Part Three

Thankfully, entrepreneurs are like chameleons; they can change their business “skins” often and quickly to suit the environment. And they don’t have the same amount of bureaucracy weighing on their shoulders as their public counterparts. “If an entrepreneur makes a wrong decision on a Monday, he can change it on the Tuesday,” says LDC’s Eales. “He doesn’t have to answer to reams of shareholders and City analysts. In periods of economic turmoil, markets get re-ordered,” he continues. “If you’re number three or number four in your sector, now’s the time to take a good look at your business, do something different and end up leading the pack. There’s no doubt about it, this year will be the absolute test for management teams.”

Touker and Mustafa Suleyman have injected new life into Hawes & Curtis (59th) since buying the shirt brand for £1 just over four years ago. The brothers started out with a run-down shop in London, an inherited debt of £500,000 and a pile of old stock. Not only have they rolled out 30 stores across the high street, they’ve also started experimenting with younger, more fitted styles, adding a Curtis fashion label and a ladies’ department to the core range.

And they’re not stopping there: the pair will soon be opening an 8,000sq ft flagship store in London’s Jermyn Street, which they reckon will be the “biggest shirt store in Europe”, and they’ve started selling online, manufacturing items in Turkey from a factory they already had up and running. Even if these methods might have the original founders, Ralph Hawes and Freddie Curtis, turning in their graves, they’ve produced the results. Last year, the siblings pulled in sales of £15.3m. This year, they expect turnover to hit £20m.

Niall MacArthur tells us that he’s expanding his sandwich chain, too. The founder of Eat (96th) opened his first branch near Charing Cross back in 1996. Now, the former investment banker is about to open his 100th shop and plans to grow the business to a 200-strong chain by 2011. “We might go abroad, too,” he says. “But international expansion is the graveyard for many an inflated ego. It can be a huge drain on the business. However, I won’t rule it out. Eat has huge transportability.”

He’s not the only entrepreneur whose business is still going skywards while others hurtle into administration. Online fashion retailer Net-a-porter (38th) seems to be unstoppable. Launched by 43-year-old French fashionista Natalie Massenet nine years ago, it’s become one of the most successful businesses of the noughties. Now, nearly two million women log on to the website per month to read, browse and buy from more than 200 leading labels. Insiders predict turnover will jump by 50 per cent this year. With Capgemini’s e-Retail Sales Index Report showing that online retail spending in February 2009 is up 13 per cent on the same period last year, we won’t be surprised.

Businesses with lucrative public-sector contracts are also well placed to bulldoze through the recession. The government is one customer that won’t go bust. Chris Howell, who set up DriveTech (55th) from his back bedroom, says the future looks “rosy”. And it’s small wonder. He runs speed awareness programmes – an alternative to fixed fines and points – on behalf of 14 police forces around the UK. In the past 18 months, Howell has bought out his biggest competitor and launched a new service called DriveTech Advantage, where novices can learn to drive with the most qualified instructors in the country. “We’re in a strong position,” says Howell. “We’re debt free. And we have fantastic long-term local-authority contracts.”

John Taylor, chief executive of Orchard & Shipman (81st), is also optimistic. His company may be in the devastated property sector – but he’s still predicting an 18 per cent leap in sales this year. “We provide temporary and settled housing to local authorities,” he explains. “There’s a lot of potential for growth because of the high level of government investment.”

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