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Management buy-out at COEL a sign of ‘confidence’ in growing business, says CEO



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A management buy-out at Cambridge-based office design and fit-out specialist COEL demonstrates great confidence in the business, says the group CEO.

COEL has been trading since 1986, when Neil Cook launched the company as a sole trading subcontractor.

The COEL management team, from left, group CEO Alistair Rumbelow, group operations director Jerry Overhill, group MEP director Dean Powell, group director Neil Cook, group sales and marketing director Barnaby Clark and group FD David Williams. Picture: COEL
The COEL management team, from left, group CEO Alistair Rumbelow, group operations director Jerry Overhill, group MEP director Dean Powell, group director Neil Cook, group sales and marketing director Barnaby Clark and group FD David Williams. Picture: COEL

The management buy-out (MBO) means an experienced team of board members are taking control of the company from Neil, the CEO, and regional director Dan Brown, who were majority shareholders.

Dan is leaving to focus on other endeavours, while Neil will form part of the new team, concentrating on networking and sales at the company, which focuses on creating agile and innovative workspaces.

Neil told the Cambridge Independent: “I’m staying on as an employee, to hand over my duties and mentor, as well as work alongside my treasured clients, who have become close personal friends over the years. I’ve still got bundles of energy, so hopefully I can channel that into helping others to come forward and grow within the company. We really are a family at COEL – the Cambridge community know exactly what they are getting with COEL and do buy into that.”

A trade sale could have proved more lucrative, but Neil, whose new title is group director, said: “When I came to a decision to sell COEL, I did it for the stability of the company.

“We were offered a trade sale, but I elected to drop the idea because I was worried the company would get diluted. I felt the MBO route would keep the team together, and maintain our family ethos. My colleagues are like my brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and my treasured clients have become friends.

“We’re the biggest fit-out contractor in East Anglia by a long way, with a £25m turnover, which certainly makes us a force to be reckoned with. It’s the continuation of COEL as a team which is my driver.”

The board members who form the MBO include group CEO Alistair Rumbelow, group financial director David Williams, group operations director Jerry Overhill, group sales and marketing director Barnaby Clark and group MEP director Dean Powell.

Alistair said: “Nothing demonstrates a management team’s confidence in their company more than their willingness to invest their own money to become shareholders in the future. The new team will galvanise COEL’s position as a market leader in providing property services, workplace design and innovation.”

Barnaby Clark with Neil Cook. Picture: Keith Heppell
Barnaby Clark with Neil Cook. Picture: Keith Heppell

For Barnaby, the decision to be part of the MBO was a natural one.

“I felt it was an opportunity to be part of a company that I can see has amazing credentials and history,” he said. “COEL has a family attitude, and everyone shares a similar set of values, so it’s about creating business, but in the main it’s about servicing clients, doing a good job for people and taking satisfaction from that. It’s nice to be part of something you can really add value to.”

David added: “We are ready for COEL to grow to its next stage, and in a post-Covid world, it’s an exciting place to be.”

COEL, which is headquartered in Cambridge and has offices in Peterborough and Oxford, specialises in office and laboratory design and fit-out, and can name Bidwells, Jagex and Raspberry Pi on its client roster. But it had humble beginnings. Ex-gas engineer Neil originally launched as Cambridge Partitions in 1986, working as a drylining subcontractor, principally for his father’s business, G Cook and Sons Ltd.

“It was just me to start, then I asked a friend to join me, and we got busier and busier. I remember going around sites with a notepad, calculator and chequebook to pay the team on a Friday afternoon,” Neil recalls. “But by 1989 we were drylining Quayside for Sir Alfred McAlpine and I had 35-strong team working with me. It was an incredible growth.”

Neil was joined by Dan Brown in 1999, and the pair ran their enterprise from a portable cabin in Sandy Lane. Their portfolio soon extended to cover whole office interiors, so the associates rebadged as Cambridge Office Environments Limited (later COEL), moved to Chesterton, and eventually to their current Nuffield Road premises.

COEL has since added further business offerings, including a heating and plumbing arm, CPMS, and CMS –which provides office furniture, commercial relocation and storage services. New recruit Daniel Fordham heads up its property maintenance arm, and sees potential for growth.

Dan Brown, who is leaving COEL after its MBO. Picture: COEL
Dan Brown, who is leaving COEL after its MBO. Picture: COEL

Reflecting on his time with COEL, Dan Brown said: “It has been an incredible journey from joining forces with my good friend Neil. We’ve grown from working from a builder’s yard, making less than £1million turnover 21 years ago, to £25m turnover today, and 75 staff. There have been challenges in the last 22 years getting the business to where it is today. Like all businesses there have been highs and lows, but I can definitely say the highs have outweighed the lows.

“I am proud to have been part of the team from the very beginning and look forward to seeing COEL go from strength to strength.”

He acknowledged: “I will miss the camaraderie and passion that every person in COEL continually contributes to the business and I am really excited for the new team and their future. I am very fortunate and excited to be heading into uncharted waters.”

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