Reflect, Adjust and Renew
“My life before the COVID-19 pandemic was always moving so fast, but the situation has meant that I can step off the hamster wheel of running the business and re-evaluate what’s important in life”
Growing up in the seventies, the youngest of three and the only daughter, Laura Claxton, COO of Claxton, had a typical childhood.
“My brothers were five and seven years older than me and, although they were good brothers in general, they didn’t want me hanging around them all the time, so it was a bit like being an only child growing up. I enjoyed my own company and would spend hours – like most girls of my age – playing with my Sindy house and dolls. I also loved music and learnt to play the piano.”
Laura was born in Great Yarmouth in 1973, and raised in Carlton Colville, before moving with her parents, Bob and Julie, and brothers Glynn and Dannie, to the Oulton Broad area in Suffolk. She went to school at Carlton Colville Primary, Gisleham Middle and Sir John Leman High in Beccles.
“I was a very studious child and enjoyed English and History. Ironically, considering what I do now, I hated Science and Maths. I’ve always leaned toward the words, rather than numbers.
“Growing up, and being into music, on weekends and school holidays, my friend would come round, and she would play lead guitar while I played piano and sang. We formed a little group called ‘Unique’ and we would write and record our own songs on a mini eight-track recording studio, that Mum and Dad had given me as a Christmas present.”
“I was a big fan of Wham, Bros and Madonna, and my dream was to become a pop star.”
But, that was not to be, and as a ‘failed pop star’, when it was time for Laura to do her work experience at 14, she wanted to do something in her other area of interest, television.
“I wasn’t happy with the choices being suggested by the school, so I took finding a work experience opportunity into my own hands, and managed to get a week in the current affairs department at Anglia TV in Norwich. It was really interesting, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t know enough about how to get into it as a career.”
Laura finished her GCSEs and thinking that she might go into a career in PR or Law, she took ‘A’ Levels in Business and Finance, Communications Studies and Sociology. She then decided to take a year out to go and work in the family business, Claxton Engineering, before she went to university.
The history of the family business
In 1985, Bob Claxton had started his business, working from a workshop in Queen’s Road in Great Yarmouth.
Originally a merchant seaman, he had worked at the docks, as the oil and gas industry took off in the town in the sixties. He then worked for Gray Tool Company (now part of GE) carrying out pipe inspections, before moving to oilfield service company, Edeco (now part of Simmons).
“At that time, there were a lot of American operators in Great Yarmouth and the guys that worked alongside Dad encouraged him to start his own business.
“Then in the early eighties, his mother and father passed away, and he inherited around £25,000 as his share from the sale of their house. So, he used the money to start Claxton, a wellhead services business.
“A wellhead and Christmas Tree are the key components at the surface of an oil or gas well, that provides the structural and pressure-containing interface for the drilling and production equipment.
It was a real family affair
My brothers, Glynn and Dannie were working with Dad in the workshop, and Mum helping with the books and administration. I was only 12, but I would spend time in the holidays decorating and helping out.
“The great thing about Dad was that people really liked him. He had a good relationship with everyone, and he loved a good yarn. In the early days, people he knew were happy to help him, giving him work and any old equipment they didn’t need anymore.
The company initially specialised in wellhead maintenance
And, at that time there were a few – usually big American corporates – who manufactured the wellheads, but they only worked on their own systems. What Claxton Engineering was doing was offering an independent provision, working across all manufacturers’ equipment.
“It wasn’t long before the business started to diversify into complimentary services, such as drilling risers, cold cutting and decommissioning. The latter came because some of the gas and oil platforms, which had been round since the sixties, were coming to the end of their life and the wells needed to be plugged and the infrastructure removed. To do that means you have to remove all the equipment – the complete reverse of how the wells and the platform were installed in the first place.”
A woman in a man’s world
When Laura took her year out to work at Claxton Engineering before going onto university, there were eight people working in the business, and Laura was employed to help the accountant and assist with the marketing work.
“A few months on, and after visiting a friend who was at university, I changed my mind about going myself, as I realised that the life wasn’t for me. I wanted it all really; to earn money, as well as studying for some qualifications. So, I enlisted at Lowestoft College and did an HND in Business and Finance. I worked all day and would spend my evenings and weekends on my studies.
“By the time I passed in 1995, I had moved on in the business and was now, not only helping to manage projects, but also working on the quality assurance protocols and commercial work.”
At the same time, Laura’s mum and dad took time out and went on holiday to America.
“When they returned, Dad started complaining that his feet ached, and it turned out that he had contracted Lyme Disease, which is caused by bacteria that are transmitted by ticks. The result was that he was out of the business for many months, with Mum looking after him.”
So, Dannie and Laura stepped up and took responsibility for running the business between them. They found that they complimented each other in their areas of expertise. Dannie took on the technical frontline aspects and Laura managed all the company support functions such as commercial, admin, HR, BD, and marketing.
“Once I agree to take something on, I want to do the job well, and as Dannie had a young family, it was left to me to be the duty person on call outside working hours, calling for support as needed.”
“This could be pretty intense and had an impact on my personal life. But, this period made me realise I was conscientious, and had a strong sense of duty; to look after the family firm and protect its good reputation.”
Being resourceful and showing strength
“Even though I was working in a male dominated industry, I was able to hold my own when it came to the technical queries; in fact, I remember taking a call from a customer who had a problem with a valve which was leaking. I asked him a load of questions about the components and the situation, before sorting everything out. He used to go on about it for years afterwards, as he was intrigued that I knew so much. I’m not an engineer, but I know enough to get me by, and I know when to ask for help if I need it.”
After several months, Bob returned to the business. Claxton Engineering was growing, and there was a realisation that, if it was to tender for the larger projects, the company had to ensure it was managed and operated to meet the clients’ needs, and that the proper procedures were put in place.
“Bringing order to things was my forte and I set about leading the business in formalising operations and producing and putting in place the QHSE management systems. I learnt from other organisations, picking out the best bits of what they did and weaving them together to form and shape our procedures.”
Stepping up to another level
In the early years of the business, decommissioning had added another element to the portfolio of services Claxton offered. But, in the mid-nineties, its capabilities stepped up another level when, working with a client, Hamilton Brothers, Claxton completed the first rigless decommissioning project in the North Sea.
“In order to plug and abandon a well, you have to reverse the process. To do this, you need to bring in a rig to put in the deep hole plug and the intermediate plugs. We came up with a solution where you could do exactly the same thing, but without a rig having to be put in place. This had big repercussions for the operators in their ability to cut costs and improve efficiencies.”
Joining Acteon and going global
In 1999, the family sold Claxton Engineering to UWG (now Acteon Group) whose headquarters was in Norwich. Claxton was its first acquisition and today, the specialist subsea services group employs 1,950 people, operates worldwide, and has an annual turnover of more than £540 million.
“We had done some work for Acteon and although we didn’t know it was them at the time, we had started to get some approaches anonymously sounding us out as to whether we wanted to sell the business. The market was in a bit of a downturn, so we decided to go for it and explore a bit further.
“We thought that by joining a bigger group, it would give us better access to capex, and enable us to push things on a bit more and grow as a business. We also liked the fact that Acteon’s policy was generally to leave you to act autonomously as a business.
When you’re building your business, the first thing you care about are your clients
As you grow, it becomes the people you employ. You really worry about hiring people and the responsibility that brings. Being part of a larger entity gave us security and enabled us to flex and adapt to meet the changing environment.”
Just after Acteon purchased Claxton, it got them involved in decommissioning 23 wells on the Maureen platform in the North Sea, for Phillips Petroleum. This, and another project in quick succession, took Claxton forward as a business. So, for both parties, the acquisition achieved a good result.
“Mum exited the business when it was sold, and I became Commercial Manager. Dad remained as MD and Dannie was appointed Technical Director. I got involved in everything apart from the technical aspect, although I wasn’t daunted by this as I learnt a lot on the job, so could hold my own if I needed to.
We were very North Sea-centric, but we had worked in the Middle East and Canada
At this time, I was sharing an office with Dad, who wasn’t tech literate, so he did everything the old-fashioned way, with a pad and paper.”
“I wasn’t big on titles, as I believe you just need to do anything that needs to be done, even if that means cleaning the office.”
“When Acteon bought Claxton, I think that the senior team thought I was the secretary, as I did a lot of that stuff and I didn’t push myself forward. Yet, I was quietly getting on with things; running projects, bidding for work, and was the support network behind the company.
“But even though I wasn’t big on titles, I realised I wanted to be recognised for the contribution I was making. So, I started to pipe up; approaching HR at Acteon, to put forward my case and ask whether they would consider making me a director the same as Dad and Dannie. They did, and I became Commercial Director.”
Over the next few years, business continued to flourish. Claxton Engineering was working globally; the team stood at around 70 people, with most operating from Great Yarmouth, but there were also satellite bases in Aberdeen, Dubai and Norway.
Then, in 2005, Bob Claxton decided to step back and reduce his hours, so the company needed a new MD and Laura was the natural choice to take over from her father.
“You say, “yes I’ll do it”, but you don’t really appreciate what it means and what it entails in its entirety. It was a growing business employing a lot of people, but with Dannie at my side supporting me as Technical Director, it worked really well.”
Over the last 15 years, Laura has immersed herself in the jobworking 12-hour days, or whatever the job has required. She married her long-term partner, Kevin, in 2017, and they spend their free time buying and renovating houses and travelling on holiday – as well as ‘doing her favourite thing’ of walking their Golden Retriever, Arthur, on the beach at Walberswick early on a Sunday morning.
Apart from losing her father suddenly in 2015 to a heart attack, life has been good.
“Last year, Acteon said that they had identified a possible acquisition that would fit well under the Claxton Engineering mantle. The business was Field Tech Services (FTS) a division of Proserv, and the acquisition in August 2019, enabled rapid globalisation of our product and service range, particularly in Norway and the Far East.
“The move doubled the size of our business. We now had a workforce of around 300 and in addition to our existing bases, we had sites in America and Singapore. Because of his global experience, the president of FTS was made CEO and I became Chief Operating Officer.
“Since July, we have been working through the harmonisation of our operations, bringing us together under one banner.”
The COVID-19 effect
“As with a lot of businesses, we were a bit behind on realising the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the business. Even though in February, we were being asked by our clients what our plans were, we still didn’t appreciate the magnitude of what was coming.
“The new look Claxton leadership team had been launched early in March, and a big get together in London for all the Acteon leadership team from around the world was cancelled. Then, we got a call from the team in Norway saying the schools were going to be closed.
“By this time, instruction and guidance was coming through from Acteon and we decided to trial working from home for a couple of days, to make sure it all worked.
“Immediately when we went into lockdown, we categorised our people into; those that needed to be onsite or work offshore, those that could work from home, and those that needed to be shielded. Each site put together an impact assessment, and restrictions around social distancing were put in place for all site operations that needed to keep going. For instance, our workshops had to be kept open as equipment still needed to be prepared, tested, and mobilised.
Adapting business practice to new circumstances
“Obviously, with our teams still going offshore, as well as problems with finding accommodation, there was rigorous testing and isolation procedures that had to be adhered to, prior to mobilisation offshore, or upon arrival in the country.
“We have also had to adapt our work patterns to fit within the new parameters. For instance, we were supporting our client with a decommissioning project at the Deep Panuke Gas Field, 250 km offshore from Nova Scotia. One of our engineers had remained in Canada awaiting the rest of the new crew to join him. However, they were unable to fly out, as Canada went into lockdown and shut its borders.
“The result was that he was out there on his own for three months, with only the existing rig crew to help him get the job done. As well as adapting and rewriting the procedures, we set up a ‘war room’ at the office. And, using our field supervisors and the existing crew on the rig, the technical team here in Great Yarmouth, has provided support, answered questions, and given technical guidance remotely to get the job done.”
“Before we had the pandemic, there was already a lot of turbulence in the oil and gas industry worldwide which was affecting prices, so lockdown only aggravated the situation, and lots of projects planned for this year have been postponed until next year.
“Yet, there has been a restart of activity and we can see that there are opportunities on the horizon. One thing we have learnt is how to be leaner with our resources. The Government’s furlough scheme has definitely helped to relieve the immediate pressure.
“Over the last few months, we have been very reactive, and we have started forecasting fortnightly rather than monthly, just because the industry has been changing so rapidly. There has been lots of time spent planning, analysing and anticipating, what the rest of the year and 2021 may look like.
“The situation has forced us to think about the reset button and if I could go back, I would definitely have prepared the business continuity plan! It was on the ‘to do list’, but it was more to do with the risk of our offices sitting on a flood plain. I never thought for one moment I would need it for a global pandemic!
“Also, before this I was very anti working from home, but I have, like many people, found that actually on the whole it works. It’s really brought to the fore the use of virtual technology for meetings, communication and sharing data. Ironically, in my new role, I was intending to travel a lot more, but the pandemic has made us realise that maybe it isn’t necessary to travel for meetings anymore, unless, of course, there is a need to do things face to face.
“Now, we want to forge ahead and move into strategic mode. Although we know that oil and gas will be here for some time and we need to continue to grow these markets, we need to reflect on how we spread our risk. So, we are thinking about how we can diversify into other industries, such as decommissioning work in civils and renewables.
“I know, especially for those that have lost loved ones, that COVID-19 has had a devastating impact. But, a lot of people, once they have got past the social isolation and panic of not knowing what comes next, have realised that they can adapt, survive and it’s actually going to be OK.”
Wanting to sell your business; some key points to consider
You spend blood, sweat and tears on building and running a business and when the opportunity arises to sell it, the dilemma faced by many owners and directors is whether the entity or person wanting to buy the business is a good fit for you, the brand, and the employees.
1. Be clear why you are selling:
If you know why, then you have a better chance of doing the right kind of deal. If it’s to pass on the business to the next generation, or to existing management, you are unlikely to maximise the value, as a significant element of the consideration is likely to be deferred. However, the buyer is unlikely to require a full due diligence process (although any bank lender might).
2. Appoint advisers you ‘click’ with:
Take the time to meet and discuss the transaction process, and don’t just go with your existing advisers; check they actually have the expertise. If you want a partner-led service, ask for it. Some firms have a bad habit of partners winning deals and then fobbing off clients with inexperienced junior advisers. ALL your advisers (accountant, solicitor et al) should have a strong appreciation of your motivation for the sale and your goals. This is key to determining the myriad of approaches in the later stages of the transaction.
3. Make sure you understand the scope of advice and fees you will be charged:
Individual sellers are unlikely to be able to recover the VAT on fees, so factor that into your assessment of costs. Good advisers are worth every penny, and this may be something you may not appreciate, until you have gone through a sale process.
4. Establish a financial objective:
Work out how much you want, or need, up front, and what your personal cashflow is going to look like post completion, especially if you are retiring.
5. Be patient: Getting the right deal done takes time.
Set a realistic timeframe and expect it to slip.
6. Be realistic about the issues:
Prepare your business for sale to pre-empt glitches that will otherwise arise from the due diligence process. Speak to your solicitor about this, to see what work you should be doing. If you tackle and resolve problems early on, you can circumvent delay, or the need to give potentially costly indemnities to your buyer in the sale agreement. You might be expected to warrant the accuracy of the responses you give, so be careful. This is sometimes inappropriate and could result in unexpected liability for you.
7. Pay attention to the detail around your exit:
Deferred payment arrangements and earn outs deserve very careful attention early in negotiations. Involve your solicitor at the ‘heads of terms’ stage.
8. Ask for clarification if you need to:
Ensure you have any ‘legal’ or ‘accountancy speak’ explained to you fully so that you can be confident of the various outcomes.
9. Understand where the money is coming from:
If your buyer needs to borrow, then understand how your buyer plans to finance the purchase, so that you and your solicitor can properly assess the buyer’s ability to proceed, and anticipate the likely hurdles.
10. Most importantly, try to enjoy the process:
It is often exhausting and relentless with twists and turns along the way. Building a rapport with the buyer and its advisers, as well as your own, is likely to make the experience more pleasurable.