The REaD Group’s Mark Roy: How losing my wife to cancer gave my business focus

How overcoming a tragedy in the early years of The REaD Group changed Mark Roy’s outlook on life – and business – forever


There was no grand plan when I launched my company in 1991, it was out of necessity. My contract as marketing director at Montana Strauss, a tour operator, had ended and I needed to pay the bills.

One of the first things I’d done in my previous role was put questionnaires on the backs of aeroplane seats when people came back from their holidays. Some of the comments weren’t terribly polite, but understanding why customers leave you is key to stopping them doing it. I called the concept ‘negative marketing’.

But when it came to starting a business around this idea, while people were interested, they’d say: “There’s a bloody recession on. I’ve just fired eight of my consultants, so I’m not going to be taking on any more.”

When you launch a company, you do whatever you need to do in order to survive. So we ended up handling a database, helping DIY companies identify people who had just moved home. Even then, proper data management was always at the heart of it. The first four or five years were pretty hellish. But although the company was just trundling along, we were doing OK.

In 2000, my wife Sarah, who I set the company up with, was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died six weeks later. As much as you want to roll up into a ball and just give up, when you’ve got two young children who are pulling on your shirt and saying: “Daddy, I’m hungry,” the reality is that life goes on. In a way I had three kids. My other child was the company.

My colleagues allowed me to take whatever time I needed to try and get myself back together. After three months I remember walking in and saying to them: “OK, if you thought I was determined before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” I felt invigorated. I was partly doing it for Sarah, but also for my kids, and their future. Sometimes in life you meet a crossroads, not through choice, but it makes you stop and think, and reassess how you live your life.

We certainly weren’t well off then, but I look back a lot and think to myself, at least I had my own business. I could still draw a salary, so even in my loss and in my hour of need I was able to remain in reasonable comfort, and not in desperation. As bizarre as it sounds, in a way when compared to the guy on the factory floor, I was quite fortunate that I was in those circumstances.

Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength – we’ll clear £20m billings this year. You know, it’s not what happens to you in life that shapes you, it is who you become at the end of it that matters. For some people, tragedy is the beginning of the end, their lives never quite get back on track. For me, it was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I am wiser, stronger and more determined because of what happened. This is no rehearsal – this is it.

The REaD Group now offers a range products and services to improve the accuracy and performance of business data. For example, the Bereavement Register, launched after Sarah Roy’s death, prevents millions of pieces of direct mail being sent to people who have died each year. The company has made three acquisitions in the last 18 months.

Mark Roy was speaking to Steph Welstead.

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