Richard Steeves
Richard Steeves: an entrepreneur from an early age © Jakob Appel Gronkjaer

Great entrepreneurs need more than big ideas, says Richard Steeves, who built Synergy Health, the FTSE 250 outsourcer that he founded in 1991, into a global medical hygiene business.

“Equally important is paying attention to the detail and, as part of that, being able to assess the risk/reward ratio,” he says. “What I see a lot with entrepreneurs is they have the big ideas and see the vision, but they don’t always have the ability to pay attention to the detail. That can undermine the implementation of some of the visions.”

Both qualities have played their role in the career of Mr Steeves, 54, Synergy Health’s Canadian-born chief executive, which has led to him winning the 2015 UK EY Entrepreneur of the Year award.

It comes after a US court cleared the way to a $1.9bn cash-and-share takeover of Synergy by Steris, an Ohio-based sterilisation equipment maker, rejecting an attempt by US antitrust regulators to block the deal. The acquisition was subject to votes by both companies’ shareholders on October 2.

The new company, in which Mr Steeves will become a non-executive director, is expected to have a combined revenue of $2.6bn, employing 14,000 people in 60 countries. It would allow Steris to move its tax domicile to the UK and cut its corporation taxes.

Mr Steeves believes the combination will be good for both companies: “It gives us additional scale, particularly in the US, and gives Steris the infrastructure it needs outside the US to grow its business.”

He established Synergy Health, with the help of a government-backed loan of £125,000, to sell protective medical gowns for surgeons at the height of concern about HIV infection. Now the Swindon-based company has operations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, employing 5,600 people worldwide including 2,400 in the UK and Ireland.

“There is no doubt it has been a great success,” Mr Steeves says. The company has been in the FTSE 250 since 2008. Mr Steeves owns 3 per cent of Synergy, plus some share options.

Synergy operates from 150 sites around the world, providing services including medical device sterilisation, infection control products, specialist laboratory and healthcare linen services

Mr Steeves’ entrepreneurial streak was there from an early age. He left home at 16 and bought a franchise to clean a bank, health spa and warehouse in his native Vancouver, employing three staff. He sold it two years later to study for a BSc in human physiology at the University of British Columbia.

When he came to the UK to do a PhD in biochemistry at St John’s College, Cambridge, he started a part-time business renting televisions and video players to fellow students. While there, he set up another business, selling rowing kit and other sports gear in college colours, borrowing the St John’s college crest, “which had me expelled for a day”.

In the early 1990s recession, he and a colleague sought assets they could buy cheaply with which to create a business. They found a clean room that had been used to make surgical packs and, amid anxiety about HIV, Mr Steeves saw an opportunity to introduce from the US the idea of supplying protective clothing for surgeons and patients. Synergy Health was created in 1991.

It was not a trouble-free beginning. Within a couple of years, Synergy lost one of its biggest NHS customers to a new rival that had undercut its prices.

Since then, the company has expanded through organic growth and selective acquisitions. It began its European expansion by buying Lips, a Dutch company, in 2004; entered the Chinese market by setting up a sterilisation businesses in 2007 and moved into the US with the acquisition of BeamOne, a sterilisation company, in 2011.

Mr Steeves, who holds dual Canadian and UK nationality, thinks Britain has a good climate for entrepreneurs but wants to see them celebrated more. “I could be criticised for not celebrating success enough,” he says.

“Part of it is paranoia. I always worry about what might be around the corner to undermine the work we have done.”

The winners

The EY UK Entrepreneur of the Year Awards 2015

Overall winner
Richard Steeves, Synergy Health

UK winners
Andrew Kerr, CMS Windows
Mark Payton, Mercia Technologies
Jim McCarthy, Poundland
Peter Roberts, Pure Gym
Mark Egerton, Quotient Clinical, The Translational Pharmaceutics Company
Mike Loggie, Saltire Energy
Gareth Mobley, DW3 Products
Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Käärmann, TransferWise
James Wilkinson, Zuto

Social Enterprise winner
Dai Powell, HCT

Family Business Award of Excellence

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