John Harvey- Networking But Not As You Know It
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Nick Hook (the bearded snapper)
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to John Harvey, founder and owner of select networking organisation, The Samphire Club. Flamboyant, outspoken, humorous and sharp all at once; he is a truly unique man who isn’t afraid to say some of the things that people wish they could say, but daren’t. Highly individual, one of a kind and a bit of a maverick… but a lovely one at that.
I recently had the joy of spending a couple of hours with John at the ever-picturesque Deer Park Country House Hotel, where we took in the morning sunshine, some delightful freshly baked biscuits and coffee, in the Alfresco Pizzeria area at the bottom of the hotel’s lush gardens.
Born and bred in Padstow, John is one of four children of a GP father. In his own words, he “used to talk properrr Cornish” before being packed off to boarding school when his father moved to Africa to work in the copper industry. He quipped,
“Imagine day one of boarding school, having to introduce yourself as John Harrrvey. I quickly changed from a parochial Cornish boy into a more well-spoken ex-pat child. I got very used to the charmed life, walking on and off of planes and being a pretentious git!”
After leaving school, John went to Southbank Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) and completed a degree in Business Studies. With no concrete idea of what he wanted to do, he started out working as a commission-only insurance salesman in the ‘80s before embarking on a twenty-five-year career working in international logistics and haulage, predominantly for TNT.
Looking back over this chunk of his career, John paused and commented on how good a grounding and education it had given him; both in what to do and what not to. He commented,
“Sometimes your most valuable lessons are learned from experiencing things that you want to avoid replicating if at all possible.”
Briefly married, John’s divorce prompted some soul-searching of the ‘Why am I still living in London?’ kind. The upshot of this was that he bought a cottage in Penzance, initially as a ‘bolthole’, but one that eventually became his permanent home when he chose to move back to the county.
Once in Cornwall, John worked briefly at TNT Bodmin before joining a smaller, family-run logistics business, working three days a week in a Business Development role, expanding their operation internationally. Those three days soon became five and, in the end, John worked there for a total of eight years. Towards the end of his time there, the firm hired a management consultant who made it clear that he thought John’s strengths lay primarily in helping to grow business through networking. He instructed John to work anywhere but the office, removed all targets and KPIs from his role (almost unheard of in Business Development or Sales) and gave him the freedom to go and network.
Initially, John went to every event possible and learned the hard way that not all networking events are created equal. John stated,
“Sometimes you click with people, sometimes you don’t. Some people understand and embrace your agenda, others don’t. It’s just a simple fact when you’re making business connections.”
John soon became a fixture on the Cornish business scene. His exuberant personality, helpful attitude and generous disposition, as well as the excellent job that he did growing his employer’s business, meant that before long he’d created a significant and loyal network of contacts. He was appointed the Chairman of the Members Council for Cornwall Chamber of Commerce and continued to build an impressive reputation for his expertise in both logistics and successful business networking.
It was a chance comment between friends at the Greenbank Hotel in Falmouth that first gave John the idea that was to eventually lead to him establishing The Samphire Club. One of his friends said to him, “You know what John, you should think about monetising what you do. People would pay to be a part of the sorts of networks that you’re creating.” John reflected on this moment saying,
“I was immediately excited although I had no idea how to make it happen. I had never had any intention of setting up my own business so my head and heart had some catching up to do! The problem with turning something that comes naturally to you into a profitable business is that you have to simultaneously increase your levels of self-awareness, self-analysis and self-assessment which isn’t easy.”
It dawned on John over the coming weeks that the most productive and meaningful networking events he had attended were ones that weren’t advertised and had been operated on a ‘private, by-invitation-only’ basis. Having been a member of Soho House in London, John was well versed in the benefits of being a member of an exclusive club, with a proven reputation and a particular modus operandi. Membership of such organisations offers the peace of mind that what you’ll be receiving is tangible, long-term value.
The first hurdle John felt that he had to overcome was that present-day Cornwall had become increasingly reliant on European funding and he wasn’t sure business people would be willing to pay for membership of an exclusive business network when so much was already offered for free. Thinking this potential dilemma over saw him hit on a winning formula – his network (with its already significant geographical spread) would take a highly focused and strategic approach encompassing the wider South West, making it easier for businesses and business people from across the region, including Cornwall, to connect and do business with each other.
In one of the many moments of laughter during our interview, John quipped,
“When we talk about board meetings in Cornwall, we don’t mean in a board room. We mean that we’re going to go and talk business whilst surfing. It’s a real thing in Cornwall!”.
So, soon after launching The Samphire Club in Cornwall in early 2016, John started establishing Club outposts and growing networks in Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol and beyond. Although full of trepidation, John knew that he would regret it if he didn’t go for it. This is something that I totally understand as the majority of regrets which people have are for the things that they didn’t do. As the famous Canadian NHL legend Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
John drew down some of his pension and decided to self-fund the Club for a year in order to give it the best chance of success. The rest, as they say, is history – The Samphire Club continues to grow in membership, the value it is able to offer members and the reach and influence which it now commands.
That said, the intervening years haven’t been without their challenges and John opened up about the quite difficult experience he had with burnout in his first year in business. For a period of four weeks, he was physically and emotionally exhausted and unable to summon the energy or courage to leave the house. It was only in seeking professional advice during his recovery that he realised he needed to lean on experts in a few key areas within his business; notably engaging the services of an excellent accountant, a reliable PA, a copywriter and a business coach. These seemingly subtle tweaks revolutionised how he operated, giving him a fresh lease of life and focus on the role he was best suited to fulfil.
With an ethos built upon the foundation of sharing, giving back, celebration and mutual benefit, The Samphire Club is a place where like-minded people can get to know each other better in relaxed environments, without the worry of forced or pressured networking. Such is John’s belief in avoiding the ‘hard sell’ at networking events, that he has banned it from The Samphire Club and John has made it a matter of policy that anyone interested in joining has to go for a cup of coffee with him first, for him to assess if they are a good fit. His network is his most valuable asset and the business relies on protecting and maintaining a level of control over it. In some ways it is like a tribe or a family and John nurtures and cultivates it as such.
John described how, as de facto head of this family, he has tried to instil a sense of his own values and personality upon it. For example, taking the time to ‘break bread together’ is vitally important as people relax and get on better when enjoying good food and drink in great company.
We then stumbled upon, in my opinion, the golden moment of our discussion when John described his approach as focusing on ‘Return on Relationships’ rather than ‘Return on Investment’. This was a term coined and now trademarked by Stateside networking supremo, Ted Rubin in his bestselling book “Return on Relationship”. John expanded on how it fits with The Samphire Club ethos, saying,
“Although it makes financiers and accountants very uncomfortable, I think it is impossible to prove ROI for at least eighteen months when it comes to networking. The most productive way of demonstrating value from networking is the longer-term view of building long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships. Goodwill, meaningful introductions, non-business contact or discussion are largely immeasurable and impossible to enter onto a spreadsheet but are vitally important when developing the right sorts of business relationships. Like I said, accountants don’t like that, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And when you do get a client onboard using this approach, they will stay with you for life and become a valuable source of referrals and introductions. It isn’t rocket science. It is as simple as being nice and delivering on your promises. If you look after your network and treat it properly, it will look after you. It’s like an allotment, responding to regular tending to keep it healthy.”
Reflecting back on our time together, my impression of John and The Samphire Club is that his is a much needed, but rarely found, proposition. On a more personal level, one knows exactly where one stands with him, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. These character traits may sometimes have negative connotations but, in a world of fake news, political spin and celebrity hubris, we need ‘great levellers’ among us, to keep us grounded and in touch with reality.
John, I urge you to keep shooting from the hip, saying what you see with a twinkle in your eye and a glass of something tasty never far away. The world (and our small part of it) needs people just like you.