Joe Ashford, founder and non-executive chairman of consultancy firm K4 Global, speaks to CEO Today about his company, mental health, and offers his advice to prospective entrepreneurs.
1. You are the founder of K4 Global, an investment company with a portfolio of businesses in the property, services, motoring, sport, and technology sectors. Tell us more about K4 Global.
K4 Global is a real passion for me – it is all about finding opportunities in areas where I feel I can bring value and help elevate businesses so they can realise their full potential. I take an active and hands-on approach with the companies I get involved with, working closely with those who have invested time in the business to really unlock its true potential. Backed by a skilled and experienced team of business troubleshooters, K4 Global aims to innovate by offering different perspectives to challenges companies are facing and delivering creative solutions. It’s all about creating a new way of thinking to ensure a company remains agile and competitive.
2. What are the three most important factors you look for when investing in or buying a company?
Without a doubt, the people who are in the company are the most important factor for me. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If the people who work within the business do not believe in the product or don’t share the values and goals of the company, then it is doomed for failure. I look for a leadership team that is engaged, communicative and transparent. This ensures there is a strong leadership team that sets the standard for the rest of the company to follow.
3. Which sectors do you think hold significant growth potential post-pandemic?
The pandemic demonstrated the resiliency of humankind. Almost overnight, the way in which people ran their daily lives changed fundamentally. This also had enduring consequences for all sectors. “Zoom” became a household name overnight, “HelloFresh” started delivering meal boxes across the country and people invested in their properties at record rates. Importantly, these trends are not short-term – consumer and business preferences have changed, and this has affected what they expected from products and services they are seeking.
Looking more mid-term, the impact of climate change is becoming more and more pressing. I believe that companies seeking to address it are well-positioned to see significant growth. This is unique and something companies from all industries and sectors can benefit from.
Think about property as an example – when homeowners are renovating their properties, they are thinking about solar panels, heat source pumps and effective insulation to reduce their carbon footprint. A similar observation can be made around food – when families are preparing meals, there is greater consciousness around the sustainability of certain food sources, leading to more interest in plant-based diets.
4. You are very upfront about your tough upbringing as a child, and the mental health challenges you have faced. Why is that?
I have always been open and honest about my mental health challenges. I want to set an example for people who are suffering from poor mental health and show them that it is not a hindrance to their professional and personal development. Everyone’s challenges are different, but the important thing is to seek help and to try and open up to someone. That first step is the hardest but also the most significant one.
I sympathise massively with people who struggle with mental health. The important thing to remember is that no one is immune. Sometimes people can be of completely sane mind. The next minute, they’re really struggling because of something as simple as a hormone imbalance or sudden personal loss.
I have complex PTSD due to a difficult childhood. It was not until all my close family had passed away that I sought help and was diagnosed. I had bottled it all up for most of my life because I did not want to show any weaknesses. Even small, simple life changes can make dramatic improvements to people’s wellbeing and happiness.
5. Do you think these experiences have been integral to your success as an entrepreneur?
Without a doubt, these experiences have helped me become the successful entrepreneur that I am today. That’s because I have a completely different mindset from most people. I still clearly remember the daily obstacles and stresses I faced as a child. One that stays with me is having to regularly scour for food in bins and feeling guilty thinking that I was stealing from somebody. However, that experience has also fuelled my will to succeed. I have always strived, so my children are never in the position I was. My background and childhood helped to give me a drive that is more forceful than for most people. I believe that is why I grew up to become a workaholic and a serial entrepreneur.
It has not always been a straightforward journey. I have fallen down many manholes along the way. Like anyone who suffers from mental health issues, we are susceptible and vulnerable to highs and lows. That is something I’ve had to battle. There have been periods of my life where I have taken medication for a very short time, and I didn’t like it. For me personally, I don’t need to take medication to understand who I am, or to cure an issue. I find that the gym, fitness, healthy lifestyle, and happiness and laughter make for a far better cure. But everyone needs to find their own path.
6. What is your advice for business leaders and entrepreneurs who are suffering from a mental illness?
Based on my personal experience, I believe the biggest antidote to mental health issues is fitness. It not only offers the obvious physical benefits, but it also promotes self-discipline, dedication, motivation, and a sense of pride when the goals we set are achieved.
For me, when I go to the gym, I like to come out drenched in sweat, whether it’s a 10 minute or 10-hour workout. I train and exercise every day, and I make sure I push my body during each and every session. The reason for this is linked directly to mental wellbeing – I have found that the more you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the more you feel accomplished. And of course, there are the scientific benefits – as your endorphins, serotonin and dopamine levels increase, you will naturally feel happy.
I am also a passionate advocate for healthy eating and dieting. If you put someone on a clean diet with the correct hydration, you’ll soon see a massive improvement in their mental health. It may not seem obvious, and some people can really struggle to make that commitment.
Sadly, though there is a cost to eating clean and healthy. Unfortunately, the ability to diet properly and adopt a healthy lifestyle can be prohibitively expensive. As a result, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds will resort to unhealthy food. Looking to the future, this is something I am keen to address in the coming years, both personally and through my business ventures.
Joseph Ashford is a leading entrepreneur and businessman from South West England whose interests span a diverse portfolio of companies valued at over £200m. Investment company K4 Global has founded, acquired and taken stakes in businesses in the property, services, motoring, sport and technology sectors. Joe had a difficult and unconventional childhood but has utilised those experiences and learnt how to channel his energies into his career and personal self-improvement. Joe is a strong advocate of a healthy lifestyle through fitness and diet – and the importance of focussing on mental health. Joe’s companies repurpose combustion engine vehicles to electric, undertake complex property developments, develop innovative technology in the retail sector and support emerging elite sportspeople through his gyms. Joe is also an active philanthropist and set up the Butterfly Foundation to support children who suffer from epidermolysis bullosa.