Twenty-first century stars – 50 of the best companies in the UK today

Phenomenal sales growth, a healthy increase in profits, product innovation and loyal staff — the Growth Business team identifies the 50 best companies in the UK today.

Here’s our list of 50 of the best companies operating in the UK today.

1. Deal Group Media

Bossed by private pilot and bull mastiff owner Adrian Moss, Deal Group Media is a transformed concern beginning to bear the fruits of its reversal into AIM-listed IBNet in 2003. Interims to June from the online marketing group revealed a turnover from combined operations of £6.55 million and pre-tax profits of £45,000, versus losses of £623,000 for the former IBNet plc. The company is enjoying emphatic growth with existing clients and recent account wins include Vodafone, Virgin Mobile and Apple. This year to December, analysts predict profits of £1.3 million on £14 million sales – these could rise to £2.6 million on a top line £18 million for 2005.

2. Abcam
From humble beginnings antibody business Abcam has grown rapidly. Spun out of Cambridge University in 1998 by scientist Jonathan Milner and entrepreneur David Cleevely, the company set out to provide quality antibody reagents and related information to fellow researchers. Unfortunately, venture capitalists remained sceptical and cash began to run short. That was until Milner hit upon the idea of hawking the company’s wares to friends and colleagues in other Cambridge labs, out of an ice bucket. Abcam hasn’t looked back since and reported a maiden profit of £563,000 earlier this year.

3. Country House Weddings

Country House Wedding Venues is the nationwide network of privately owned country houses. The business is fronted by Diana Hastie and has seen its turnover grow by over 1,300 per cent over the last two years, to just under £4 million on profits of £699,000. All the houses used are surrounded by beautiful gardens and in the past have been used as TV and film sets for literary works such as Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

4. Limehouse Group
Marketing communications agency Limehouse develops specialist software applications, and has seen its turnover grow 138 per cent over the last two years with profits of £190,000. It is placing a strong focus on investing in HR, has recently recruited a full-time HR manager, and is undergoing ISO 9001 quality assurance. Founder Giles Welch is dyslexic ‘People come to see me rather than sending emails.’ He believes his biggest achievement to date has been developing a completely new type of software. ‘From our experience in producing large-scale publications involving many contributors, we developed a whole new approach to collecting, approving and publishing content.

5. Intamac
Kevin Meagher got the idea for Intamac when he was helping his son with his homework in 1996. ‘I became pretty well exposed to the power of the internet to deliver content and more.’ Four years later, having retired from the RAF, he started Intamac and has since raised finance from a handful of angel investors. The business, which builds infrastructure to support internet-linked systems for the digital home, is going from strength to strength and has secured a contract with BT worth an estimated £3.5 million and one with Cisco that Meagher says is worth ‘significantly more’. He compares his business to a Trojan Horse. ‘Our business model is built round a platform rather than a technology concept – we are getting people excited as they see how much they can exploit this platform to deliver a range of applications.’

6. Cruise Control
Trading since 1998, Essex-based call centre agency Cruise Control claims to have become the largest independent cruise agency in the UK, booking approximately 15 per cent of all British cruise passengers. Founder and managing director Paul Moore has seen turnover increase by over 1,500 per cent in the last two years to just over £30 million. He admits that he ‘couldn’t use a PC’ when he started the business, but has since invested £4 million into IT systems. The US market is beckoning and Moore has also joined forces with Ladbrokes and taken a gamble with his latest line of holidays – poker cruises with on-board tournaments.

7. Fresh Minds
Set up by Charlie Osmond and Caroline Plumb four years ago, this research and recruitment company has projected a profit of £300,000 this year on turnover of £3 million. Last year the entire company was taken to Dublin for a celebratory weekend for achieving targets. A reward and development scheme is set up for each employee, including the opportunity to earn an annual bonus of up to ten per cent of their basic salary.

8. Green-Works
Green-Works is a social enterprise whose revenues for 2003/4 are set to reach the £1 million mark, up from a modest £2,000 in 2001. This not-for-profit play claims to have revolutionised corporate office furniture disposal, converting waste into a commercial activity, slashing the amount sent to landfill. It prides itself on its workplace ethics, helping employment prospects in deprived local communities through training and employment for the disadvantaged. Green-Works’ social enterprise model has reached the likes of Downing Street and it offers a membership scheme to household names like Marks & Spencer and Barclays.

9. Corelogic
Founded by Kevin Moorhouse and Iain Clark in 1999, Corelogic develops software for the social care industry. In the last two years, turnover has grown by 789 per cent to just under £1.5 million. ‘We could have accelerated our growth with venture capital and did indeed receive an offer of £1 million for 20 per cent of the equity. Unfortunately, the terms were felt by the board to be too onerous to be worth pursuing, and we backed ourselves to deliver the growth,’ explains Moorhouse. He also believes that another obstacle to growth has been ‘useless credit agencies who mark down start-ups as high-risk’.

10. David Hall Publishing
Set up by husband and wife David and Cherry Hall in an attic, this publishing company has taken on industry giants such as Emap and IPC. Now 64-strong, it lays claim to being Europe’s leading publisher of consumer and trade magazines centred on the angling and fishing industries. As Hall explains, ‘IPC has been forced to close down all its titles bar one.’ Titles such as Tackle and Guns and Tackle Trade World have contributed to a turnover of £5 million, and Hall expects profits of just under £1 million. The company also invests in young staff (the average age of employees is 29) and all senior management roles have been filled by staff promotions. Less than one per cent of those recruited have left the company.

11. Avanti Screen Media
David Williams, CEO of AIM-quoted Avanti, which supplies television services to the pubs, bars and high street retail market, is in a buoyant mood – and rightly so. His latest results have shown profits of £790,000 and sales of just under £5 million. One project in the pipeline is a bespoke retail channel offering in which the group will maintain an in-store television network, devise advertising and marketing strategies, create broadcasts, and sell media space on behalf of clients.

12. Nugent Group
Steered by founder Len Nugent, Nugent Group used to be a ‘labour and plant outfit’, but the business has been transformed into a property developer building only on brownfield sites over the past five years. South-East-focused, Nugent tries to use nearly 50 per cent recycled materials on its projects. Five years ago, sales loitered around the £3 million mark. In the year to December 2004, turnover will hit £16 million, and £20 million is on the cards for 2005. Nugent says the company makes margins of between 18 and 20 per cent.

13. ASOS
Online fashion retailer ASOS, an abbreviation of As Seen On Screen, has just posted emphatic interims to September, with sales up 72 per cent to £4.7 million and losses of £283,000 converted into a £126,000 profit. Admitted to AIM in October 2001 at only 20p, ASOS recently walked away with the Best Performing AIM Share award at the ninth annual AIM award ceremony, having hit a 52-week peak of 89.5p. Chief executive Nick Robertson’s stake is now worth more than £9 million. In his mid-30s, he is just slightly older than his typical customer – 23-year-old girls who visit Top Shop.

14. LFR

Loch Fyne Restaurants, steered by restaurant entrepreneur Mark Derry, is the fast-growing chain of seafood restaurants that farms its own fish. It sprung up in 1997 from a partnership with long-established Loch Fyne Oysters. For each restaurant, an unusual or historic building is sought and restored, located away from prime retail locations. The company, which has sales of around £22 million, achieved a publicity coup when Gordon Brown and John Prescott met in one of its car parks.

15. Splashpower
Founded in 2001 by two engineering students – Lily Cheng and James Hay – from Cambridge University, Splashpower is looking to rid the world of cables and free people from the hassle of charging their mobile devices, by means of its wireless power technology. The company boasts the likes of the former president of Sony Europe on its board, and has been earmarked by Sherry Coutu, founder of Interactive Investor International, as one to watch.

16. Bizspace
AIM-quoted and chaired by well-known entrepreneur Larry Lipman, Bizspace is the provider of flexible managed workspace for small and medium-sized businesses and has a stellar track record. The firm recently trotted out record half time numbers, with profits up 89 per cent to £1.62 million on turnover lifted 59 per cent to £4.56 million, following on from a 44 per cent profits leap last financial year to £1.9 million. Lipman says expansion continues apace at Bizspace, with the enthusiastic backing of its banks and advisers.

17. Daisy
Organic baby food producer Daisy is fast emerging as a possible successor to Innocent Drinks’ feelgood food and beverage company crown. Gerrie Hawes’ company produces baby meals free from gluten, dairy products and other additives. It has already established a firm foothold, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda stocking its Fresh Daisy products.

18. Landround
You won’t find any long faces among the 60 or so employees at AIM-quoted Landround, the Chester-based travel promotions firm, which has a strong emphasis on investing in its people. Bossed by chief executive David Lyne, Landround has very high retention levels, losing only two or three employees a year. It believes in giving youngsters an opportunity, training people as young as 16 and 17 years old. Financially, the company is going from strength to strength, having made profits of £2.1 million in 2004 on a top line of £13.2 million.

19. Ncipher
Founded in 1996 by brothers Alex and Nicko Van Someren, this encryption hardware concern has recently reported its first quarterly profit, and has a steady cash pile to pump into research and development. Already the leader in the encryption hardware market, Ncipher could soon be making waves in the credit card industry, where both Visa and Mastercard have initiatives to cut card fraud, including the introduction of chip and PIN technology.

20. Lamva
Electrical and utilities engineer Lamva is more forward-thinking than most traditional engineering firms, says its enthusiastic chief executive Andy Catchpole. With turnover increasing from £11.2 million, on £1.2 million profits, to an anticipated £15.5 million this year, it seems the Ipswich-based venture’s investment in youth is paying off. ‘It’s key to our success to have youngsters coming in rather than recycling grey-haired engineers.’ Catchpole believes that Lamva provides a ‘cradle to grave solution’ for clients, rather than doing odd jobs like traditional contractors.

21. MessageLabs
In the last 12 months, managed email security services provider MessageLabs has registered a growth rate of 35 per cent. Its current fortunes, with a turnover of just under £58 million, are a far cry from its inception in a barn in a village near Cirencester. Ben and Jos White started ISP Star Internet, from which MessageLabs was spun out in 2000. Along the way, the company has raised over £35 million to fund its growth. The brothers remain core to the business – and are now setting their sights on conquering the US security market.

22. Fantas-Tak
Fantas-Tak was formed in 1999 by co-founders Mark Auty, Richard Turner and Paul Simpson. The company makes ‘SuperDots’, the small, stretchy dots of adhesive used to attach promotional items to magazines. Thanks to its customer-is-king philosophy, the company is growing turnover by 50 per cent year-on-year and enjoying bumper margins. Sales, which reached £1.3 million last year, should hit £2 million this year.

23. Green Baby
Jill Barker set up Green Baby in 1999 following her surprise (whilst on maternity leave) at the lack of natural baby products available in the UK, compared with her native Canada. Today, Green Baby is the successful firm behind washable nappies and 100 per cent organic cotton baby clothing.
As well as its two London stores, Green Baby has thriving mail order and wholesale businesses. Two further London area stores are on their way. Turnover reached £1.2 million in the last set of results, giving profits of £69,000.

24. Fopp
Gordon Montgomery is looking to pioneer CD vending machines at his entertainment retail business, named after a track by 70s dance band Ohio Players. Fopp now boasts 14 stores stretching from Aberdeen to London. Sales grew by 58 per cent in 2003 and Fopp claims the machines are the first of their kind in the UK. The company also prides itself on being a business worth working for – many of the company’s key players have worked their way up from the shop floor into senior management.

25. Azzuri Communications
Buy and build is a strategy that Martin St Quinton knows inside out. Formerly chief executive of office stationery company Danka, he oversaw just over 50 acquisitions. The same model is underway at Azzuri, which Quinton launched four years ago. Backed by 3i and the Bank of Scotland, Azzuri has beaten an aggressive path to growth, acquiring no less than 11 businesses. It provides services such as voice and data solutions, and will be back on the acquisition trail next year.

26. Fasthosts
Andrew Michael, CEO of Fasthosts, tried to make the web-hosting business ‘self-funding from the outset’ and in its first year cashflow was monitored on a daily basis. Later, when the company achieved limited status, he turned to angel investors to grow the company. Employees who pass the rigorous recruitment process are encouraged to develop their skills, have performance-related rewards schemes and were treated to a live performance by the Cheeky Girls at their Christmas bash.

27. Windsor Telecom
This UK telephone number company, founded in 1999, is the vision of two partners, Neil Sherring and David Bennett. This firm has funded its development from the personal resources of directors, never turning to any form of outside funding. In the face of an inhospitable TMT environment, Windsor Telecom’s growth has been impressive, with a 148 per cent increase in turnover to £1.6 million profits of £261,000 in the last two years. The firm provides memorable telephone numbers to SMEs and corporate businesses.

28. Tyrrells
William Chase has been farming potatoes for the last 20 years and took the decision to produce hand-cooked potato chips from one of the potato sheds on his Herefordshire farm. Now in its third year of business, Tyrrells is projected to turn over £5 million.

29. Astex Technologies
Cambridge University science lab spinout and drug developer Astex has received phenomenal support from the venture capital community in a relatively short space of time. Less than two years on from its formation, the X-ray crystallography specialist secured funding of £22.7 million from a group of powerhouse backers including Advent and Alta Partners, which have since invested close to £30 million more.

30. Tideway Systems
Launched in 2002, appliance-based software company Tideway is the latest business to emerge from the Muirhead stable, fronted by Richard Muirhead. In the past, he and brother Charlie co-founded Orchestream and the latter is now at the helm of Nexagent. Other sibling William’s business is Sportev. A £100,000 investment from Nesta and several million from VC Apax are helping Tideway to fund its growth plans.

31. Systems Ability
Founded five years ago, Systems Ability provides IT services and boasts clients such as Sony, Argos and Microsoft.

32. Now wash your hands
The last Friday afternoon of every month is a half-day holiday for staff at this design agency, which is turning over just under £1 million.

33. Tree
This customer insight consultancy has posted annual growth rates of between 110 and 130 per cent since it was set up three years ago, and has ‘innovation’ and ‘motivation’ as its company ethos.

34. Cheeze
Digital direct marketing agency Cheeze was ranked the tenth biggest UK online media agency by billings last year.

35. Babel Media
This games services specialist managed to raise venture capital at the tail end of the dotcom boom and is now proving to be a name to watch in the mobile gaming arena.

36. Parasol IT
Co-founders Rob Crossland and Mark O’Brien have been on the receiving end of awards for innovative technology for the company’s web-based payroll products.

37. Skype
Niklas Zennstrom’s mission is to build an internet telephony company that is strictly not for techno-freaks. Skype is his fourth venture to date.

38. Sit-up
This home shopping television service has seen its turnover jump by 357 per cent in the two years to 2003, posting sales of just under £119 million.

39. Blueheath
This business claims to be the first ever internet-enabled grocer and has seen its turnover jump 87 per cent in the last year to just over £62 million.

40. Plextek
Cambridge-based electronics design company Plextek is looking to give the big gaming names a run for their money with its latest design, Gizmondo, a gaming entertainment device.

41. Incentive FM
All head office staff at this facilities management company are incentivised as stakeholders in the company.

42. Imprint Search & Selection
Quoted on AIM, recruiter Imprint has seen interim profits powered up by 221 per cent to £545,000, on turnover up from £2.1 million to £3.6 million. It is doubling the number of fee-earners on its books with the £14 million acquisition of ECHM.

43. Huntress Group
This company had to write off a £1 million investment in technology six months after foundation, when it abandoned plans to be an online recruitment business. This year it forecasts a turnover of £35 million, up from £26.4 million in 2003.

44. Scomac Services
This five-year-old building services company specialises in electrical and mechanical engineering, and has seen turnover grow by just under 300 per cent and profits pumped up by 424 per cent in the last three years.

45. Deepstream Technologies
This start-up has secured £10 million in funding to develop miniaturised 3D digital sensors.

46. Trakware
The company provides data capture solutions and has seen its turnover increase by 250 per cent over the last two years.

47. Altrix Healthcare
Has established itself as the largest specialist oral fluid testing laboratory in Europe, and seen turnover rise by 200 per cent over the last two years.

48. Crussh
This smoothie and juice bar operator is looking to post a turnover of around £2.5 million this year and plans to grow from 12 to 30 outlets in the next two years.

49. IntY
IntY provides managed IT services for small and medium-sized enterprises and was founded by Mark Herbert in 1997. It has a turnover of just under £3 million.

50. Careforce Group
A provider of domiciliary services, Careforce has recently listed on AIM, raising £7 million and was founded in 1999 by ex-Nestor founder Mike Rogers.

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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