Britain’s leading entrepreneurs

Business XL's Company of the Year Awards, held at London's ornate Gibson Hall in the heart of the City, recognised the achievements of Britain's leading entrepreneurs. James Crux speaks to the winners to learn the secrets of their success.

Entrepreneurs at the helm of successful companies often exude a breezy, carefree attitude that makes their jobs seem easy and their achievements effortless.

But, if you look beyond the PR facade, it becomes obvious that a huge amount of effort, drive, ingenuity, ambition – and a good few bare-knuckle rides – has got them to where they are.

The Business XL Company of the Year Awards, now in its second year, seek to reward and recognise just this, focusing on fast-growing British ventures whose commercial success comes from a business model with the right mix of products, staff, structure and focus, and whose leaders really are the best in their field.

Hosted by the original winner of Sir Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice, Tim Campbell, the awards recognised achievements in nine categories including rapid growth, penetration into new markets, technological innovation and corporate social responsibility. Winners ranged from venture-backed start-ups to long-established family businesses

ASOS wins Company of the Year

Taking to the stage twice on the night were representatives of online fashion retailing phenomenon ASOS, which waltzed off with both the coveted Company of the Year Award and the Growth Business of the Year gong. To triumph in the headline category, AIM-quoted ASOS had to demonstrate a strong record of growth, entrepreneurial endeavour and exceptional financial returns.

Recent record figures for the year to March, issued by chief executive Nick Robertson since the awards night, give an indication of why ASOS won, with investors treated to a surge in profits of 144 per cent to £3.4 million for another record year. At the latest count, 1.3 million registered users were signed up to, which receives a staggering two million visitors each month.

In the Growth Business category, ASOS saw off challenges from fast-growing ventures such as marketing services outfit Creston, last year’s Company of the Year Award winner, smoothie sensation Innocent, and Pharmaceuticals Direct.

Robertson, the envy of many a chief executive given the lithe ASOS models with whom he is regularly photographed, plans to grow the menswear range, already expanding at an annual rate of 130 per cent and accounting for just 18 per cent of sales, as well as the footwear range. The ASOS buying department will grow from 46 staff to 83 by the end of this year, with additional support staff added accordingly.

Marketing efforts are being bumped up too. Last year’s £1.3 million spend increased to £3.7 million this year, with the highly successful ASOS magazine set to go from six issues to 11 issues. Another expense, this time coming out of the £5.4 million year-end cash pile, will be a £3 million move to a larger warehouse.

The company’s story is all the more remarkable given that it had to shut down for five weeks after its warehouse was damaged by the Buncefield Fuel Depot explosion on
11 December 2005, losing the company approximately £4 million in sales.

King of acquisitions – Mark Hales

Saluting the business whose merger and acquisitions machinations caught the judges’ eyes was Acquirer of the Year, an award picked up by Mark Hales, the modest chief executive of £45 million domiciliary care services provider Claimar Care.

Under the energetic Hales, Claimar has become something of a City darling, issuing strong financials and completing a series of astute acquisitions to widen its spread of services to local authority clients.

Claimar recently completed its tenth and largest acquisition since its AIM flotation, paying £10.25 million for Acorn Home Care, a canny deal part-financed through funds raised in a recent £7 million placing and increased banking facilities.

‘This acknowledges that we’ve done a significant number of deals and that we’ve done the right thing by the vendors as well as delivering value to our own shareholders,’ explains Hales. ‘One would hope it’s raised our profile among potential vendors and further deals could come out of that.’

Burgeoning awareness of the group’s consolidation mission could prove another by-product of the award, says Hales, who continues to eye a ‘pipeline of further acquisition opportunities’.

Other deal-hungry ventures on the short list were Cambridge-based life sciences company Celsis International, a profitable provider of testing services to the drug and biotech industries, and domain name management concern Group NBT, which has just acquired brand protection services company Envisional Solutions for a maximum
of £4 million.

Entrepreneurial genes – Family Business of the Year

Family Business of the Year flagged up excellence among businesses bridging the generations. The standout choice in this category was Yorkshire-based independent oil distributor Bayford & Co.

‘We’re in oil and petrol retailing and we are a family business that has been around for over 80 years. There aren’t many that can say that and we’re proud of that fact,’ says charismatic chief executive Jonathan Turner, who conducted a buy-out of the business three years ago from various shareholders including family members and trusts. ‘I’m third generation,’ he adds, pointing out that three other family members remain involved in the running of the business – his father, his uncle and a cousin.

Bayford, which has sales of more than £400 million, defies the stereotype of the staid unadventurous family concern, having grown impressively since 2000. ‘We’ve completed six acquisitions over the past two years, during which time we’ve more than doubled sales,’ says Turner.

The 41-year-old CEO is fiercely proud of the ties fostered between Bayford and its staff through initiatives such as “Live the Dream”, in which the company pays to fulfil staff ambitions such as driving a Ferrari or taking a cricket team on tour. ‘We are consistently nominated by our employees as one of the best companies to work for,’ adds Turner.

Pastures new

The New Markets Award shined the spotlight on ventures that either developed groundbreaking products or services or had set up in a new territory. Taking the prize was London-headquartered technology firm Skinkers, which also has offices in New York and Sydney and has developed a multi-channel Live Notification Platform, allowing high-priority information to be ‘pushed’ directly to the screen of users.

Clients include the BBC and the London Stock Exchange, and last year the company developed a key partnership with Microsoft to develop the software giant’s technology. Skinker’s chief operating officer, Rob Noble, comments that the award highlights the firm’s pioneering work with information broadcast technology.

Another tech trailblazer to triumph on the night was video search engine specialist Blinkx, which snared the Rising Star of the Year Award. Blinkx was founded in 2004 to bring video and audio analysis into the consumer internet market.

Claiming to have indexed over 12 million hours of audio, video, viral and TV content, the company saw off serious competition from Vividas, the video streaming technology group; web research innovator BrainJuicer; First People Solutions Group, the fast-growing recruitment and HR services company; and Streetcar, which rents out self-service cars by the hour, day, week or month.

Blinkx founder and CEO Suranga Chandratillake, regards the award as a ‘validation of the work we’ve done in the past year to host new content and partner with media companies, and also our success in improving our technology and user experience with online video and TV’.

Green brewer bags CSR gong

The Green Business of the Year category was sponsored by last year’s winner, carbon neutral transport company Radio Taxis Group, and short-listed ventures that claimed either serious ‘green’ credentials or a dedication to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Radio Taxis passed on last year’s award to Britain’s oldest brewer Shepherd Neame, the Kent-based business that boasts an enviable environmental reputation: the greenest brewer in the UK.

‘We are committed to the sustainable use of raw materials as well as limiting the impact our activities have on the environment,’ chief executive Jonathan Neame tells Business XL, adding that ‘reductions in energy and water use have helped us take a major step forward in our aim to minimise our carbon footprint. We are delighted to be recognised for our work in this area.’

The award also reflected the fact that the group makes fewer road journeys than sector peers and recycles 90 per cent of its raw materials.Serious contenders for the green/CSR crown included TEG, which develops technology that converts organic waste into fertiliser, and Goals Soccer Centres, for its community and regeneration work.

Pollster wins Brand of the Year prize

Establishing a brand successfully and then building upon it is no mean feat and each short-listed company for Brand of the Year drew admiration from the judging panel. However, there had to be a winner, and collecting the prize on the night was Panos Manolopoulos, managing director of the ambitious and ubiquitous YouGov, which has become the de facto choice for conducting professional market research and looks handsomely structured for further growth.

Reflecting on the award, co-founder and chief executive Nadhim Zahawi says: ‘The whole YouGov name and brand embodies consumer democracy in today’s world of 24-hour news, blogging and the speed of information. Consumers are becoming more empowered and that’s what our name and brand is all about – understanding people and what motivates them and helping them play their part as an active citizen.’

Zahawi insists the YouGov brand is gaining traction on an international scale too. ‘There is no reason why YouGov cannot become a global business. We are taking a step into America, we’ve made successful moves into the Middle East and we’re looking seriously at Europe.’

Last but by no means least was the Best Technology and Innovation Award, which was handed to IXEurope, one of the fastest-growing data centre services companies in Europe.

Established in 1998, the company was recently the subject of a takeover approach valuing it at more than five times its initial market value on its AIM debut last year.

Guy Willner, the company’s smiling chief executive officer, comments: ‘We’re proud to be a winner in these prestigious growth awards, which is testament to our efforts in achieving an unbroken history of over 30 per cent annual growth.’

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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