Me And My Partner: 'We have a lot of creative tension in our relationship'

Rory Steer set up Freeplay Energy 10 years ago after seeing a documentary about a wind-up radio. Technology director John Hutchinson joined him six months later. Turnover at the company is £6.5m
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The Independent Online
Rory Steer

I've been described as a seat-of-the-pants entrepreneur. I set up my own company when I was 18 and I've never really worked for anyone else. I've always been involved in different ventures, from restaurants to a mergers and acquisitions boutique, and now Freeplay Energy.

Rory Steer

I've been described as a seat-of-the-pants entrepreneur. I set up my own company when I was 18 and I've never really worked for anyone else. I've always been involved in different ventures, from restaurants to a mergers and acquisitions boutique, and now Freeplay Energy.

In fact, Freeplay is probably the longest I've ever stayed with one thing, but it's such a varied and interesting opportunity, it just keeps firing the imagination. I first came across the technology in 1994. I was in South Africa and a colleague called me and said he'd just seen a BBC documentary on Trevor Bayliss and his wind-up radio and how he couldn't get anyone to develop the idea. Within days I was in London agreeing to buy the rights.

Because it was a brand new product, we opened our own factory to develop it. But neither I nor the people that I was working with at the time had ever been in a factory before, so I said to them, you've got to find me a consultant who has been involved in manufacturing, particularly a radio one. And John was that guy.

He started as a consultant in the latter part of 1994 and then joined full time in February 1995. His initial job was to set up and run the manufacturing side. We developed the first product in the UK and then took it back to our factory in Cape Town where John refined it and made it manufacturable.

He is a very evolved guy. He's got three degrees - he's an engineer, he's got an MBA, and then he went off and did a law degree just for the hell of it. When we decided that it was crucial to have an in-house research and development team, John was the obvious guy to sort it out, so he came out of the factory and now looks after the entire product development and research side of the business.

I'm not an engineer in any way. I need somebody who can give me a reality check on ideas that I come up with. John does that. He is an fantastic engineer and has the knowledge to be able to say you can't do that, or you can but there's a problem and this is what it's going to cost. We understand each other very well. The business is all about new technology and that's John's baby, so he is a pivotal player for us

Increasingly, we use him outside the organisation, too, in more of a business development capacity. He has this extraordinary gift of being able to communicate very complex concepts to people in a very clear fashion. John's not an inventor. He's not the sparky guy that comes up with some radical new concepts. He's the executor of best practice. He is very good at explaining things and at getting across his point of view and I have come to rely on and trust that.

We have a lot of creative tension in our relationship. I probably create a lot of it. I'll challenge him again and again until I'm certain that we've really tried to find a way around things. Obviously, that leads to a certain level of conflict, but it's the way that the relationship has evolved and it's the way that I operate. I think aloud. I'll throw out an idea and look for a challenger. John has always been prepared to challenge, a lot of people aren't. I'm 6ft 7in and I can be quite overpowering. But John's never been shy about saying he doesn't agree with me and why. It's almost an in-house joke that Rory and John will never agree. We do agree about a lot of stuff, but the process of agreeing is not always straight forward.

John Hutchinson

Prior to joining Freeplay, I'd been involved in a series of start-ups in South Africa, including a radio assembly plant. I was never the entrepreneur, though. My background is in executing opportunities, rather than developing new products or coming up with new ideas myself.

Rory came back from the UK with the Freeplay concept and was looking for somebody to set up the manufacturing side of the wind-up radio. One of his colleagues had come across me in the past and approached me about getting involved.

I do tend to take entrepreneurs with a pinch of salt. Coming from an engineering background, I focus on the difficult practical detail, not the hype. So when I met Rory, I said you can ditch the grandiose ideas, but the principle is great.

I didn't know Rory from a bar of soap. I was more excited by the social benefits. The original idea was to use disabled labour in the factories and to have the factory owned by a consortium of disabled organisations. So it was progressive technology and it would be manufactured through progressive labour policies. It really appealed to me. I did my MBA thesis on labour relations and it is a subject that's close to my heart.

The relationship with Rory has always been fairly problematic. He'll have these great ideas but no practical concept of how it could work. I'm there to try and make it achievable and to bring in a bit of reality. I think you need that combination, the guy with the dream and then someone to try and bring some sanity to executing it.

So our relationship has never been an easy one, but it works. I understand and appreciate what he brings to the table and he sees me as understanding what needs to be done to make his ideas happen. The middle ground that we generally reach seems to work, but getting there is characterised by disagreement and slight pressure from both sides. It's a lot of pushing and pulling.

I struggled with this way of working in the beginning. He'd come up with all these crazy ideas and throw it all at me and I didn't know which way to go. But I learnt that it is just part of his thought process.

I spent three years in the UK and we worked in the same office all that time. Now, we are often in different countries, so a lot of communication is via phone or email. We do have one week a month on average, though, where we work together closely. We're in each other's pockets, in the same office and spend a lot of time together.

Rory would agree he's not a good manager. The actual day-to-day management, the detail, the working through of practical issues, he's not good at that. He recognises that the value in the company is in the technology and knowing how to exploit it in new opportunities. He's quite intimately involved in that side, so he's much more involved in my patch than in anybody else's patch in the company, and that can bring its own dynamic in the relationship.

Our disagreements aren't personal, though. Rory is very good at separating out the personal side from the business side. We can have a severe disagreement on the business side of things and he'll drop it immediately afterwards. He doesn't carry baggage like that at all.

It's certainly the most challenging professional relationship I've ever had. But I believe that relationships are there to challenge you and in meeting that challenge you grow as a person. If your relationships are too easy and fluid, you never grow. I've certainly grown with Rory.