My Week: David Evans of Grass Roots

Grass Roots founder David Evans, the father of 'mystery shopping', has 32 years of business under his belt. He speaks to MT about holidays, what to send a client in India, and why he's a bit like The Godfather.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

If you'd spoken to me last week, my tale would have been full of chicken houses and planting rather than business. I've just come back from a holiday in France, being the rural eccentric Englishman tinkering with the garden. It's good to take a holiday every now and then. I tend to work 12 weeks solid and then take a break - otherwise I would probably die.

Of course, as my mum used to say, if you find a task you love, you'll never work a day in your life. And I do love what I do. Although a friend has described me as ‘constructively discontented’. I think you have to be that way if you are ambitious and want to run a global business.

A real challenge that I am facing right now concerns growth. There are no other companies quite like us, so we have to build new international companies from the ground up, like Lego. That takes time. We're also limited by local infrastructure. Grass Roots needs the five 'M's to do business: mobile phones, motor cars, Macdonalds, Microsoft, and mobile money (credit cards). Once all these things are in place, you've moved beyond subsistence to choice. There are discretionary amounts of money to be spent. But even once the market is ready, there's the human challenge: can you find the right human assets to employ, to build the Lego blocks. I’ve got into the habit of picking execs who have been with us for five to 10 years and sending them off to build a business. I call them my Jesuit sprogs. It's like sending someone to the colonies in the old days.

There's a lot to learn when you start up in a new location. We're in the business of rewards, so we have to know what local custom dictates. In India, for example, the popular reward is a basket of mangoes. Can you imagine that working in the UK? Over in Spain, the most popular reward is a ham. Believe it or not, it used to be a bundle of towels over here. But now it’s all iPods and iPads. Although, to be honest, as we are in recession (whether you deny it as an economist or not) people wouldn’t mind just having a voucher for dinner.

Of course, my role has changed over the years. I don't do as much of the day-to-day stuff. I'm more of an adviser. I work on the Quaker principle of trust and verification. Trust someone but make sure they check in so that you know their ideas are sound. It's a bit like Quakerism meets The Godfather.

My usual routine starts with early morning emails from the Far East, and finishes with late night ones from the Americas. It's always a 12-hour day. Saying that, I do try and have time with the family on the weekend. I became a father again in my fifties, so I have a young daughter to entertain. On Sundays, we have visitations from friends. We usually end up with a dozen to 16 people over for lunch. My life seems like a commune most of the time...

Speaking of free time, I have a rule. I never give anyone more than half an hour, or occasionally one hour of my time. When time's up, I ring a bell. And it's about time for me to get off home.

Rings bell

David Evans is founder of performance, incentives and rewards company Grass Roots.

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