Llew Nicholls – The Road To Redemption
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
Imagine a 6’5”, twenty-two stone South African rugby player who can almost bench-press his own body weight. Then imagine that freight-train of a man running towards you at full pelt, head down, shoulder lowered. You have just imagined the somewhat concerning prospect which many local rugby players are faced with every week down at Exhibition Fields, when they face the Exeter Saracens RFC. And the man-mountain in question? Our very own Chief Commercial Officer, Mr Llewellyn Micheal Nicholls. Oh, and yes, his parents did misspell his middle name on his birth certificate (before the more pedantic of you pick me up on that…).
Llew and I recently took the opportunity to get away from the fast-growth rollercoaster of Grow for a few hours, for him to tell me a bit more about his background, his career journey and his take on the Grow story so far. It has certainly been quite a ride! So, we settled in to our reserved table at Hubbox, ordered more food than either of us would be willing to admit and started what turned out to be a pretty eye-opening conversation. We ate and drank. We talked about God and drugs. We laughed until our sides hurt and we both cried at a couple of points. Basically a standard Wednesday afternoon for me and Llew.
Born and brought up in Suburban Durban – Yellowwood Park to be exact – Llew grew up with his parents and two brothers who he described as “a very tight-knit unit”. So much so, in fact, that, when he went out into the real world at school age, he remembers realising that, outside of this immersive family bubble, other people lived very differently and did things in alternative ways. Llew clearly had everything that he needed within his family unit and didn’t need to look elsewhere for his identity or affirmation. What a wonderful foundation to have in life – one that Llew was demonstrably thankful for when reminiscing about the early years of his life.
This bubble was, sadly, to be burst when he started attending primary school full-time and was badly bullied. His young mind struggled to reconcile this alien-experience and, in what Llew described as a real regret of his, for a few short years, he signed up to the ‘if you can’t beat them, then join them’ school of thought as a form of self-protection and became a school bully. If you know Llew at all well now, you would agree that, despite his imposing frame and booming voice, you would be hard-pressed to find a much gentler, soft-hearted and selfless man. He is the personification of the term ‘gentle giant’ and his remorse for the actions of his childhood was evident.
As he moved into secondary school, he started showing a real aptitude for his studies and also for sports, playing for the school first teams in Cricket and Rugby and being awarded with Sports Colours at the end of his High School Rugby and Water Polo careers. This academic and sporting success meant that he “became cool overnight” and, as a result, meant that he was quickly put under immense peer-pressure to act certain ways and do certain things.
It was in his tender early teenage years that Llew first encountered alcohol, drinking way too much one night and getting really sick. As drinking became a more commonplace thing for him and his friends, little did he realise that, with his really addictive personality, he was slowly become dependent on drinking. This was the beginning of what has been a rocky and difficult journey for Llew and, for some years now, has led to him being teetotal. It is a journey that he has walked with only his family and close friends before talking about it openly in our conversation and he was honest in sharing that the journey has been one on which he has required much grace and more than a few second chances. Anyway, back to nineties South Africa.
By this point, Llew had finished school and wanted to go to University. However, his family couldn’t afford the exorbitant tuition fees, so Llew resolved to either take up an apprenticeship or move straight into the world of work. He started and completed an N3 qualification in Electronics, but failed to secure an Electricians Apprenticeship and, over the coming years, found himself working in a variety of roles, from being a bank teller to working in Event Security at heavy metal concerts.
At the age of twenty-two, a friend of his was running a tidy little courier business in Durban and, for several reasons, decided that he didn’t want to run it anymore, gifting it to Llew as a going concern. It was really hard work but Llew inherited a comprehensive database of clients and went about slowly growing the business, to the point that he employed Chris, a friend of his, to increase the capacity of their output. This worked for a couple of years before, unfortunately, his friend became more and more unreliable and Llew sadly had to have a difficult conversation with him and let him go.
At this point in our conversation, Llew stopped and welled up, visibly very emotional. Pulling up the sleeve of his tee-shirt, he pointed at a tattoo that I have seen many times before and said,
“I’ve never told you what these letters stand for Joff. The C is for Chris and the G is for Gareth. I haven’t thought or talked about this for a long time but they both died in a car accident a couple of days after I had to let Chris go from the courier business.”
Llew went on to explain how, after an awkward couple of days following Chris’ exit from the business, they had resolved things and then met up along with Llew’s brother and a mutual friend (Gareth) to party hard and move on. In an unusual move, Llew and his brother decided not to keep going and left to go home. That would be the last time that they were to see Chris and Gareth who were killed later that night in a drunk-driving hit and run accident.
Llew continued, still with tears in his eyes,
“I could have been in that car with them. I still struggle with the nagging thought that, if I’d been in the car with them, I could have helped in some way. I had been brought up in a Christian home (although I didn’t have a faith of my own at the time) and, when the accident happened, my primary reaction was anger, particularly directed towards God. How could he allow my friends to be killed so brutally and snatched away so suddenly? How could there be no justice for my friends? A big part of my grieving and healing process was being really honest about that anger. Being honest about it and not holding anything back meant that I could get it out of my system, or at least the really powerful initial feelings anyway. It was around this time of my life that I met my now wife Stella who had gone through some traumatic events too, including her first husband also being killed by a drunk driver and then escaping and divorcing her second husband after she had been the victim of domestic abuse. We both had similarities in our life stories and we sort of helped each other to make sense of it all, supporting each other and standing by each other even when things got really tough.”
This was a formative and refining time in Llew’s life, as he started to, one-by-one, deal with some of his habits, coping mechanisms and the underlying emotional pain which drove them. Much like precious gold which becomes purer and more valuable in the heat of the furnace, so it has been in Llew’s life. On the one hand, I got the impression that he wished he could’ve learned some of those life lessons in less painful and destructive ways. On the other hand, there is a look in Llew’s eyes that suggests that he has made his peace with his journey and accepted that everything in his life has happened for a reason – many factors which add up to the sum of who he is today.
Llew was twenty-seven when he met Stella on an online dating site. They lived a seven-hour-drive apart but visited each other as often as possible and spoke almost every day in between. It got to the point that Llew knew he wanted to be with Stella long-term so he started applying for jobs in Johannesburg, which he then started being offered interviews for. At this point he found himself at a crossroads and, in a moment of clarity and decisiveness, upped sticks overnight and moved to ‘Joburg’ with the sort of certainty that comes with a strong gut feeling and a sense of destiny and purpose deep in your heart.
As Stella had two children, Llew therefore became a father overnight too and, over the coming months and years, they started to work out how to be a family unit together, despite the traumatic and complex roads that had brought them all together. If you spend any amount of time with the Nicholls, you would be forgiven for considering them as unrecognisable to this description of how their family unit started. There is a palpable closeness and unity amongst them although, not for a second to be mistaken for a false or surface façade. They are some of the most straight talking and honest people that I know. They are South African after all…
Llew went on to tell me that all of the professional roles which he has done over the years (some of which he described as “what felt like the worst jobs in the world at the time”), have all contributed to a strange sort of training plan that lead to Llew co-founding Grow in 2017. He expanded,
“It’s all about building relationships with people. Genuinely listening to their needs, showing that you care and want to help meet those needs and then work tirelessly to deliver for them. If you’re the person that they trust, they will choose you time and time again. At the very heart of the Grow ethos is a desire to serve and build relationships with (and between) local businesses.”
“So how did this amazing and crazy family rock up on our fair shores?’, I hear you say. Well, by this point, Llew was working for a flag company as their Regional Sales Manager and he landed the largest single order of his career – a 1,000,000 Rand order (equivalent to £100,000). After several years of feeling like they might want to move abroad, the commission from that single order helped to pay for them to move to England. So, they sold everything they owned and moved over with their lives packed into suitcases. They moved into a furnished house in Heavitree and, within three months, due to the unkind conversion rates, their life savings had been depleted. As brand-new immigrants to the country, they also found that securing work was a challenge so, for the first few months of their lives in England, Llew’s family picked up work wherever they could find it to make ends meet but he struggled to find work. Llew gave his honest assessment of what had been a hugely humbling experience and an incredibly hard time for the family” but he also had a deep, distant pride in his eyes that eluded to the fact that they had weathered the storm and come out the other side to tell the tale.
It was at this intersection in Llew’s life, in 2012, that I met him, when we both worked in the advertising sales team of a national publishing firm. Bearing in mind the difficult start to life in the UK that Llew had endured, it took him some time to get up to speed and get used to being a South African in Devon. At what proved to be a turning point in his fortunes, a certain Daniel Frye (CEO of Grow) became his Line Manager and, long story short, showed real trust in Llew and belief in his abilities. This was a spark that ignited the sales equivalent of a stick of dynamite and, without exaggeration, Llew quickly became the best sales person that I’ve ever worked with. That small amount of belief was all that he needed to stand tall, gain the confidence which is so vital in the world of sales and start to make a real go of carving out a career for himself here in the UK. Not only has he done that with aplomb, but he has made it his personal mission to be that very same voice of encouragement, support and belief to others, as Dan once was for him.
I won’t expand much further on what has happened since at Grow, partly due to some of it having been told before and also due to space limitations (if you ever need a screenwriter for a more thorough film of your life Llew, you know where I am). However, what I will say in parting is that Grow is what it is thanks in large measure to who Llew and Dan are. As with any creation, it is infused with the unique characteristics of the person or people who created it. And so it is with Grow. Llew brings such a unique personality and valuable skill set to the table and Grow simply wouldn’t be what it is without him.
To stay up to date with Llew Nicholls and his unique blend of work, play and rugby, follow @LlewTheSaffa on Twitter