Fast Track: CV - The secret of a successful career

Lee Marks, Director Of Spymaster
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The Independent Culture
Lee Marks, 49, is director of Spymaster, which he runs with his brother Michael and nephew Jeremy. Their two London stores stock everything a secret agent could need. And as well as serving foreign governments, the store has been known to sell body armour to the occasional granny.

I WORKED at the Stock Exchange between the ages of 16 and 25 but then my firm went bust. Then, still with plenty of fire in my belly, I set up an electrical business which catered to importers. We set up a laboratory that told importers how to change their products to meet increasingly tight British safety standards. That grew to employing 120 people, and we had two factories. I sold it in 1987 because I wanted to simplify my life and move away from the hassles of employing a large number of people.

I had what I suppose you would call a sabbatical for a while, dealing in property, and then I started to get interested in the communications industry, which would eventually evolve into Spymaster.

I joined forces with my brother Michael and his son Jeremy and we started dealing in amateur radio; we thought there was a great future in communications equipment. But what we soon discovered was that it was very difficult to make any money, because it's a hobby.

However, we had come across some people, especially Arabs, who were very interested in surveillance products, which were very difficult to find. Basically, they wanted things like bugging devices and covert cameras. So we decided to switch the emphasis of the business onto surveillance, and we started up in the basement of my house in St John's Wood. What we did was to take out display cases at places like the Churchill Hotel and the Hilton in Park Lane to advertise our wares. And we quickly found that we had a lot of people coming to see us at my home. It started to become very successful. We would be visited by very wealthy tourists and we suddenly realised that there was a big market for this kind of product. It was not necessarily an English market, more an export market.

Around 1994, when our turnover had got up to about pounds 300,000, we decided to open a shop in Portman Square. We took on a PR company and had a huge opening party with television crews and lots of media and it was a massive success. At that stage we branded ourselves as Spymaster, and as soon as the shop opened, we doubled our turnover.

We expanded our range from surveillance to counter-surveillance and we soon realised that with the popularity of the James Bond films, anything he'd use would be an immediate attraction to bring people into the shop. In a way, that's how we market ourselves; now, for example, we sell a one-man submarine, armoured vehicles, and satellite telephones. We sell bullet-proof vests to protect against different threat levels. We sell stab-proof vests, nuclear and biological warfare suits and gas masks.

The business grew and grew and we opened a second store in April last year, and now do a lot of business for foreign governments. Whenever there is trouble in the world or a threat on the horizon, we are here. With all the leading news-gathering organisations having offices in London, if there is ever any trouble, or if they ever need to go to a war zone, they come to us first.

We now have a private investigator working for us and we have a very efficient counter-surveillance team who work as consultants.

I suppose the business operates on two levels, and some people are looking for toys - but I think that most of our customers are very serious, perhaps because they think they are being screwed over by their business partner, or are suspicious about their wife or husband.

It is utterly impossible to get involved in any moral or ethical issues. If someone wanted to buy a bug, it would be offensive to ask what they wanted it for. Everything in the shop is legal to sell and use, although of course you can buy a knife and fork in Selfridges and use them illegally.

We do hear some funny stories from our sales staff. For example, we had an old lady who came in who must have been around 75, and she started trying on bullet-proof vests. We couldn't understand why she wanted one and, to be honest, thought she was not all there when she bought one for around pounds 500.

But she certainly was all there. She explained to us that she was a very keen gardener; she told us that her garden was by a railway line, and that every time a train passed by her house it threw up gravel, and she wanted to be protected from being pelted.