How Brett Birkill sold his workwear company for more than $10 million, thanks to an overheard conversation

Despite having just sold his business for more than $10 million, Prime Mover Workwear founder Brett Birkill says it’s business as usual.

Prime Mover Workwear, which was founded in 2004 by Birkill and his wife Wandy, has been acquired by Irish workwear giant Portwest Limited for €7.5 million ($10.4 million).

The Prime Mover business makes workwear for the construction and manufacturing sectors and has around 50 staff across Australasia. It was turning over excess of $15 million annually before the sale.

Birkill told SmartCompany this morning the deal came about fortuitously, thanks to a conversation that was overheard in a small Irish store.

“Portwest owns a number of smaller businesses in Ireland not related to workwear, and there was a gentleman from Australia visiting one in Westport last year,” Birkill says.

“One of the owners of Portwest happened to be in that store at the same time, and was talking to a different man about expanding their workwear business into Australia.”

The conversation was overheard by an Australian who was involved in the workwear space, and this led to Prime Mover’s first connection with Portwest Limited.

“The Australian guy overheard the conversation and mentioned he knew some people in the workwear industry in Australia, and that was our first connection,” Birkell says.

Both Portwest and Prime Mover Workwear were employing KPMG as consultants, and through that connection, the first talks of an acquisition were made.

“Portwest wasn’t actively flying to Australia and knocking on doors looking for connections, they had Australia firmly in their growth plan, but they didn’t know where to start,” he says.

“That conversation really kicked it off.”

Birkill and his wife will keep working at the company, with Birkill being appointed chief executive for the Australia and New Zealand region.

The company’s staff will also stay on, and Birkill says he will be flying out to Ireland to start getting some planning underway with the new owners.

“At the moment it’s business as usual, but we’re planning for a three-year transition period,” he says.

“I’ve got a huge amount of development and expansion to set out with them in Ireland in the next few weeks, and we’ve got some pretty clear plans already.”

Other purchase offers the wrong fit

This isn’t the first time Prime Mover Workwear has fielded purchase offers from bigger companies, but Birkill has previously turned them down, as they were never the “right fit”.

“We had other groups look at the business, but we started this business from scratch, so we wanted to pass it on to someone who could develop it and take it to the next stage,” he says.

“There have been a lot of brands bought by big public companies with models that just don’t fit, like retail business buying wholesale brands.”

“We wanted the right fit and we wanted the right people. If we had sold to one of the other offers, Prime Mover would not have succeeded.”

Homegrown businesses not always easy to transfer

Although the acquisition process has been a simple one, Birkill says there were a couple of challenges with transferring ownership of a homegrown business.

“We grew from scratch, and as you do that you’re always adding bits as you go. You twist and turn to suit what the business needs at the time,” he says.

“When you go to pass the business on you need to be very organised and diligent, but there are things that aren’t exactly easy to transact. We’ve tried to be as diligent as possible on all those things.”

Another challenge has been communication across time zones, but Birkill notes the companies have a “clear communication flow” now.

Looking forward, Birkill says both he and his wife are committed to progressing the business smoothly.

“We want to work with the business and make this a great success, and we’re committed to rolling that out,” he says.

Portwest Limited says after a long search, it believes it has found the best business in the space in Australia.

“We’ve been wanting to expand into Australasia for some time and have spent a lot of time looking for the best company in the region. We’re confident we’ve found it and can’t wait to see what the future holds for us in the territory,” Portwest chief executive Harry Hughes said in a statement on the acquisition.

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