, so I focused on my training which took four years, doing block release and evening classes.”

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Not your typical accountant

“However, I was a square peg in a round hole and I didn’t fit in with the conservative formal environment of accountancy. I was good at the work, but I was not typical accountant material, so I rubbed the system up the wrong way at times.”

Perhaps this was the first signs of Ian’s entrepreneurial spirit coming through, but as soon as he could, he moved into the business sector, joining Timewell Properties Ltd as their Group Accountant in 1993.

“Timewell operated under the Blue Sky Leisure brand and the company owned leisure, holiday and residential parks based in Great Yarmouth and North Norfolk. From the start I loved it and as the role was new to the business, I had the freedom to make it my own. Being really involved in something was both enjoyable and really special.”

Ian stayed in the position for three years, before making the difficult decision to move to Anglia TV, then part of United News and Media.

“This was prior to the ITV merger, and I wanted that experience with a big blue-chip company on my CV. I rapidly rose through the ranks and in the six years I was there, I went from assistant accountant to financial controller and then financial director of two of their digital subsidiaries, Anglia Multimedia and Anglia Campus. This was my first experience of digital learning as they both provided educational content for schools. Being FD was really interesting. I was working alongside the Commercial Director, travelling to and from London two or three days a week.

“While I was doing this, my brother Graham had returned from the army and was a successful engineer in the oil and gas sector. In 1999, he decided to start his own service company, SMS Group, and he asked me to help him as his FD part-time which I did.”

Taking a leap of faith

“Then, after about a year, we had the opportunity to buy a supplier which would double our size and give us a much bigger premises. This was my now or never moment, I jumped and joined Graham as his co-owner.

“As brothers, we worked well together, although we were very different personality-wise. He was the fixer/dealmaker with the technical skills and knowledge. I was good at the finance, dealing with people and the softer skills needed in business.  

“After the purchase and having doubled our size, over the next couple of years we grew the company organically to a turnover of £4 to £5 million, employing around 35 people.”

However, during this time, all had not been well in Ian’s personal life, and his marriage imploded in 2002.  

“I can look back now and see that the beginning of the end of my marriage probably started when I was working for Anglia TV.  However, it all came to a head when my daughters, Evie and Betsie were 3½ and 18 months old. I was focused on SMS, spending all my time trying to make the business work and then going home to chaos. It wasn’t a total surprise, but I was still devastated when my marriage broke down completely.”

“I had been well mentally all my life, but the upshot was that my divorce made me mentally ill. At the time something had to give, and I turned to counselling and medication to help me get through it.”

“I realised that to get myself straight, I needed to look after myself, both physically and mentally. I also had to disassociate with old friends and relationships which were too intertwined with my old life and start new friendship groups, which was hard. It took time, but I started to enjoy life again. My ex-wife and I managed to keep things amicable when it came to the kids and I got a second wind, doing things that I had missed out on in my late teens and early twenties.”

In 2003, Ian was still living in the marital home, but he had to sell the property as part of the divorce settlement. An estate agent, Jo, came to view the house, and there was an instant connection between them both. The upshot was that they started going out together, got married three years’ later and had their daughter Gracie in 2007.

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Becoming CEO

“Early in 2004, Graham and I sold SMS Group to a customer. It was a great business and although we had made many mistakes along the way, we also had a lot of successes. But what is good to see, is that the customer still owns and operates SMS in Great Yarmouth now.” 

When the SMS business was sold, within a month of it being finalised, Ian was approached by ex-boss, Paul Timewell from Blue Sky. He was looking to step back a bit from the day to day business operations and he was looking for someone to replace him as CEO.

“We had kept in contact after I had left the company in 1999. This was to be their first non-family board appointment and I was touched that he wanted me for the role. After a controlled exit from SMS and some much-needed time off, I joined them the following year.

“By now they had divested themselves of their two parks in Great Yarmouth, but they still owned their flagship holiday parks in north Norfolk. They also had a lot of property interests and had used some of the proceeds from the divestments to buy Zaks Diners from its founder, Harvey Platt.

“In my role as CEO, I would be overseeing all the commercial operations including the Zaks’ diners at Mousehold, Waterside and Poringland, as well as the leisure parks at Kelling Heath and Woodhill Park in North Norfolk. The businesses were all good in their own right, but they were a bit disjointed and there was no sense of unity. Someone working at Kelling Heath for instance, wouldn’t necessarily know anything about what was going on at Zaks.

“So, in the four months I had before I started, I took time to read about personnel engagement and culture. Amongst other things, I read ‘The FISH! Philosophy’ by Stephen C Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen, which shows you how your love of work can inspire people and generate energy and accountability. I then took the best bits and set about introducing a cultural change to Blue Sky as soon as I was able to.

“To make improvements, you have to get under the skin of the business, so the first thing I did was to listen to what everyone who worked in the businesses had to say. Then I went through a learning period putting together a plan on how I thought we could do it. I wanted to introduce something that would bring everyone together and which would gain buy-in from the senior team. It took six months, but the result was that collectively we created a vision statement; a guide to what we wanted to achieve together.”

“I was relentless and never gave up. I didn’t want to chase profit for the sake of profit, as you get the wrong sales through the door. It was a cultural change and everything we did had to answer one of the vision’s aims.”

“For example, in an effort to guide the team on where we could enhance and improve our scores still further, I asked East of England Tourism (EET) for the details on how they scored our leisure parks, one of which – Kelling Heath – was continually achieving a 5-star rating. I asked myself how could I improve on that? I took the score, really drilled into it with a complex spreadsheet and then instilled this into all the holiday parks at Blue Sky as one of our primary measures of quality. The EET inspector had never seen anyone take the scores and develop them like this, but their rating was a secondary thing.”

Almost immediately, Blue Sky began to see small improvements, but over the following years, customer service, people, environmental and financial scores all continued to improve exponentially.

Representing Team GB

In 2008, Ian was at Blue Sky and approaching his 40th birthday when, in an effort to get healthy, he decided to reignite his love of running.

“I had always enjoyed cross country at school and was good at long distance running. It has tended to be my go-to drug on and off throughout my life, and I could run a reasonable distance. I did virtually no structured exercise but always felt exhausted the next day. So, I decided to take control of my life and started the BUPA version of ‘Couch to 5k’. I religiously followed the programme and that was my springboard into fitness and wellbeing.”

From this, Ian got serious, moving onto cycling, swimming, marathons, triathlons and Ironman events. The result was that seven years later in September 2015, he competed for Team GB in the European Long Course Triathlon Championships, an ‘Iron Distance event which consisted of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and then a full marathon. Ian then went onto to also represent GB in the World Long Distance Duathlon champs, where the swim is replaced by another run.

“It was my third Iron Distance race – I’ve now done seven – and I was thrilled to be representing my country. I had done a full season of racing and challenges and was delighted to achieve qualification, especially as I had a serious cycle accident earlier in the year.

“I was training for a cycling trip to Paris and in March, three weeks before the event, I had arranged to meet some of the guys I was going with. I cycled from home to North Norfolk and took a last minute detour on my way back via Gt Yarmouth seafront. A car pulled across me to go into the marina centre car park and I hit the car with my head and my helmet shattered. There is no doubt that without it, I would certainly have died. I was badly injured, but with grit and resilience I still managed to complete the London to Paris event, cycling 230 miles in around 26 hours, and then completing the Paris Marathon the following day.”  

An energetic career step

“In 2013, I had been with Blue Sky for nine years, overseeing all the team, which were around 250 in number, and together we had grown the annual turnover of the business to £12 million. We’d had great success!

“Then, we got through to the finals of the EDP Business Awards under the environment category. The judges for the Overall Winner came to see us and asked what we would do if we won, and in the spur of the moment, I answered by saying that it would be a sign that my job was done.

“We didn’t actually win the environmental category but were delighted to be told we’d won the overall Business of the Year Award. It was the sign I needed to move on. So, I worked with Blue Sky on my exit strategy, and I formally left in June 2014 with an idea ready to launch.”

For a period of time before this, Ian had been networking socially with various people who were in the leadership and development space locally.

“Our discussions often focused on the idea that there was a connection between wellbeing, mental and physical health and performance. I definitely felt there was a correlation between a CEO entering a business with a spring in their step and the business going on to enjoy success. People are more likely to follow a good leader, someone who is energised and positive.

“I decided to start a business that would use experiential learning to enable people to make long term changes to their wellbeing. I initially called it Yellow Brick Road in a nod to the film Wizard of Oz. I wanted a metaphor for a journey, and googled ‘famous journeys’ and it threw up the movie.

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“The aim is to guide individuals through a process where if you make a few slight improvements to your life, performance and energy, they start adding up, so you become a more well-rounded, fulfilled and happier person.

“Over the next few years, everything went well. My business had rebranded as Energise.Me to be more reflective of the work we do, and we went to fully digital delivery. I continued to hold board and non-exec roles, as since my Anglia TV days, I have thought it’s very important to be involved in something outside your company. I was also President of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce between 2014 and 16.

“A thing I remember when starting the business was sitting down with Andy Wood from Adnams. He thought Yellow Brick Road was a great idea but was about five years ahead of the market. He was 100% right – he usually is – but we did find enough customers and we did make a massive difference.”

At the end of 2019, Ian reached a pinnacle moment with Energise.Me. when he received some funding through EIRA for a research project to be conducted. And, as if he wasn’t busy enough, on the 31st of January 2020, he, together with business partner, Chris Carr, bought Zaks Diners from Blue Sky.

“I was approached by Blue Sky who thought the diners needed some fresh energy and asked whether I was interested in buying. I initially said no as it wasn’t part of my path, but in the end, it became too good an opportunity to miss. Zaks is a revered, well respected brand but Blue Sky had made some changes that weren’t well received by the customers. So, we moved fast to fix it, changing some things back to how they were before, plus innovating some new ideas. Things like reverting back to the original burger recipe that had been used since 1976.”

“Having the two businesses is a bit of a conundrum for me. One works to keep you lean and fit,
the other encourages you to eat and drink!”

Then Covid hit and Ian had to throw away the rulebook for both businesses.

“When the pandemic arrived and we went into lockdown, we had to reassess. As far as Zaks was concerned, we launched a new menu, but could only showcase part of it as a takeaway rather than sit-in, as we had to make sure everything could be transported packed into a box and still taste delicious. We also refurbished all 3 restaurants and really focussed on supporting the team through the pandemic. 

“With regard to Energise.Me, the research project was put on hold, and we pivoted to make what we did 100% free for a while. We then went back to people asking for feedback. What we learned was that people thought of us as their friend, guiding them through Covid. As a result, we decided to move our coaching and learning to a subscription model.

“It’s been really tough, but we feel we have finally found a way of moving forward. We had been finding our way for the last seven years, but we now truly believe that Energise.Me is a scalable business, and we are looking for funding to take us to the next level. We have devised an innovative energy triangle which is a guide for optimising your energy.”

Another blow came earlier this year when Ian’s mum passed away from Alzheimer’s.

“In the last few months, since Mum went, my running has become really important again and I am arranging to complete an endurance event with some friends in her name. This has been a positive thing, as we’ve all shared our feelings with the men we run with, and this has brought down barriers and enabled discussions about wellbeing and mental health.

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“I am positive about what the future holds. At Zaks, we’ve transformed the brand across all key fronts, whilst also dealing with Covid and we are looking to expand in Norfolk and beyond. We’ve bucked the trend of staff leaving the hospitality sector during the pandemic, and I think that’s because we treat people right, and are open and honest with them. When it comes to customers, we see ourselves rather like your comfiest jumper, providing an environment where people can relax, gather and spend time together, making that social connection.

“At Energise.Me, the months and years ahead look very exciting with employers and individuals looking to use Covid, to build back better with their wellbeing. We’re fully digital and on a mission to energise 10 million people; there is also a funding round imminent.

“Fundamentally making a difference to peoples’ lives is what drives me out of bed in the morning and the most challenging aspect of my life now is balancing my time. I have two businesses, two NED roles, three daughters and a very understanding wife, but together we make it all work.

“Also, Jo and I started short term fostering two and a half years ago. To date we have had two placements. It is unbelievably challenging, but the rewards are immense. The changes you can make to a child’s life, guiding them around their choices they make, and the satisfaction you get from helping them emotionally and academically is very rewarding.

“There is no keeping it all separate for me, there’s just life. I don’t like the term work life balance, there’s just balance.”

_______________________________________________________________

After writing Ian’s interview, his father sadly passed away on the 1st of August. Chris and his mother, Marlene, were huge role models in Ian’s life, and our thoughts and best wishes are with him, his brother, Graham, and the wider Hacon family at this sad time.

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