After surviving childhood trauma Declan Cox is sailing into calmer waters
When I sit down with Declan Cox, part of me feels like I already know him. Before meeting him in person, I pore over some old newspaper stories about his life. It is a shocking read. He suffered physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic mother’s partner, before being brought up in an ‘inappropriate’ care system, which failed to cater for his needs. He ran away and ended up on the streets and witnessed a violent stabbing at a hostel, which proved to be the tipping point that helped him to turn his life around.
For someone who is only 20, he has been through an awful lot, but appears to channel his experience – which could so easily have overwhelmed him – in an admirably positive way. He is confident, wise beyond his years, and seems determined to make a go of it in the world of events management.
His company, Halyard Events, is smartly branded and despite launching just a year ago, he has already built up a steady stream of clients and is even organising and marketing his own conferences on the subject of ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACE). It is a canny move; he can bear testimony to the failings in the system, warts and all, and as a result is a credible voice that is being increasingly sought by public sector care providers and local authorities up and down the country. His ‘speaking turns’ have therefore acted as a platform to get his name out there and build a profile for his company, which in turn is driving inquiries.
Perhaps understandably, he does not want ‘ACE’ to define him, and sees himself eventually moving away from the subject altogether; his real love, sailing, is the essence of his company (a ‘halyard’ is a rope used for lowering a sail), and he perceives a gap in the market in Scotland to offer high-end sailing experiences to corporates. Many boat charter companies just don’t cut the mustard, he feels.
“I was able to get some experience of sailing through the Scouts, and I loved it,” he says, his eyes lighting up animatedly as he starts talking about it. “I’ve always enjoyed yacht-based stuff so it was something I’d looked into.”
He added: “I could have been someone who slept out in the park and drank but I wanted to be better than that. I felt I needed to speak out about what happened, and that has been really positive; I’ve spoken in front of 1,500 people across 10 different events. But I do want to leave the childhood trauma behind and concentrate on getting the Halyard name out there. I see the marine events [side of the business] as growing massively over time.” The plan appears to be working. He has helped organise all manner of events, indoor and at sea – from a Great Gatsby-themed party for 300 to an ‘immersive’ Alice in Wonderland- style sailing event. There are 30 more marine events in the pipeline, he tells me.
I am impressed that he has managed to build what seems to be a fully-fledged business from scratch, with no external sources of funding. He is trading, pure and simple, and relies on selling tickets for his ACE events (there’s one this month and another in December, with some high-profile speakers) and on inbound inquiries. He has a web provider – eJigsaw – which has been “instrumental” in his success so far, and who have not charged him an arm and a leg to build a site. He is getting them to develop a back-end system for him, so he doesn’t have to pay companies like Eventbrite or Universe to take a cut of his tickets. Cannier, still.
There are also a multitude of stringent regulations to navigate for anyone who wants to put a boat to sea, let alone a party of up to 12 business people (any more than that, the vessel is considered to be a “ferry”). He has 30 staff on his ‘books’ – an assemblage of part time, contract-based or freelances, although he knows by his own exacting standards the kind of person he wants to work with. Quality and service are his watchwords, driven by his own experience of outdoor instructing, which he did for a short time in between the care system and starting out as an entrepreneur. “I recognised that quite a lot of the instructors I worked with weren’t very good,” he says, without coming across as grand about it.“I realised that I wanted to work for myself to my own standards.”
Word seems to have travelled that his venture is a good one for any aspiring young events professionals to work for. An events assistant position he recently advertised received over 270 responses, which were whittled down to eight. His ambitions seem to have no bounds and he’s planning to exhibit next year at EventIt, Scotland’s events industry trade show. “I want to make lots of money,” he jokes. He will have to if he wants to purchase his own yacht, another objective which he estimates would cost him around £100,000. At this stage, I wouldn’t put it past him.