I wish someone had given me more insight about stress management and burnout. When you’re your own boss or when you’re a leader of a business, the default is to lead from the front, work hard, and put a ton of stress on yourself. This is okay, but in short moderated bursts. In the early days, I was working like that all the time. I’d wake up, eat, work, eat, work, eat, work, sleep. It’s easy to romanticize this lifestyle — but it isn’t healthy. I discovered quickly that if I didn’t manage my downtime correctly, I’d work nonstop for six weeks before crashing and losing all motivation. This isn’t constructive and does more damage than good.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Maxwell, Managing Partner and CEO, Twisted North America.
Originally from Yorkshire, Tom has significant experience in the luxury automotive market, having managed the build and export of over 250 Defender from the UK to worldwide destinations. Before Twisted, Tom has led businesses in strategic development, marketing and new media industries. A self-confessed workaholic, when Tom is not at the desk, he is either out driving, rock climbing or watching films.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s a bit of a bizarre story. When I was younger my exposure to automotive was only via Top Gear on the TV and racing Scalextric cars with my old man; I was more fascinated with computers and technology. I always had a passion for film and so studied Creative Writing in Bath, UK with wishful dreams of becoming a screenwriter. To end up working with big, muddy Land Rovers was a real change in direction.
I worked part time for a chap for a bit of extra cash whilst at University (who now coincidentally works for me at Twisted North America!). I was helping him with administrative paperwork, website design, managing his accounts. He recognized something in me that I hadn’t recognized in myself — one day he said, “I think you’re an entrepreneur.” Of course, I reminded him that I wanted to be a writer and put the thought to the back of my mind. Despite this, he sent me off on a project — and that project opened my eyes to an opportunity. I returned and realized that I could make a bit of business out of that project, so I quit my part-time job on the spot and asked him if he would invest in me, which he graciously did. It was only a small amount of money, but at the time it was a lot more than I had as a university student. With that, I started my own marketing business, which I ran until graduation.
From there, I ended up as a marketing manager at a company that restores Land Rover Defenders, like Twisted. I had initially only planned to work there to sustain my other projects, but within six months I was named a director of the company. I fell in love with the enthusiasm buyers had for the product, and the process of seeing a custom vehicle come together. This coupled with the iconic heritage of the Defender and its unique style meant I decided to focus on it full time. I helped to grow the business, which initially was small and family-run at the time, into a fully formed SME. Over the course of three or four years, I helped to increase turnover and profitability and developed critical business management, financial and sales skills. And that’s what led me down the path of custom-built Defenders. Fast forward to now and I’ve been involved with building over 200 of them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I have tons of stories from over the years. I’ve been lucky enough to travel a ton and sell to some interesting people. I’ve pretended to be a manager for a famous musician to escape a hoard of fans, been invited to both weddings and funerals, judged a cooking competition where all the food was cooked out of the back of Land Rovers, got lost in the wilderness several times. Of course, for every glamorous or fun story there are ones with missed flights, sleepless nights, stressful weeks. It’s all a matter of perspective.
A story with a lesson attached is always good. I once had a scenario where the client wanted a truck that, frankly, I didn’t want to build. It sounds counterproductive, but this client had a very specific vision in mind — documented in a huge binder that landed with an audible thump on my desk. We’re talking a hula girl good ornament, camouflage paint, rainbow interior, baby blue exterior — a real statement.
I was conflicted. How right is the client, if ‘the client is always right’? Yes — I build custom vehicles, but I also have a duty to brand integrity, and, in some circumstances, you must protect the client from themselves! Eventually, after many phone calls and much debate, we were able to agree on the final choices. I made some concessions, so did he. I decided that, for the most part, I was going to trust the client and respect his requests, because he was so passionate about exactly what he wanted to do. In return, he respected my advice to leave out the more extreme elements of his design.
So, we built the vehicle. In production it was lovingly nicknamed the ‘marmite’ truck — because staff either loved it or hated it. I’ll be honest it came out better than I had anticipated — and it was certainly a statement. I decided to take it to a show in New Jersey. And, sure enough, people absolutely loved it. It got more attention than any Defender I had ever built before. It ended up becoming one of our most successful and popular trucks — so much so that there were at least two replicas made by competitors. It received a ton of media attention and was a hit amongst the wider motoring community. The paint color ended up being super popular, and as it was a custom mix, we named it after the client.
I suppose from that truck on I’ve learnt to trust the clients that bit more. With the vehicles we sell it’s rarely a purchase on whim — rather it’s the realization of a dream and vision that has had a ton of consideration and thought. It’s a pleasure to turn that into a reality, and that process can’t be one-sided. Now, every time I build a truck, I try and take something away from the experience and from each client, so we can roll that into the next one.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
For me, the tipping point in my career was when I became my own boss. After running my small business whilst at university, it always felt like a step backward to have to report to someone. I often have a very clear vision as to how I’d like to do things, for better or worse, so I knew that I’d never be content until I was really in control. I was lucky enough to find that via the opportunity I’ve had with launching the Twisted brand in new markets. We’ve gone from just one employee to over 25 staff. So far, we have achieved over 3 million dollars in sales and are on target to do over 7.5 million dollars this year. It’s nice to know that, whilst there have been some speed bumps, sticking to my beliefs and vision for the product has led to success. We’ve still got a long way to go but the foundations have been laid.
To add a disclaimer: I’m not telling people to quit their jobs today and work for themselves! I believe it’s important to work under others for a time too. Firstly — you’ve got to eat, so it’s best to always calculate the risks involved with going alone. Make sure that you can afford for it not to work out in the long run, as you never know what might happen. Secondly — to use an automotive analogy, it’s like running a car on a limiter until you understand the basics of its operation. Once you know how maintain it, clean it, drive it consistently, then it’s time to put the foot down. You must understand the fundamental basics of business before doing it for yourself, and the best way to do that is learn from others who already have that experience, by working for them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Back when I was running my marketing business, I had a chap who retained us to build a website for him — a brit based in Dubai. Over the course of working with him, there was a breakdown in communication to do with something trivial, like server hosting or a domain name. At the time, I was sure that we had communicated things clearly, but he disagreed. We really argued over it. He was convinced he was right, and I was convinced I was right. We ended up completing the project and we went our separate ways.
Five years later, that same customer is now my GM for our Middle East operations — and we get on like a house on fire. We see eye to eye on everything and have very similar visions for the future. It’s funny how things change as your career develops.
In hindsight, I realized that if you ever need to explain anything to a customer a second or third time, you didn’t make it clear enough the first time — even if you think you did. If the customer is disappointed in any way, then there was a failure to communicate at some point. It instilled a philosophy in me to always be direct, extremely clear, and super honest. These things are crucial to being a leader, but also crucial to being human.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I think the most exciting thing we are working on is our electric vehicles, as well as the conversion kits that we are doing for Defender. As governments continue to crack down on emissions for internal combustion engines, people are going to struggle to hold onto their older vehicles in their current iterations. We’re seeing it more and more with the London ULEZ areas and in stricter regulations across the US, especially California. These sanctions are tough on vehicles like the Defender, which is typically seen as a big ol’ utilitarian gas-guzzler.
Our conversion kit is exciting because it is enabling lifetime Defender owners to ensure their pride and joy can be driven long into the future. Some of our clients have had their vehicles for 20+ years and will never let them go or trade them in for something newer. These vehicles truly become part of the family, and so I’m glad we can offer a solution that brings them into the 21st century without destroying the original identity or capability of the icon.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
Firstly, I wish someone had given me more insight about stress management and burnout. When you’re your own boss or when you’re a leader of a business, the default is to lead from the front, work hard, and put a ton of stress on yourself. This is okay, but in short moderated bursts. In the early days, I was working like that all the time. I’d wake up, eat, work, eat, work, eat, work, sleep. It’s easy to romanticize this lifestyle — but it isn’t healthy. I discovered quickly that if I didn’t manage my downtime correctly, I’d work nonstop for six weeks before crashing and losing all motivation. This isn’t constructive and does more damage than good.
Secondly, I wish someone had explained to me that companies are more than the product they sell. You can have the best product in the world, but it won’t sell itself. If you’ve got the wrong sales staff, you won’t sell because people buy from people and customers want personal connections. If you’ve got a mismanaged marketing funnel your sales staff will never have anyone to speak with! The entire process, end to end, is important. Not just the product you produce.
Following on that, I wish someone told me that the sale is not the first and only transaction with the customer, especially in my industry. We sell highly customized cars that have a lead time. At the beginning of my automotive career, a deposit on a vehicle had me convinced that we sold that vehicle and that was it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. If you don’t look after the customer from that first deposit all the way through, they are going to lose faith in you. Now, I run a specific sales process with an emphasis on understanding the multiple conversion points throughout the build cycle.
Delegate! A bit of an obvious one, but extremely important. In the early days I just didn’t know any better. Admittedly I can still be a bit of a control freak at times — I like to understand everything that’s going on, but initially my solution to this was to just grab on to everything and try to run with it. Eventually, I realized I was only one person and that it wasn’t going to work. You can’t do everyone else’s job in addition to your own. And, if you don’t manage the delegation process properly, you end up stuck in a vicious cycle where you take everything back that you’ve already delegated, simply because you didn’t delegate properly the first time.
Lastly, I wish someone explained that it’s can be hard running your own business. There are certain benefits to not rushing to the top and focusing on the bits throughout your career that lead to becoming a CEO, MD, or business owner. It’s certainly rewarding to run a business and manage people, but it can be terribly stressful. You need to be prepared to have very different responsibilities and focuses. For example, I love the sales aspect of what I do — I love that dynamic with the customer. However, as a CEO, I’ve learned that you can’t always do the stuff you love doing. Just because you’re the CEO doesn’t mean you can decide to do what you want.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The advice I would give would be to make sure you can channel the same level of focus that you have for running your business into other things. Having an outlet is incredibly important. For me, physical activity really helps me recharge and come back to work refreshed, so I make sure to get to the gym or climbing wall regularly and stay on routine. I also lean on other activities that are a bit more sedentary, such as watching films or playing video games. It’s nice to switch your brain off.
As you do switch off, make sure you do it properly. If you’re watching a film, make sure you watch the film. Don’t read emails with the laptop on your sofa as a film plays in the background. Put your phone in airplane mode so you can’t use it for anything except music at the gym. Don’t go through the motions and tell yourself that you’re blowing off some steam if you’re not actually relaxing at all. Give your downtime just as much attention as your uptime and you’ll feel much better for it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m extremely grateful towards Gareth Hamer, who is the chap I mentioned in my first answer. Gareth helped me understand that the skills I had were transferable. I think it’s in our nature to pigeonhole ourselves into thinking we have a set career path — Gareth gave me my first break by investing in me and pushing me do something different. I’m thrilled that I’ve had the chance to return the favor by having Gareth come work with me again. It’s only fitting that he shares in the success that ultimately, he inspired.
If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Self-reflection is the key to personal development. Be more self-reflective. By default, I think we are quite transient when it comes to considering who we are as people. Understand your strengths and weaknesses; we all have them and it’s okay to recognize them for what they are. I don’t just mean skills. I mean the tendencies, patterns, emotions, and personal preferences. In understanding yourself you understand the effect you have on others, your business, and ultimately, your own life. Self-reflection doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does require focus. I try to assess myself at the end of each day for 30 minutes before I switch off. I ask myself what I found easy, what I found hard, what went well and what didn’t. Half an hour of reflection can lead to weeks of positive outcomes.
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