Lead Interview: Olly Magnus

CEO, Magnus Group
Our lead interview in the LEGACY issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Olly Magnus, CEO of Magnus Group

Published in Suffolk Director magazine Summer|Autumn 2022

Legacy: Lasting, Enduring and Trusted

“I was told that I would never make a success of Dad’s business, but that’s what has got me out of bed in the morning, to continue his legacy and move his business forward.”

Interview:  Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

Olly Magnus talks to Suffolk Director

As a bit of a LinkedIn legend, with one of his posts being viewed 1.3 million times, Olly Magnus is someone that will probably be familiar to many of you. So my hope when I sat down to chat with him, was that I would unearth a few anecdotes that you wouldn’t have heard before, about his journey to becoming CEO of Magnus Group, a business originally founded by his late father, Paul.

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Paul Magnus was Australian and came over to the UK in the sixties to start a job at the Port of Felixstowe. He met Olly’s mum, Jacqui, at Felixstowe Rugby Club, where he played. Very soon after they were married, the couple returned to Sydney, where Olly’s sister, Emma, was born in 1969.

The family moved back to Suffolk in the early seventies, and Olly was born in 1973, the same year his dad started his own logistics business, Paul Magnus Transport.

“Dad was working as a Ship’s Agent at the port before starting his business, and we lived at Felixstowe Ferry. Initially, I went to Kingsfleet Primary School, but then in 1981, Mum and Dad bought a farmhouse with a smallholding of about 10 acres in Aldham near Hadleigh, and we moved there.

“As Dad’s business was doing well, and he was a great believer in its private education system, I was very nearly sent to boarding school in Australia, but Mum put her foot down. So, instead, I went to Ipswich School, and Emma went to Amberfield.

“In those days, Ipswich School was a traditional prep school, teaching students the values of respect and treating people the right way. I have to admit that one of my biggest weaknesses, has always been that I have a low attention span. Emma was always the more studious out of the two of us, and at school, I always did just enough, but never really applied myself. In fact, the older I got, the less I performed well academically. However, one thing I did develop was a love for sport.”

A family break up

“When I was 14, Mum and Dad got divorced, and although Mum stayed at the family home in Aldham, I decided to board at Ipswich School from my fourth year, to when I left in 1991.

“I loved it and liked the company of my mates. Along with myself, many of the boarders were in the school cricket team, and it was a great laugh. At this stage, I realised I really enjoyed playing sports where you were part of a team.

“When Mum and Dad split up, Dad moved to Chelmsford. He had just sold Paul Magnus Transport to a businessman based in Falmouth, and he was now working for him.”

“However, it was only a year before Dad bought his business back, paying more than he sold it for!”

“Emma had gone off to university by this time, and Dad had remarried. He returned to Aldham with my step mum, Liz, and bought the family home off Mum, who then moved and bought a delicatessen on the High Street in Hadleigh.

“During the week, I would be boarding and play cricket for the school, and at weekends I stayed with Mum and would play for Hadleigh Cricket Club.”

Olly left school at 18 after completing his A-Levels, but he was asked to be part of the school cricket team when it went on a tour of Australia that December.

“So, after I left, I worked in a warehouse in Felixstowe to earn the money I needed to go. A Dutch company owned the warehouse, and the guy who ran it drank in the same pub as Dad.

“Then and now, a regular haunt for me and a lot of the ex-Ipswich School boys, was The Greyhound pub on the corner of Henley Road and Anglesea Road in the town. For six months, my life was spent working at the warehouse from 7am to 5pm, playing cricket and drinking at The Greyhound.  

“What I earned was split between giving money to Mum for my keep, savings, and the pub!”

His first trip down under

After the cricket tour, Olly stayed in Australia, when he got the chance to go and see the cricket World Cup Final between England and Pakistan.

“I was 18 and wasn’t spending a lot of money, as I was staying with family, friends and relations. But I got my first taste of Dad’s home country, and I liked it. I stayed for just under a year, then came back pretty determined that I would be returning as soon as I could.

“When I got back, I had the only interview of my life with Contship Container Lines. I started with the company, and the intention was that I would move around, trying different jobs in the business for two years, and then I would move out to Australia to work for them in Sydney.”

Olly immersed himself in the job, meeting some amazing people and gaining a good grounding in the shipping industry.

“I learnt how to deal with people from all backgrounds and functions, and this time gave me an understanding of the whole supply chain.”

However, Olly was still working for Contship in the UK four years later.

“Early in February 1997, I left the job as things weren’t going at the pace I wanted. I was 23 and had itchy feet. I wanted to travel, and Australia was still somewhere I wanted to go back to.”

Olly set out on his travels with his girlfriend and her friend, stopping in Hong Kong for a week before flying into Sydney on Valentine’s Day.

“On the first evening I arrived, I met up with a friend and went out for a drink, and then onto a party in an apartment in the city. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I fell off the apartment’s balcony five floors up and woke up 13 days later in intensive care, with Mum and Dad beside my bed.

“Having been told about the accident and that I was seriously injured, they had been flown out to Australia. I had broken my back in five places, broken my neck and leg, as well as all my ribs on my right-hand side. I was perilously close to paralysis, and I had to lay flat on my back for 12 weeks whilst everything healed naturally.

“I was full of drugs and was hallucinating. I lost over four stones in weight, and I had to teach myself how to walk again, which was the most surreal feeling. It was really tough, but I was incredibly fortunate.

“Having caused massive carnage in the family, I stayed in Australia for just under four months. I then flew back to the UK, having spent less than a day in Sydney as part of my travelling. I was still in a back brace and in a lot of pain. It was surreal, really, but I felt so lucky to be alive and able to walk. I remember reading a story about a guy who had fallen off a barstool in Manchester and was paralysed – I’d fallen 40 feet and survived relatively intact!”

Although back in the UK, It wasn’t until 1999 that Olly returned to work at his dad’s company.

“I had been on disability benefits until then, but wanted to get back to a properly paid job. Dad’s business was then based at West Bank Terminal on Wherstead Road in Ipswich, and I was put to work in the warehouse and doing office administration.

“I had a difficult working relationship with Dad. We didn’t speak at work, and he was very hard on me.”

“One thing I am very proud of is that everything I have achieved, I’ve done myself and not because of my Dad and his business.”

In 2001, Magnus Group moved its operation to Great Blakenham. Then in October 2002, Olly went back to Australia for four months, so he could follow the England cricket team around the country as they played The Ashes.

“At the end of April 2003, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved Australia, but the money had run out, and it was very difficult to stay and get a working visa. So, I came back to England intending to return as soon as I had saved up enough money.”

Becoming a director

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On returning, Olly met with Peter Hill and Richard Burgess, who were starting Burhill Logistics.

“They had both worked at Contship at the same time as me. Richard had been using Dad as a bit of a mentor for his new business, and Dad felt that we might work well together.

“I met Richard for a beer, and he asked whether I would be interested in coming on board as one of three directors in the company. I agreed to it as I didn’t really have any other options. After chatting it through with Dad and doing a bit of negotiation, we ended up splitting the business three ways between Peter, Richard and myself.

“Then, after only a couple of months, Peter left as he had a job offer he couldn’t refuse. So, the company was then split 50/50 between Richard and me. I knew at the time that it was the wrong thing to do as I didn’t enjoy the job, and I still wanted to go back to Australia.”

Six months into the new arrangement, Olly met his wife, Emma.

“I met Emma at the Betty Ford Club in Ipswich. Coincidentally she had family in Australia, so we agreed that we wanted to emigrate there at the earliest opportunity. However, when we married in 2005, visa complications and me being tied up with Burhill, meant our plans were postponed.”

“Another weakness is that I’m not good at the hard cutthroat decisions, preferring instead to take the easy route.”

“I felt I had a responsibility with this business I had helped to start. I was there for 16 years, and in total, I was perhaps only happy for six months of that. Yet I took the easy option and stayed, as I felt it was something I had to do.”

Emma was working as a travel agent, and the couple were living on Christchurch Street in Ipswich. Then at the end of 2006, their first child Archie arrived, and life took a different turn.

“As well as the business and a mortgage, I now had the responsibility of a family, and any ideas Emma and I had of moving to Australia were shelved.”

Daughter Darcy was born in 2009. Then in 2012, Olly started getting itchy feet again.

“I was nine years into Burhill, and I was looking for an exit. Emma and I thought about going back to Australia; we did everything we could to get our visas, but then fell at the final hurdle when they wouldn’t grant mine, as I hadn’t got a degree.

“So, I was working in a business that was making money, but material things don’t really drive me, and I was not happy.

“I want to be my own person, and at Burhill, I felt like a passenger on someone else’s train. I also wanted to feel valued and respected and be stronger and stand up for myself. I didn’t help matters by allowing myself to be belittled. But I was weak, and now I look back and can see that if I had acted differently then, my life could have been so much better.

“I felt I had a duty to do the right things in the business, and if I had been stronger, I wouldn’t have stayed. But life is full of sliding doors moments, and if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have then had the opportunities that came along next.”

In 2015, Olly was watching Archie play football in Leiston when he collapsed.

“It was quite a stressful time for me in the business, and I just blacked out, and the next thing I saw was my three mates standing over me. I went to the hospital and had some tests done, and the doctors were about to discharge me when I blacked out again.

“After a third and fourth time, the doctors realised that my heart was stopping and restarting. I was kept in for a week and had a pacemaker fitted, and was later diagnosed with Sinus Node Disease which is very rare.

“To me, this was another demonstration of life being too short. I started to re-evaluate and decided I wasn’t going to keep on doing something I didn’t enjoy.”

Yet, the real catalyst for change came when Richard and Olly fell out big time. At Richard’s instigation, they hired an external consultant to assess the business structure, and he concluded that both directors brought equal value to the business.

“After that, it was never spoken about again, but I felt my relationship with Richard was broken.”

Continuing the legacy

That was in October 2017, and only two months later, Olly found out that his dad was terminally ill with liver cancer.

“Dad’s diagnosis was a total shock, and my world changed. All I could think about was what are we going to do?”

Five months later, Paul Magnus passed away.

“Dad had always told me that I was getting nothing, so I didn’t expect anything. He wasn’t cutting me out, just making sure that my step mum was okay and taken care of.

“However, Magnus Group was on its back and making a minimal profit. Dad had a 40 per cent stake which had been left to my step mum. Another director had 40 per cent, and 20 per cent was split between a couple of other directors. As we had a larger turnover at Burhill, I went to Richard even after the fallout and suggested that we buy into the business, but he refused. Looking back, I can see I had a lucky escape, as it would have been the biggest single mistake of my life.”

“I was still in contact with the external consultant, and we were having a chat when he advised me to sell my share in Burhill. For the first time, I felt in control and that I was in a position to make a ‘ballsy’ decision.”

“We had the company valued, and in November 2018, we agreed on a deal, and Richard bought my shares. I conceded a lot of ground, but I didn’t want the deal to fall apart, as I would then have to go back to Burhill.”

In June 2019, with the money he had made from the sale, Olly bought the other director’s 40 per cent stake in Magnus Group, so between him and his step mum, they had 80 per cent of the shares, effectively moving the business back under family control.

“Dad may have left me with no money, but he did leave me with his legacy and what was, for me, a fantastic opportunity. I backed it myself and took a massive gamble.

“It was an old-fashioned business that was a bit of a dinosaur. I took it in hand and set about rebranding the company and putting the right people in place to run the business.

“One thing I hadn’t fully appreciated until this point, was how your own reputation is so important. The way I acted, how I treated others and enticed people to come and work with me. I realised that success is a lot about who you know and how you are perceived.”

Over the last three years, life has become more rewarding for Olly.

“For the best part of 18 months, I was paying my co-directors significantly more than I was paying myself. But I have now built a team with a world of experience. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, which make us very strong as a unit.

“Ultimately, you get what you pay for. You are making an investment, although with no cast-iron guarantee. I put a lot on the line taking over the business, and it was a tremendous gamble financially. To be quite honest, I don’t know anyone that would have done the same as me.

“Yet what I am most proud of, is that I didn’t take the easy option; I’m a born gambler, but I’m a sensible gambler. I was presented with an opportunity to do something. I had to buy the chips, and the odds were against me, but it’s come up trumps.

“Even though people were saying I wasn’t doing the right thing, for the first time in my life, I believed in myself and that I could make the company my father started a success and give it a future. You don’t often have the opportunity to buy a business with your name over the door, and bring that business back under family control, but I did it.

“Luck does play a part, and I have made some crazy decisions, but the company now turns over £26m, and we make a decent profit. We have invested in extra warehousing space at Great Blakenham and Felixstowe, and have a larger workforce. I am now getting to the point where I can do other things I want to do.

“For instance, being a lifelong fan of Ipswich Town Football Club and having had a season ticket since I was six years old, being taken to games by my Dad and Grandad, I have become more involved in supporting the club. For a couple of years, Magnus Group sponsored the ITFC Academy, but then an opportunity came up last year to sponsor the West Stand at Portman Road, and I was able to do it.

“Ultimately, it was my decision, but the whole leadership team here decided collaboratively, ‘Yes, let’s do it’. And, on the back of this and the profile it has given the company, other doors have opened to new business opportunities.

“You can’t put a price on profile and increasing your visibility. Investing time in raising that awareness is difficult to measure, but I know that Magnus Group’s name is more well-known now than it was when I walked through the door four years ago. There is also tremendous pride in seeing the family name emblazoned on the stand when I go to watch a home game.

“If I had failed to make the business work, I would have lost everything: my reputation, job, money, probably my marriage! But it paid off, and I have managed to take Dad’s legacy and recreate a new one that builds on what went before, something that is better suited, resilient, robust, and future-proofed to deal with what is coming over the horizon.”

Lead Interview: Olly Magnus 9

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