The agency was formed as a sole trader in 1997 by former BBC journalist Steve Howell. Based in Newport, it focused initially on media relations and established a reputation for excellence by handling the PR for the Celtic Manor Resort’s £100m expansion programme and Wales’ bid to host the Ryder Cup. Sir Terry Matthews, the owner of Celtic Manor, said the agency had played ‘a very important role’ in the successful Ryder Cup bid. In the first three years, the biggest challenge was the difficulty a small team faced in meeting ever-expanding client needs. With success came higher client expectations – which were met by having a highly committed and tightly-knit group of staff. In September 2000, the agency was incorporated as Howell Communications Ltd with a seven-strong team, four of whom are still with the company. At this point the new challenge was to extend the client base, partly by expanding geographically and partly by broadening the service offer with the establishment of a graphic design team. By the end of its third year of incorporation (2002-03), Howell Communications had grown to 22 staff and established itself as one of the leading PR agencies in Wales. The next challenge was to grow from its Welsh base to create a UK-wide regional PR network, at the heart of which would be a service centre and head office in Cardiff. Funding for the expansion programme was a major issue - initially growth capital was raised from private investors and more recently it has come from Finance Wales. A total of £1.75m has been raised, which – together with cash generated from profits – has been used to fund six acquisitions in two years – four of which have been since the period covered by the 2005 results.

Success Factor

Strong client relationships and commitment to service delivery has been crucial. From the outset, the agency has constantly looked for ways to improve quality and deliver business results for our clients. The business has won several industry awards, including this year’s national CIPR award for the best use of media relations. Adherence to solid business principles, such as cost control, cash flow management and re-investment of profit has helped the business to sustain its development. Too many start-ups get carried away by early successes and often opt for short term gain. In contrast, the business retained profits to generate funds for much of its growth organically and it was able to invest in its own office premises in Newport by April 2001 and then to buy new purpose-built 4,000sq ft offices at Cardiff Gate last year. Finally, Freshwater has benefited from leadership, corporate governance and support from independent shareholders and non-executive directors, Shortly after incorporation, the company had its first non-executive director. It now has three who bring with them a diversity of business experience from local to national level in several different sectors.

The Future

Freshwater is aiming to become Britain’s leading regional PR, communications and marketing network, enhanced by specialists at the forefront of their sectors and by high quality creative and training services. It aspires to provide the very best strategic and practical support to regional, national and international clients and to be recognised as a consultancy that contributes real value to clients´ businesses. The new 2006-2009 business plan envisages continuing growth through acquisition and organically, and the firm expects to complete acquisitions in the next 12 months that strengthen its regional operations and add further specialisms to its existing expertise in technology, consumer, health, property and other fields.