New York and Silicon Valley often grab the headlines for US business developments but British entrepreneur Paul Rowlett was drawn towards the bright lights of Las Vegas when expanding from the UK – after all, you’ve got to be sin it to win it
Paul Rowlett is remarkably chipper for a man who’s had under four hours of sleep. “I’m just getting out of bed to be honest,” he admits as the clock turns 8am in Las Vegas, the city he’s set up shop in. As founder of The Charles Alexander Distribution Group, the print and promotional products firm in Leicester, he’s used to burning the candle at both ends with his US foray. “It’s a horrible time difference that just ruins you,” he laughs. “When you’ve got a UK business and a US one, you’ll wake up, check the phone, send an email and go to bed at silly o’clock.”
However, Rowlett became accustomed to little sleep during his time in the Royal Navy, long before he entered Sin City with EverythingBranded, the promotional merchandise business and flagship Charles Alexander brand. “I joined when I was 18,” he recalls, adding the navy taught him not to clock-watch as he adapted from school-leaver lay-ins. “Suddenly you’re on a warship doing six hours on and six hours off – you know what hard work is.”
Before enlisting he’d been entrepreneurial from a young age. “I had little sideline businesses, including a tuck shop as a kid,” he details. After leaving the navy, he used his rigging and hoisting skills to build cinema screens but redundancy saw him enter sales. “It was direct sales and from that I went into B2B sales and learnt a lot about the internet as I was selling Google Marketing,” he says. It was soon time to move on though. “I was actually sacked. Me and the manager didn’t really get on.”
Being fired may have seemed like a negative but it led him into the promotional printing industry, where Rowlett realised he could leverage his internet knowledge to surpass his then-employer. “They didn’t pay me right [and] misled me on a few sales,” he declares. “It kind of annoyed me and made me think, ‘you know what, let’s look at the market.’” That fire in his belly made him realise there was merely a handful of rivals on the scene and that was enough to go solo. “I thought ‘I’ll leave the company and start my own.’”
The vision for Charles Alexander Distribution when it launched in 2010 was to build an umbrella group. “We thought ‘if we call it distribution we can probably get credit and trade accounts with different industries for complete distribution,’ so it made my net wider to walk down different avenues,” Rowlett says. EverythingBranded, the first of the group’s businesses, led the charge as he sought to supersede his previous employer. Despite “a struggle in the beginning to get trust from suppliers,” like a baby taking its first steps the company soon found its feet. “I saw that in any business sustainability was key,” he says.
The chance to cross the pond arrived in 2015 after the business won Distributor of the Year at the Sourcing City Awards, which led to an invitation to a trade show in Chicago. On why the US captivated EverythingBranded, Rowlett says the potential for the promotional goods sector in the country is huge. “It’s a $23bn market, [compared to the UK’s] £953m,” he reveals. “That’s 23 times the size and the same business model, so it’s not rocket science.”
Despite the lure of plump, succulent numbers, Rowlett didn’t rush in all guns blazing. “I didn’t take it lightly,” he says. “You’ve got to look at sales, US tax laws and where you base your business because of state laws.” Many business headlines surrounding the States may be geared towards the Big Apple or Silicon Valley but Rowlett wasn’t content with being just another Englishman in New York – or San Francisco. “We looked around at an office in Delaware, then New York,” he explains. “Originally we had this big dream and looked at California but the bottom line is, with the tax laws and property prices, it’s just out of our reach and wouldn’t make financial sense.”
It was a holiday to Richard Branson’s Necker Island three years ago that helped Rowlett decide on Las Vegas, having become good friends with an entrepreneur who lives in the Nevada city’s Seven Hills area. “He kept telling me ‘you need to open in Vegas,‘” recalls Rowlett, who had already visited some 15 times – primarily for pleasure rather than business. “Obviously as a tourist you think ‘nah, that’s the wrong place.’” He soon realised it was the right spot though. “The reason for that was there’s no income tax and property values are cheap.” Indeed, the 18,000 square foot office in Vegas is costing the same as a 10,000 square foot office the UK, making the value for money crystal clear.
With the UK covering the fixed costs in the business, such as staff fees, admin and marketing, it put the American arm in a strong profit position. “What’s your main outlay in a business?” Rowlett opines. “Your staff is probably number one, then building costs, then marketing. I could employ an American member of staff for $23,000 a year [in Las Vegas] – in California you’re paying $36,000 because of the income tax. So I’m getting the same ability for lower cost. There’s actually three people for every job, which is a bit of a worry but at the same time not everyone wants to work in casinos.” As such, opening up as a nine-to-five business in the adults’ playground suddenly made EverythingBranded stand out as a desirable employer.
Given the Las Vegas strip is the holy ground for gambling, EverythingBranded’s site is in Summerlin, a suburb a short drive from the hustle and bustle. “Being in suburbia and going to these nice business villages, the vibe is totally different,” says Rowlett. “The weather is perfect and you can do outdoor events, you’ve got longer working hours, you’ve got conventions on all the time.” He adds that it’s important to leave the party town mindset to one side though, noting the city is thriving for business.
In the same way launching in the UK was tough, entering the US “was hard,” says Rowlett. One of the key challenges was the fact some companies had cancelled orders purely because EverythingBranded is an English business. “There are definitely areas of the US that are less welcoming to outside visitors because it’s about keeping it to America,” Rowlett says. “The frustrating thing for us is we’re using American suppliers and generating 100 jobs in America.”
While there’s competition in the UK and opportunity in the US, there’s apparently little danger of Brits following EverythingBranded across the pond. “A lot of the guys in the UK won’t enter the US because they’re a bit scared of it,” Rowlett claims. “I was living and breathing the US market for six months every night, talking to suppliers until 2am in the morning because of the West Coast time difference, so you’ve got to have the drive to do it.” And the late nights have paid off big time. “We’ve already had 11,000 businesses order in less than 14 months, which is really good going.”
Although Rowlett sings the praises of Las Vegas, he also offered caution to Brits entertaining the market. “If you’re renovating a property or get an office here, always add six weeks onto your lead time,” he says. “For internal renovations you need permits, which we never realised.” Additionally, getting gas and electric providers sorted can be tricky because they’re not necessarily “internationally-minded.”
Aside from those words of wisdom, there is one downside that sprung to Rowlett’s mind. “The only negative is the food,” he laughs. “There’s a lot of sugar and it’s not helping my diet.”