One of the best pieces of advice my father ever gave me was to “Observe the masses and do the opposite”.
This week, I welcome to my guest blog, my friend, James Caan, who provides a fascinating insight into his own amazing “Entrepreneur story”. Keith.
I always knew I wanted my own business. I started my entrepreneurial activities at school. My father ran his own business, making leather jackets for west London boutiques. I remember taking them to school and selling them to my friends for £10 profit. My father was impressed. From an early age I had been absorbing lessons from him, but one piece of advice that always stayed with me was his appreciation of the ‘win-win’ formula. He was adamant that you could only operate successfully if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes – whether that was supplier or client – because to him the art of success was making the other person feel like he’d won. If you did that, they were more likely to come back again. “Successful business,” he would say, “is not about good transactions, it’s about good relationships”.
I think he noticed my entrepreneurial spirit early on, and started to groom me to take over his business. As with most Asian families, I knew I was expected to take over the family business. But it just didn’t feel right for me. I didn’t know at the time what I wanted to do with my life, just that I could work for myself. My drive to break out on my own led me to make a very rash decision, I dropped out of school when I was 16.
To say that my father was disappointed that I didn’t want to take over the business was an understatement, but dropping out of school plunged our relationship to new levels. So, on top of everything else I left home.
Now I really needed to earn money to support myself. I tried a few unsuitable jobs until I finally got a job as a trainee in a recruitment agency in Holborn. I was given a copy of the Yellow Pages and a phone and told to pitch to companies. I immediately loved the buzz and the atmosphere of the recruitment office.
At age 19 I was doing quite well in my new found career, so I was delighted when I was head hunted to work as a consultant in the financial services sector. It was here that I really learned how to pitch, taking it to the next level, a skill that would later serve me well when starting my own business and pitching for that all important first client. The money was good, the commission alone was more than my salary and was enough to buy myself a Mercedes and a selection of designer suits. Life was good. This was the 80s, the economy was booming, you were always hearing about brokers and city workers and their lavish spending and big deals.
During my time in the financial services sector I met Aisha, who was later to become my wife. I interviewed her when she came for a job at our agency. She was a well educated and astute woman, I found her fascinating. Aisha turned down the job she was offered deciding that she wanted to realise a dream of opening her own boutique. By this time I was hooked and I wanted to invest in her business idea. I didn’t have the money, nor did I know where I would get the £30k needed. In the end I maxed out countless credit cards.
The boutiques did so well I ended up leaving my job to focus on them full time. Before we knew it, the debts had been paid off, we were turning a profit, and opened up a few more stores. But I still had the passion and dream of setting up my own recruitment business.
“Successful business,” my father would say, “is not about good transactions, it’s about good relationships”.
So not too long I decided to go with my instincts and take the plunge. I returned to recruitment and set up a business called Alexander Mann. At the time it was really important to me that my business had a prestigious address. I wanted clients to feel that the company was professional and established. Unfortunately that meant that all I could afford was a broom cupboard sized room in a Pall Mall building with no windows! So there I was in a cupboard, starting out, just as I had done years earlier, with just a Yellow Pages and a phone.
As anyone who has done cold calling before will know, it can be a disheartening process. Selling from scratch requires perseverance and a thick skin. I would contact countless clients pitching to them, only to have the phone repeatedly put down on me. This went on for months. It took me a while to realise why I was not getting any clients, but eventually I decided I needed to change my pitch. I needed to approach the clients with the vacancies and then pitch them the perfect candidate. Rather than trying to sell my services to them, I would use my skills to engage them in conversation. From these discussions I was able to glean quite a lot of information. I managed to get the companies to start pitching me; why should my candidate work for you? In the process, I was gaining first hand a thorough job description, which just left me to search for the perfect candidate. I wasn’t leaving them any room to decline my offer. It to
ok some persistence but eventually after a few months, I landed my first placement. As soon as I made that first deal, I went out to prove to others that my pitch worked and that I could build a sustainable business. And I did.
Before long I moved Alexander Mann to a larger office. Within two years, I had employed a team of people and we were making money. I was continually thinking about new ideas on how to increase revenue. One idea I had was to recruit within the industry itself. It seemed to amuse everyone I tried to sell the idea to, but I knew I was on to something and one day I got the first bite. The idea made me the first person in the UK to charge a fee to a client for sourcing and placing a recruitment consultant. From then on we had made a name for ourselves as the “recruiter for recruiters”.
When the 1990’s recession came, Alexander Mann was still quite a small company, despite the level of turnover. Profits declined, and continued to decline. I started the business riding through a boom economy in the 80’s, I’d not been prepared for such a tough climate. I was even struggling to pay the wages at one point, and I didn’t take a pay cheque myself for a few months. But I took some advice and instead of continuously worrying about the risk of closure, I thought about my father’s words and managed to ride it out.
I always had the vision of the company growing further, building an International name. When the business tide finally turned, I moved Alexander Mann to Holborn. Employee growth doubled and then doubled again. The business went from strength to strength and eventually grew to a turnover of £130 million. In 2002 I sold Alexander Mann. It was a strange but incredibly exciting moment when I saw the amount I was being offered for it. The sale meant I could retire early and spend time with my family enjoying a relaxing life. And for a while I did just that. I took a year out, I grew a beard and only wore jeans and t-shirts. But I wasn’t satisfied, I missed working. For a while I took on a number of projects; I built and invested in a school for underprivileged children in Pakistan, I named it in memory of my father, who died in 1999. During this break I also took the decision to return to education. It was the only thing I felt I’d missed out on in my life. So at 40 I went to Harvard Business School to study a Business Management Course.
When I returned from Harvard I started looking for ways I could invest the money I had from the sale of Alexander Mann. After considering a number of possibilities I decided to get someone else to invest it for me. At the time, Private Equity companies were providing the best return and I was familiar with the process from the sale of AM to Advent. So I sat through numerous presentations from Private Equity teams telling me why I should invest in them. During one meeting I came across a very well presented team with high calibre Oxbridge backgrounds but I suddenly realised none of them had actually run a business. I had a light bulb moment; Why don’t I just do this myself? Having already built a business from scratch I could use my experience and money to invest in and grow other businesses. Amazingly word got out that I was planning something and the phone started ringing, people started offering me deals. All I needed was to recruit some exceptional talent behind me, and I soon went about selecting my perfect team.
So my next big passion, Hamilton Bradshaw was born. When I was thinking of a name I had the image of two old-fashioned, well established, astute men sitting outside a Mayfair office, probably in bowler hats, and I wanted my company to reflect this. What is more typically English and noble sounding than Mr Hamilton and Mr Bradshaw?
It may seem like most of my business career up until then was plain sailing, but that’s not the case. In the early stages of Hamilton Bradshaw, one of my decisions misfired. Thinking that I knew enough about business to take on any sector, I thought I could turn around a failing sandwich chain, Benjy’s. Remember that old adage that if a deal seems too good to be true, it generally is. Well I went against all my business principals when I acquired Benjy’s; I was offered the deal on the Monday and by the Friday I had signed the contracts. I learned a valuable lesson from the experience. If I’d stuck to my usual approach to decision making I would have evaluated the business properly and probably come to the same conclusion that the owners had; the business was deteriorating fast and, with fierce competition, it wasn’t salvageable. The trouble was, I didn’t know the sector and I was out of my depth. I finally threw in the towel after 6 months but I’m glad I did; in the end I wasn’t too proud to hold up my hands and say I got it wrong.
When the BBC approached me to join Dragons’ Den in 2007 I was delighted. Although I had heard of the show, I hadn’t seen it, so in preparation I spent a whole weekend watching all the back episodes. On the first day I was quite nervous, especially when I realised there were no notes or preparation before the entrepreneurs entered. What you see on screen is literally what you get! The guy comes up, he gives you a pitch for say 20 minutes and that’s it, you decide if you want to invest your money.
It took me a while to make my first investment; this wasn’t the way I was used to doing business. My decisions to invest were based on gut feeling. Coming from a service industry background, I am a great believer in investing in people not just the product. Someone could have the most incredible idea, but unless they have the determination and passion to drive it, the business will not be successful. Perhaps my first investment, the dog treadmill, was a surprise to the other Dragons, but I saw something in the owner, Sammy French, which made me believe she had the grit and determination to make her business work. And she lived up to my expectations, the product has been a great success both in the UK and overseas ever since.
Soon after starting in the Den I was approached to write my own Autobiography. I was reluctant at first, and still a little unsure of the fame that programmes like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice attached to the business world. I didn’t have a celebrity status, but the shows seemed to have ignited a passion for business and entrepreneurialism.
Lots of people seemed interested in my journey, how I came to be a successful businessman, what my inspiration was, how I implemented my ideas. So I decided if I can provide motivation and insight to others thinking about starting their own business, then what better way than to share my experiences.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the years that I have spent on Dragons’ Den, but as my family and colleagues know, Hamilton Bradshaw has always been my passion, and since moving to the office in Mayfair, the business has grown enormously. We now manage over 40 businesses in our portfolio, and we’re currently striking new deals and spreading to new markets. This is in addition to some other new projects.
I recently launched another new book, this time about recruitment called “How To Get the Job You Really Want”. Having spent nearly three decades in the recruitment sector it seemed like the perfect time to share my experience and trade insights. This recession has hit harder than at any other time, and the job market is especially challenging for people at all levels. These days candidates need all the tools and help they can get to help them stand out from the competition and perhaps change their approach to the job market. I hope my book provides everyone from graduates upwards with the help and tips they need to secure that all important job or even help them further their career.
I am also delighted that just recently Hamilton Bradshaw Human Capital, part of the HB group, has been recognised as one of the Top 50 fastest growing recruitment companies in the world. To know that our companies are experiencing growth and that we are realising our long strategy is so rewarding. But then that’s why I am in business, and always will be.
I am really excited about the future. I have just turned 50, so that’s yet another milestone, but I’ve just as much energy and drive as I’ve always had. I believe there have been some very defining moments in my life that got me where I am today. I feel privileged, but there is still so much more I want to do and achieve, so my business career is far from over. In fact, I think really it’s just beginning.