Lee Waterhouse is a prominent figure in the Derby business community, Founder and Managing Director of both WDA Design & WDA Automotive and, as this interview reveals, a brilliant and inspirational business mind

NB: This interview with Lee took place back in 2017 when I first started experimenting with the idea and hadn’t looked into podcasting. Due to other commitments at the time, I parked the project. I felt the interview was still well worth sharing, despite there being no podcast episode – BB 🙂

Lee recently granted me the privilege of allowing me to dive deep down the rabbit hole into not just his business successes but also the times when things aren’t going so well, his philosophies and his experiences.

You can read all about it in our “no holds barred” interview below which is jam-packed with some brilliant, thought-provoking insights and plenty of invaluable business lessons to take stock of regardless of whether you’re already in business or just about to start.

So, without further ado…

BB: Lee, it’s great to spend some quality time with you just talking business. For the benefit of our readers, could you just explain in a nutshell what you do?

LW: Happy to oblige.

Since 1997 I’ve been driving business for clients through marketing and branding.

BB: You have the two branding and marketing agencies, WDA Automotive and WDA Branding, what’s the reason for both?

LW: Well, we were originally focused exclusively on the automotive industry.

But when the recession hit, this sector in particular took quite a tumble so I decided to diversify and look at the industries that weren’t so affected by the downturn, such as the legal sector.

We managed to secure work on behalf of quite a few highly regarded businesses and it just really snowballed from there.

The success of the newer WDA Branding meant that even when the automotive side started to pick up again, we thought why not just keep it going and we’ve been running the two side by side since.

BB: And what was the reason for specialising in the automotive industry to begin with?

LW: I believe that in business you have to care about what you do and have a passion for it. When I was a kid, I raced Motocross, Enduro and Trials at National level.

My family also has a background in motorsport so it’s something that I’ve always been driven by and have been passionate about.

Before WDA, I was working at a multi D&AD award winning agency which specialised in the finance sector.

I recognised how they had grown by focusing on one particular sector and thought why not become a specialist in the area that I’m most interested in, which was automotive.

BB: Starting a business is a big risk and a huge decision to make. At what point in your career did you realise that it was something you had to do?

LW: Well, the large agency that I was a part of was bought-out and I got hired by a much smaller agency.

It was a great agency but it was way out of town and the work I was doing just wasn’t as fulfilling as my previous role and I only ever really saw that as a stop gap because I just couldn’t see a future for myself there.

The opportunity came when a good friend had left his own successful marketing agency to head up his fathers motorcycle distribution business (which is still operating to this day).

As we both had a passion for the Automotive sector and were both designers ‘by trade’, we decided to join forces. As part of the deal I formed my own independent business and was appointed as exclusive agency looking after brands such as AGV Helmets, Spidi and Wolf.

It was as simple as that really.

BB: And at what point did you really think to yourself your new agency could become a success?

LW: In the first year of my business I was very focused on sticking to the plan that I had created and being extremely careful in controlling costs.

So, whilst my projections may have been low, to actually hit them at the end of my first twelve months was a real achievement and that’s when I knew that this was the path for me.

I’d set a challenge and proven myself right which gave me all the confidence I needed to continue.

BB: I think a lot of people reading are going to relate to that. So in your illustrious business career so far what would you describe as your biggest success to date?

LW: One that really stands out for me is when we pitched to RBS.

It’s funny really because looking back at it, we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing.

There wasn’t a lot of strategy behind the pitch, but we were great designers so we just rocked up with some brilliant visuals.

At the time, RBS were looking to switch agencies for their automotive insurance brands, Devitt And Churchill.

Luckily for us, we went in and met a team who were very experienced in the world of finance but who didn’t know a lot about the automotive sector.

We pretty much blew them away with our automotive wisdom and the concepts we had created – and walked out that day with the account.

It was a brilliant feeling and to know that the little guys had gone up against the big boys and won!



BB: It sounds like a fantastic moment, but now I’d like to flip that on its head.

We hear a lot about business successes without hearing much about the times when it doesn’t go so well – which I feel is just as important.

Can you pinpoint a time when things didn’t quite go to plan and how you overcame it?

LW: To be honest Ben, there isn’t one in particular that stands out.

However, for me personally I feel that each day in business is a rollercoaster of ups and downs.

For example, today alone we won a fantastic account which put me on a real high – twenty years on, I still get the same buzz.

Then just a couple of hours later, we lost an order which even now can still have a profound effect on me.

The way that I see it is that when this happens, you just have to keep going and wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way, because it nearly always does.

BB: Thank you for your honesty Lee. I think there will be a lot of readers out there who feel the same way but never hear that from anyone else because we’re all so proud and would never admit it.

I would expect there’s a few people finding comfort reading this right now knowing that, actually, they’re not the only one that feels like that too!

So, next question…

If you could travel back in time and meet the Lee of 1997 who is just about to jump into launching WDA Automotive, what’s the one piece of advice you would give him?

LW: I’ve actually got two here Ben so you’ll have to bear with me.

With regards to the direction of the business I would probably tell young me to think twice about going into marketing and branding!

Back in the eighties, it used to be like ‘Madmen’ – you know, “Champagne Charlies” with redbraces charging phenomenal fees and living it up wolf of wall street style.

However, things have changed a lot since then and whilst there’s still plenty of money to be made, there’s nowhere near as much as there used to be.

The chief reason is technology – both in terms of the tools of the trade, but also the way media has changed.

It still amazes me how many businesses think they can buy an Apple Mac and send a junior from reception on a course – and have their own in-house agency!

The same goes for things like social marketing, blogging, search – I could go on. Some people think that because these ways of communicating are at their fingertips that they can do it themselves.

Does putting a paint brush into a person’s hand make them Picasso?

Thing is, I’m still very motivated by branding and marketing, and the ‘young Lee’ would certainly not have listened anyway!

If I were to change careers I’d probably do what I’m always telling my kids to get into, technology or finance.

Technology is an obvious one because that is forever going to be a part of people’s lives.

And finance because when you look at the CEOs of many of the large FTSE and Fortune companies, a healthy percentage of them have come from the finance world.

The second piece of advice is particularly relevant to service and consultancy based industries is – to charge for value.

If you can’t charge for value, charge for expertise.

But never charge for time.

BB: Both very interesting points.

So I’m interested Lee, with all the ups and downs, highs and lows of business how do you stay motivated?

LW: I have a unique condition called the “This time next year we’ll be millionaires Rodney” syndrome.

Joking aside, I have a deep inner belief that I will at some point make it “big”.

I hold on to the fact that for the very few major successes in history, they got there later on in life.

For example, President Lincoln took office when he was 56.

If I’m not where I want to be by the time I’m 56 then I’ll switch my focus to someone like Colonel Sanders who famously found his success much later on in life and didn’t reach a billion until he was 88!

My own belief is that providing I’m still fit, able, healthy – I’ll keep driving forwards because I enjoy what I do and I have no intention of retiring.

Ultimately, I can’t comprehend reaching my deathbed knowing that I have not been able to achieve all that I am capable of and that is a great motivator for me.

BB: And when you maybe need an extra shot of motivation as we all do from time to time, who do you look to for inspiration?

LW: I actually have a long list of people on my phone that I reflect on when I need some inspiration.

These people are mainly just people that I like to associate with because of their positive attitude and values.

I always tell my sons that the most important thing in success is attitude.

Having said that, I can sometimes be guilty myself of slipping into a bit of a negative mindset which I’m very conscious of and thankfully can quickly snap out of.

I’m a very big believer that one major attribute extremely successful people have in common is a very natural, positive energy and outlook on life.

In situations that most people would view as negative, they have an almost effortless capability to see the positive in these same events and take a completely different viewpoint.

Then in the “guru” world, there’s people like Jordan Belfort, the infamous “Wolf of Wall Street”.

Regardless of what you think of his ethics or his “habits” you cannot help but admire that fact that he was simply indomitable.

There was absolutely nothing that could keep him down and no matter what happens to him, he will always find a way to move forward which is an attitude I admire greatly and try to adopt myself.

Gary Veynurchuk is a new one for me who I’m currently enjoying.

He’s quick witted, astute, cuts to the quick and makes the complex, simple.

It’s refreshing because business is simple, we just make it complicated by losing sight of what really works and becoming busy fools.

I also admire his work ethic and I’m always reminding my kids that hard work beats talent, when talent isn’t working hard enough.

BB: If you could recommend one video, book, resource, software, tool or application, what would it be and why?

LW: This would be “Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey.

Some might say that given the length of time it’s been around, it might be a bit outdated but I personally think that the concepts are timeless.

It gives you a framework not just to overcome business challenges, but any challenge that you come across in life.

When the shit hits the fan for me, be it business, social, family – anything, I can apply that framework to absolutely anything and by analysing the problem, re-framing it and taking a different perspective, I can feel positive about the situation very quickly.

BB: Yes, I can see that being a very powerful framework to have.

Our ability to manage our states is so important in business. That’s another one that’s definitely on the “re-read” list for me.

So Lee, do you consider yourself successful?

LW: No and I don’t think I ever will because I’m always striving to reach that next level.

BB: That’s a great answer and I’m sure many of our readers will feel the same way. There’s always something more!

I think most people that we would see as being successful would give the same answer and for what it’s worth, I would most definitely consider you to be a big success.

Following on from that, the logical next question is how do you define “success”?

LW: It depends in what context.

When we’re talking about material possessions, I have a lot of nice things – houses, cars, watches etc.

But the problem is, that feeling you get when you acquire these things only lasts for a very short amount of time and then my focus is back on what’s next.

I would be surprised if anyone in business truly thinks themselves as “successful” unless they’re absolutely driven like crazy to get there and have amassed huge wealth by adopting a lifestyle that very few people would be prepared to.

BB: So for those that are looking for the shortcut to becoming successful, what would you say?

LW: I always remember when somebody said to me that the secret to success is actually simple.

It may sound oversimplified at first but when you think about it, there’s really only three steps that you need to take.

The first is knowing where you want to be.

Without that first ingredient, it’s like getting into a car and just driving with no destination. If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you supposed to work out how to get there?

The second part is calculating the price.

And by that, I don’t mean price just in a monetary sense but look at what you’re going to have to sacrifice to get there – because you will have to make a lot of painful sacrifices be it financial, physical, social, emotional etc. and not everybody can do that.

For those that decide that they’re OK with that, the next stage is where it gets really hard and that is actually having to pay that price.

The final step is to make a plan, and more importantly, take action!

The first bit is easy.

We can all say we want to be running a multi-million pound business with a collection of exotic cars.

But when you look at what it costs to get there – getting up at 5am, working through weekends, not seeing your family, friends and all the rest of it – all of a sudden it’s not as attractive as you first thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I used to be one of those people.

You’d never catch me in bed after 5am and it contributed to where I am now but as you get older, your outlook on life changes and I don’t do it as much as I used to.

BB: What is one philosophy you have adopted that you feel has affected you in a profound way?

LW: A philosophy that I live by is that you reap what you sow, to an almost exact equilibrium.

Yes, you might have some bad luck along the way so there’s peaks and troughs but I truly believe that a person’s current situation in all aspects of their life is a direct result of their combined efforts thus far.

A very wealthy friend of mine who has sadly passed away built a huge empire by becoming the biggest helmet manufacturer in the world.

He had luxury houses in all of the world’s most exclusive locations, he had the cars, he had things that you couldn’t believe.

He once flew me and my team to China first class and it was nothing to him.

I always remember way back when he invited me to Monaco to take his Lamborghini Murcielago out for the day. The world that this guy lived in was just so many miles apart from the rest of us.

He had everything money could buy but I can tell you for sure that when you looked at his work ethic, his schedule and his energy even at a much older age, there are only a tiny percentage of people that would stand any chance of keeping up.

That’s why I said earlier, you’ve got to be almost crazy to get to that level and I find that a lot of, what I would define as, truly successful people could be described as crazy because they operate at a completely different level.

They are prepared to sacrifice everything to get there – in extreme cases even their families.

The question is, before you even put pen to paper on a plan – are you prepared to pay the real price?

BB: Wow! That’s a powerful question and one that should be considered very carefully by anyone who’s about to go it on their own.

Lee, that just about wraps things up for this interview.

Thank you for being such a brilliant interviewee! You’ve been incredibly open, honest and you’ve shared a lot of wisdom which I’m sure our readers will be very grateful for.

One final thing before we part ways, if people want to find out a bit more about you and the WDA agencies, where should they go?

LW: The best place to start is to go to WDA Marketing for the design agency.

If you want to check out the automotive side of the business, we’ve just had a huge rebrand which has been really exciting.

You can check us out there at WDA Automotive

BB: Well that brings things to a close for this first interview in what I hope will become a great series featuring a variety of local business leaders.

A huge thanks again to Lee Waterhouse and if you have any marketing or branding requirements, I’d highly recommend you take a look at some of the brilliant work Lee and his team have created.

Until next time, stay focused, stay fearless and stay hungry!

To your success in Business!