Grass Roots: David Evans

The founder of Grass Roots on why his values haven’t changed since he named his company at a Led Zeppelin gig 30 years ago

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I started life in a depressed area of London after World War II. There were only really three ways out of Bermondsey: you got an education, you turned to crime or you joined the army.

Happily, I had a good brain, as did my brother. He’s now a professor of history and I’m a successful entrepreneur, but we both got good degrees from a working-class background.

I was a young communist and wanted to bring down society, but I discovered eventually that social capitalism was a better option. It’s not about the money, it’s about what the Irish call ‘the craic’. It’s about doing it, and making it fun.

That idea sprang from a blend of experiences. I spent my early postgraduate life writing advertising commercials, before running a factory in deepest, darkest Bradford. Then I joined a company called Maritz in the mid-1970s as client services director. In two years I’d doubled the company’s sales – I’m a natural stage act when it comes to selling. But I was shipped across to the States by the family that owned the firm and asked why I was being successful in Europe. When I told them, they said: “That’s terrific, but we think we have better ideas.” At that moment, I returned to the UK and started writing a business plan.

It took me six months to get it right. I named my company at Led Zeppelin’s last open air gig at Knebworth Hall in August 1979. That was my moment of inspiration: Stairway to Heaven, lying on a grassy slope facing the stage in the late afternoon.

I had this idea that the human capital in business was treated as if it were a screwdriver. In other words, the power of human endeavour was underrated by corporations. They hired people, told them what to do and expected no more. I felt that, for better or for worse, there was more in everyone. That probably stems from reading politics, philosophy and economics rather than from being an entrepreneur.

I didn’t believe that just bribing people makes a difference. I felt that if you communicated properly, educated and measured performance people would respond. Then if people did well, and you rewarded and recognised them, you would get the best out of them. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for 30 years.

Our success is the embodiment of that philosophy. Every person who joins the company still gets an induction from me. That requires a huge amount of energy and commitment, but hey, as the Chinese proverb says, if you find something you love, you won’t work a day in your life.

I never built this business to sell it off. I’ve been offered amounts that would make your eyes water, but nothing on the planet would be worth selling. What would I do? How much money do you need? I’m comfortably off, I have a decent house, my daughter can walk to school, if I want a holiday I can afford one, I can go out and have a meal, I have one car, I don’t have any exotic habits.

If I were stupid enough to sell out, the values I’ve created may weaken. I’ve still got things I want to do to help off the back of our success. There’s no temptation to take the money and go and sit in the Caribbean. I’ll probably die with my boots on.

David Evans’ business services group Grass Roots now turns over £284m, has featured in The Sunday Times Best Mid-Sized Companies to Work for list for the last three years, and employs more than 1,000 people across the globe. In 2008, Evans was awarded an MBE for services to corporate social responsibility after pioneering initiatives such as offering work placements to homeless people, providing his local community with a theatre, school facilities and sports, in addition to raising millions for charity.

David Evans was speaking to Steph Welstead.

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