Early Years to the First Venture
My parents were divorced before I could even remember. I was brought up by my mother with my older sister in a housing association one-bedroom flat in Acton, West London and later a two-bedroom housing association flat in Ealing. When I was 11 my aunt let us rent her unoccupied house in Hammersmith. This was much bigger and in a better environment.
My mother was a teacher at Chiswick Comprehensive which my sister and I attended for our secondary education. During these early years, my mother worked at school as an English teacher, on some nights in a wine bar as a manageress and also taught at evening classes in a local college. So much for single mums being wastrels: my mother knew only work. I guess that was the only environment I knew as well.
The house in Hammersmith was cold and food was always tight, so I vowed that my main mission in life was to a) be fabulously warm and b) eat whatever I liked whenever I liked and to have over-flowing bountiful cupboards and fridges.
Mother was from a good solid grammar-school educated Cambridgeshire family who three generations previously had founded the Cambridge Evening News but had sold the business after the second generation. Lots of teachers populate the family tree on her side and my sister and I were always surrounded by books and encouraged to pursue education to the fullest.
At Chiswick Comprehensive, I watched as people as least as intelligent as me, from the same or similar primary schools, became moronic in their behaviour: generally disruptive and uninterested in achieving anything academic. The mad melting pot of the state education system was doing its best to grind anyone down to the lowest common denominator. I was going the same way.
In a cry for help and with generous financial support from my father, for three years I managed to salvage some education and went to a wonderfully supportive and understanding Quaker boarding school in Saffron Walden. Quakers are largely very low church, classical liberals to the core and of course consistent pacifists. My lifelong interest in politics, political economy, philosophy and theology started to express itself here.
I was a Londoner, a bit of a rough-around-the-edges son of a comprehensive education, and I had been on a path to juvenile delinquency. Not so surprisingly my first money-making schemes were to buy tobacco and booze that I bought duty free to sell to others not so enterprising. Needless to say, I would not recommend any 13-16 year old do this.
After taking my “O” Levels at Friends’ School I returned to London for my “A” Levels, attending Hammersmith and West London College. This was a radical left-wing college. I had fun with two others forming the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) branch there, much to the Socialist, Marxist and Trotskyite majority horror, this is well before the fall of the Berlin Wall and well before the advent of Blairism!
However, it was while studying here that I used to go to Chelsea and sit in amazement on the Kings Road in the summer looking at all those fantastically beautiful girls/women walking up and down with very little left to the imagination.
I managed to talk my way into a private-members’ nightclub on the Kings Road called the 151 Club where alot of these fabulously rich and good looking girls went. I got talking to the owner who said he was looking to sell it. In that instant, I knew I had to buy it! It had queues outside and charged £3 for a bottle of Becks beer that seemed a fortune at the time it must be earning a big profit I thought.
The Restaurant & Nearly Bankrupt but not Quite
Not having any money, the idea came to me that I could encourage one or two of my older colleagues from the staid world of finance that they might increase their chances of dating or finding a wife if they bought this club with me having some “sweat” equity for organising it. They obliged and I got my first bit of free equity just as I was about to go to University at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Money! I now had income and a good time working hard and playing hard throughout my university years. Sadly not much studying took place and I got a second class degree.
This was between the years 1988 and 1991. The stock market had fallen spectacularly in Oct 1987, but it was not until 1991 at the start of the first Gulf War, that I would say we went fully into a recession.
Being “green behind the ears,” whilst the nightclub was a great place to be, we were being ripped off left right and centre, so in many respects it was a necessary place to learn the importance of controls and removing temptation from staff.
Knowing I was Never to be that Corporate Man
After my degree I did try graduate recruitment as I thought this was the right thing to do, i.e. to get a “proper job.” Trust House Forte interviewed me for their graduate recruitment program in a Little Chef somewhere on a motorway in Surrey. They said they would offer me a job. They wanted to show me the uniform that I would need to wear in the Little Chef and at that very moment in time, for sure, I knew I was not a “corporate man.” It was to be the life of the entrepreneur for me.
The Restaurant & Nearly Bankrupt – but not Quite
I got a bit bolder in my vision and seeing an opportunity to acquire a restaurant that had gone bust as part of a group that had expanded too fast in the Lawson Boom, I managed to persuade two new investors, one who would become my father-in-law, to buy Le Casino Restaurant on Lower Sloane Street in Chelsea. I was risking my own money now as well as others’ who I persuade to support the venture and it was only six weeks before my finals. I very quickly got these out the way and became a budding restaurateur. The first three months were profitable then the Gulf War started and we were soon becoming unprofitable. The harsh realities of running a sinking ship soon set in and I had to get to grips with cost. After listening to our chefs always having problems with suppliers, I started buying directly for them from New Covent Garden on Nine Elms for the fruit and veg, from Billingsgate for the fish and from Smithfield Market for the meat. This was saving the restaurant £1,000 per week on average. This just kept us in the game. By 1993 it had been sold, with a £70k loss for each of the three partners.
I could not fund this loss on day one, so it was that I had an awkward meeting with the Bank of Ireland. They intimated that they could bankrupt me, but then they would get nothing of this £70k shortfall. I said that I had started to supply other restaurants with meat and fish on a regular basis and this was providing a very good income. I was going to employ a driver at this point to deliver for me, but instead of employing my first person in this business, I kept taking the orders from restaurants, buying from the markets and delivering the produce myself. I offered the Bank of Ireland the £10k PA of a “driver’s wages” in repayment that I would have paid a driver and they agreed and set up a loan account. Despite the recession, it took me 15 months to pay the whole loan off.
This was the start of Billfields Food Company. The name Billfields is a cross between Billingsgate (the London Fish Market) and Smithfield (the London Meat Market). By 2001, our sales had come to specialise in fish, so the name was changed to Seafood Holdings Ltd of which Billfields became a subsidiary selling meat only while the fish sales were separated into the company now known as Direct Seafoods.
We are now the largest fresh fish supplier to the food service sector in the United Kingdom. To see more about the company, you can click on this web link www.directseafoods.co.uk .
By writing this, I hope that my story can help anyone realise that from whatever background, you have chances in life that you need to grab and take full advantage of. Whatever background, you can achieve more than you ever hoped for, with lots of hard work, vision and tenacity. Good luck.
Since this was written in June 2009, I sold this business in Dec 2010 to the sensational South African Entrepreneur Brian Joffe and his conglomerate , Bidvest . Business wise , now my interests are focused on the entrepreneurial equity page of this web site