Stephen Less knows a thing or two about running a people-focused business. His chain of table dancing clubs, Secrets, now turns over £12 million, and he’s invested a six-figure sum in an IT recruitment company.
Stephen Less knows a thing or two about running a people-focused business. His chain of table dancing clubs, Secrets, now turns over £12 million, and he’s invested a six-figure sum in IT recruitment company Harrington Starr.
I’ve been in business for 40 years: clubs, bars, restaurants, hairdressing, ice cream parlours – whatever I thought was going to work. And 95 per cent of it has worked. Over the years I’ve learned things, refined them. You learn from your own mistakes and other’s mistakes.
I had a club called Directors’ Lodge that was losing money initially. I found a guy who wanted to run it, who had a good track record, who suggested that I let him run it in return for 50 per cent of the profits. I took the view that if it didn’t work in three to six months, I’d just be back where I started. That motivated him into making me a serious amount of money. I took my half of the money and invested it in opening businesses; he took his half and gambled it away in casinos. Had he not been a gambler, he wouldn’t have made so much money for me.
Turning the tables
When table dancing started 15 years ago, I opened Secrets in Hammersmith. We were the third in the country I think. It was a rehash of the same old elements: men and women, food and drink, dancing, striptease, atmosphere, music… it took the different component parts and presented them differently. A new dance step is still a dance step.
‘I build the club around the manager’
With Secrets, I build the club around the manager. The manager is king: he’s like an Italian restaurant owner, he gets to know all the customers. I pay managers a pretty low basic salary and they get a share of the service charge, credit card and cash tips, but most importantly, they get a percentage of gross turnover. Not profit – because I want to keep it simple. Sometimes, if you are putting the profits into someone else’s hands, they will cut too many corners.
People ask me: ‘How do you run more than one club?’ It’s all about your mindset and being adaptable. A man who runs one restaurant, knows it very well and makes a lot of money often wants to expand, but when he opens a second restaurant he tears himself in half and when he opens a third he falls apart. I’ve seen it happen to a friend of mine.
I think there are three sets of people, and I’ll be quite frank about this. There are those who work for somebody nine to five and want no aggravation. There are those, like me, who work for themselves. And there are the people in the middle, who could work for themselves, but don’t know how to make the jump. Those are the people I tend to look for.
Harrington Starr came about because my son-in-law was working in IT recruitment making a lot of money for other people. About six months ago I said to him, isn’t it about time you started on your own? For four months, I extracted information from him, I sucked it out of his brain and I put it all in a ten-page, no-nonsense business plan. I wanted to see how everything worked before I backed him.
In business, you need to expand, you can’t go backwards. We have a team of four proven salespeople taking contracts left, right and centre. There’s a queue of people wanting to join the company. This is stage one – we will go to Europe, maybe in two or three years, as we build our reputation.