From fisherman to telecoms technology – Jason Denmark tells unLTD how he revitalised a 21-year-old Sheffield firm (and the lessons learned from notorious retailer Philip Green)
Jason Denmark has worked in highly pressured retail roles. He put “everything” on the line for a business he saw had potential and wanted to turnaround. But a six-week stint on a fishing boat 37 years ago remains etched in his memory.
Jason, 53 this year, is Chief Executive of The Templand Group of companies including ITI Network Services, ITI Electrical Services and Newline Communications.
The telecommunications-focused businesses are on course for a record year. Jason has increased group turnover to £6 million, from £1.6m when he and business partner Steve Clarke bought what was a struggling firm with a talented workforce out of CVA (creditors’ voluntary arrangement).
Jason joined ITI, formerly IT Installations, in 2015. After years in retail he wanted new challenges closer to home. An introduction to its founder led to Denmark turning the business around.
But his varied career all began on a fishing boat, the Mhari-L.
“As punishment for my dismal O-level performance my parents sent me to Scotland aged 16. My cousins fished for scallops and I worked on their boat for six weeks. It was the hardest job I’ve known. I knew life at sea was not for me even before I was bitten by a dogfish.
“The sad story is six months later the boat went down and was never found. My family believed it was hit by an American submarine, although it was never proven. My cousins Stuart and Keith and all seven crew were lost at sea.
“If I had taken to working on the seas we probably wouldn’t be here discussing this.”
When Jason returned to Yorkshire, he pursued a musical career, playing bass guitar in band Count Dante for five years alongside working as a registered mental nurse until “I just lost faith with the system”. So aged 21 he needed to make a decision.
“My father said, ‘you’re a failed musician, you’re at a crossroads in your life, what do you want to do?’
“I didn’t have any idea, until my father saw an advert in the Daily Mirror for a company called What Everyone Wants.”
The firm told Jason they would mold him into a retail manager for the family business, “with massive expansion ambitions. They went from 80 to nearly 200 stores within 18 months. And I oversaw the store opening teams. It was a great experience.”
Then everything changed – “a person entered my life who I will never forget, Philip Green. He bought What Everyone Wants.” What was Green like?
“He was a hungry entrepreneur. You had to admire his numeracy, tenacity and negotiation prowess. He was a hard taskmaster and had a significant presence at every board meeting.”
What about recent allegations concerning Green’s behavior?
“I never saw or heard of any questionable behavior at the time. He was basically an aggressive, unrelenting retail entrepreneur.”
Jason learned one key lesson from Green. “He always had three or four senior people around him who were aligned to his thoughts and requirements. His front bench! And those people are still with him today.”
He worked for Green for 15 years. “Latterly I was parachuted into companies he had bought to turn them around. It stood me in good stead for years to come.”
A call from a retail financial director led to Jason joining Greenwood’s, a menswear firm which had been bought out of administration by Chinese business Bosideng.
After a year there he was tasked to open a store in London for Bosideng, involving buying and developing land and building a brand. The timescale was tight: Bosideng’s chair wanted the new store to open in time for the London Olympics. Denmark managed the planning, design and build of the new seven story building, and the creation of the new fashion brand.
The store opened on time – “but it nearly broke me,” he says. “I had worked flat out to turnaround Greenwood’s and also built the brand Bosideng in the UK. I recall flying home from Venice in 2014 with my wife. I said ‘I don’t want to be in retail anymore.’ I was working extensively abroad and decided I needed to do something nearer my family.”
Another turning point. But what to do after 28 years in retail? “Effectively I had nothing planned to go to. But the owner of IT Installations, as it was then, asked me to look at a turnaround opportunity.”
Jason examined the business and bought its liabilities, bringing it out of CVA. “I wasn’t a telecoms entrepreneur. All I knew was how to turn a business around. But my business partner and I could see there was an exceptional team.”
Jason and business partner Steve Clarke concluded a management buyout in June 2016. Was he concerned about the risk?
“Absolutely. But it had a brilliant workforce and blue chip client base. So, in Yorkshire terms, I took a punt. I believed in this business, but everything my family had saved for needed to be put up as personal guarantees. That was a tough call.”
The business had faltered under previous ownership. Banks had lost confidence, clients were leaving. But with renewed support through Jason’s and Clarke’s involvement: “Clients returned, thanks to people in the business. We started to build a new client base. We rebranded the business. And by early 2017 we were winning bigger contracts and decided to look at acquisitions.”
That led to a merger with a Sheffield-based business to create ITI Electrical Services. An acquisition of infrastructure fibre installer, Newline Communications, followed in 2018.
So, he must be happy he took that punt?
“Yes. But when everything you’ve built is absorbed into one business entity, you make sure every penny is spent wisely. We were fortunate that the banks, suppliers and customers were very supportive.”
The hard times had put a lot of pressure on key staff.
“The first thing we did when we acquired the business was to reward the three main people who had worked tirelessly through those dark days with shares. They are still with us today.”
Back to that formative lesson from Philip Green about a ‘front bench’. “That’s been invaluable. We have people within this business who ultimately are my front bench, they have protected and served the business extremely well.”
What about the future? “There’s buoyancy in telecoms but across the industry we have started to notice a capability gap. We are investing a significant sum into developing the skills of our teams to take us into diverse areas within telecoms. We want to increase the number of PAYE staff to 50 across the Group.”
The business works with many nationally-known names including BT, Fujitsu, Telefonica, 02 and Talk Talk and aspires to collaborate more in the region. “Particularly becoming a Patron of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce has opened up massive opportunities.”
What next? “In a few years’ time I hope the existing management team will undertake their own buyout to take the Templand Group to the next level. But I’d still like some involvement, I’m not one of these people who looks forward to being put out to pasture!
“Working hard is all I have done since I was 16 and it’s something which will be hard to give up. I live for the pursuit of achieving personal and professional milestones.”