Big business in a nutshell: start small and move fast

Glotel, specialising in freelance IT consultancy, is the brainchild of Les Clark and his long-time business partner Andy Baker. Their success shows the value of the entrepreneurial approach to new markets.
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Andy Baker's granny was a housekeeper on the Rothschild estate in Hampshire. When, this summer, Baker's company, turning over about pounds 50m a year, was placed 10th in the Independent on Sunday's survey of Britain's 100 fastest-growing private companies, Lord Rothschild sent him an autobiography by way of congratulation. By that time Baker, 32, in a different service industry altogether, could afford to buy one for himself.

Competitive "to the point of obnoxiousness", according to his friend and business partner Les Clark, he had worked night and day to build up Comms People (now Comms & PC People), progressing in seven years from a cubby-hole and telephone in east London, to a suite of offices in Soho.

Baker and Clark - former boy and boss at a Hestair Computer Group company - preside over Glotel, an IT and telecoms group with 40,000 consultants on its books worldwide. These are good times for freelance IT people - and booming times for Glotel, which is galloping through the market that finds them the contracts.

Glotel's top fixer earns around pounds 250,000 a year - more than either Baker or Clark. The average salary of its 200 staff (average age, 28) is more than pounds 35,000.

In its modern, plate-glass, first-names way, Glotel is strangely old- fashioned. It takes its staff on works outings (hardly Skegness; more Munich or Majorca, at pounds 40,000 a bash) and believes in good pay, enormous opportunities, delegation of large doses of responsibility, and training. And it pays contractors weekly, on the nail.

Conditions, however, are another matter. The spirit of Baker's East End cubby-hole lives on. When a Glotel person goes out to some far-flung place to establish the company, like a latter-day pioneer he or she takes a cheap office in a serviced block and starts work with not much more than tenacity and a telephone.

Back in Wardour Street, Baker and Clark josh with the familiarity of 12 years together, and a mutual respect of their different qualities. "The banks love Andy, but he scares them to death," says Clark, 53, a certified accountant with a sound company background and a cautious, book- keeping approach. Baker's qualities, he says, include extraordinary energy, a laser-like focus, frightening ambition and an acute antipathy to losing (he even hates defeat on the basketball court at Clark's home in Buckinghamshire).

"He's older ... more boring," responds Baker, who credits his former managing director with smoothing off his rough edges, giving him a respect for organic growth rather than big risks, providing the expertise of years of experience and constituting a model of honesty, directness and straight dealing. The first company car bought by Clark for Baker (at auction) was a pounds 3,700 throw-out from Pizza Hut, indelibly fragrant and boiling hot, since the heated seats would not turn off. Clark, to Baker's enduring gratitude, risked his pay-off from Hestair, and his home, on Baker and their venture.

"There was another company set up at exactly the same time as us," Clark recalls. "They got themselves new offices, BMWs, flash suits. They lasted a year.

"Our ethos is to grow the numbers, increase the profits, bring more people in to expand farther, and start the cycle again. We are not creating a lifestyle business."

In a reverse of the usual transatlantic direction - American IT companies setting up British arms - Glotel is colonising the States. Boston, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Washington DC are among 10 offices, contributing almost half of turnover. The mechanics are simple: ambitious, thrusting, motivated staff member ready for new opportunities is offered chance to start from nothing in strange city. He or she flies out, finds office, starts business.

Jo Baynes did it in Sydney; and Steve Moreschi in Atlanta. "Myself and Steve arrived on the Sunday, jet-lagged but excited, Delta Airlines economy," Baker says. "We asked people in a local bar where the good business district was and they said Buckhead. We found the tallest building there and set up an office, 10ft x 8ft with a desk and phone, only $700 a month, and we got a copy of the Atlanta Journal and took out a quarter-page ad in Communications Week." Six months later, the second member of staff started.

With a sales increase of 68 per cent in a year, Baker and Clark eschew formal market research - "if after six months you're not breaking even on salary and a serviced office, you just pull the plug; the purest form of market research" - but may now look at flotation. Clark, who has never forgotten being disposed of after trebling his division's sales, no longer needs to work and fancies heading a successful public company. Baker wants Glotel to be in the perceived "premier division", which holds so much clout in the US.

They would also like to be able to reward their staff with share options, and, importantly to both, their own egos with this status.

"We have offers to buy this company once a week," Clark says. "We don't even get to a figure. We haven't started yet."

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