Going to the dogs (and other ways to survive a recession)

Once bitten, but far from twice shy: three born-again entrepreneurs offer advice to the business wannabes.
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As impoverished Russian workers fret about their economic plight, they can enjoy a small comfort from Britain. In bars across Moscow, they can gamble a few roubles on the seven o'clock at Hackney dog track. The race meeting is beamed in live by satellite; eight Russians commentating from a studio in east London relay the fortunes of London's top dogs chasing a mechanical stuffed hare.

What better way to beat recession than make a million roubles at Hackney? That's the prospect George Walker is offering the desperate. And for him each bet presents an equally wonderful prospect. George, now 69, famously lost his own fortune when he went bust in the last recession. He is trying to make it again in Moscow and beat the threatened economic downturn here in Britain. He is banking on the lesson of a lifetime in betting: "People gamble more when times are tough."

George understands desperation. If you want to learn how to beat recession, he is your man. Because he has hit the bottom - and he has no intention of returning. And we need some help. The doom sayers are talking us back into the gloomy early Nineties just as we finally asked for a pay rise.

In the excessive days of the Eighties, George seemed to have a licence to print money. Chief executive of Brent Walker, the leisure group, he was worth maybe pounds 50m on paper. Not bad for an East End boy who left school at 14 to become a porter in Billingsgate fish market. There was the large 15th century rectory with swimming pool in Essex. A pounds 3m house in Pall Mall. His daughter had married the Marquis of Milford Haven. "I had a BMW 8 series, my wife had a Jeep, my son had a Porsche," he recalls. "I was on 600 grand a year."

George had what he likes to call "polish". Not quite respectability. "Polish" could never quite give shine to a face beaten into a grim visage by his early life as a champion boxer. Nor could it gloss over his 18 months inside for nicking nylons from the Royal Victoria Docks. But amid the shifting morality of the Eighties' boom, George Walker was a hero.

Then his byzantine empire collapsed when the banks pulled the plug. By the time they had finished with him, men in cheap suits were pawing his boxing trophies. "They actually rang the bank to see if they should sell them. They even took the watch off my wrist and sold it." That was in 1993, although it was another couple of years until he was cleared of allegations of theft and false accounting and the phoenix could rise again.

I am also consulting Sophie Mirman for recession-beating wisdom. Put her beside George Walker and you get beauty and the beast. She has efficient elegance and a hint of French accent from her mother - a milliner to the Queen. Yet in the Eighties, she and George played the same game. Fast expansion.

Sophie Mirman brought us Sock Shop. And, like George, she borrowed heavily to finance a massive expansion of kiosks devoted to changing what went on in our shoes. At 31, she was the 188th richest person in Britain and its youngest millionaire.

But she had under-estimated our ability to tolerate laddered tights when times are hard. So when interest rates doubled, Sophie, like George, disappeared under a mountain of debt. She and her husband, Richard Ross, whose joint shareholding had been worth pounds 50m a couple of years before, found that their equity was valueless.

She has also resurfaced. And Trotters, a store devoted to grooming, clothing and entertaining the offspring of the rich, appears to be virtually recession- proof. Her main shop is on the King's Road in Chelsea, London. "The idea sprang out of my own experience as a mother," says Mirman, 41, whose changing life has long reflected that of her customers. "I remember shopping for shoes with my son, who was three at the time, in a large department store. He would take 15 to 20 minutes to choose a pair he liked and then the assistant would disappear into the back and re-emerge with a huge pile of boxes. `We haven't got exactly the ones you want, but we've got all these other ones,' she would say. I thought, `What an extraordinary way to sell shoes. You should stock what is on display.'

"Then I took my 18-month-old daughter to have her hair cut. She threw a wobbly and everyone was terribly embarrassed. It seemed a very strange way to treat children. So I decided to open a shop that is a fun experience."

And it is. There is a juice bar to appease those cries of "I'm thirsty", the Jungle Book soundtrack plays in the background, the shoe department has a train in it, the hairdressing salon is like a ferryboat with portholes giving views of mirrors and a fish tank.

Like Walker, Mirman has gone into a very different type of business. But others have stuck with a tried and tested enterprise that ultimately failed in the last recession. Like John Coyle. In the heydays of the Eighties he ran a financial PR company and was personally worth pounds 5m. A fair slice, he admits, went on "wine, women and song". But throat cancer, the slump and high interest rates pushed him into bankruptcy from which he was discharged only in 1995. The country cottage went, so did the flat in the Barbican and his marriage. "I ended up renting a one-bedroom flat in Essex," he remembers, a slight rasp recalling the cancer that is now cured.

Coyle is now back with a new financial PR company - Basham and Coyle - which has a fee income of pounds 1.3m, just about where his last business was before the bust. And he, his new partner and young son are relocated in a six-bedroom house in the comfortable London suburb of Highgate.

So what wisdom can these victims of recession offer? First - be very suspicious of banks. "We have no borrowings. The business is entirely self- financing," says Mirman, whose horror of losing her business to bankers has put her off expanding. There are just two branches of Trotters, which remains a private business with a turnover of about pounds 3m a year, a tiny enterprise compared with Sock Shop.

"In the very first week of Trotters, we must have had 20 offers of franchise deals. I found it frightening how willing people were to throw money at something that was unproven. The answer is always `no'. I really enjoy what I am doing now. Life is too short to risk ruining it just to have more shops."

Richard Ross, her husband and business partner, recalls: "There is a moment when, by sleight of hand, you find that `you've never had it so good' suddenly becomes `you've had it too good'."

Mirman and Ross were lucky. They kept the shirts on their backs - they had sold shareholdings before the collapse for pounds 1.5m and had enough to start up another business. They did not go bankrupt. "I really admire George Walker for his resilience," says Ross, "but the big mistake he made was giving personal guarantees."

George Walker certainly agrees. When his company Brent Walker got into trouble, the banks demanded that he invest some of his own money. He put in pounds 30m, borrowing from one of the banks against almost all his family's assets. The deal was that Walker would stay on as chief executive. Five months later he was deposed. Having lost his huge salary, the banks pushed him into personal bankruptcy. "I can't believe how stupid I was to give a personal guarantee like that", he says now. "You never know how ruthless banks can be. I lost everything. It put terrible pressure on my marriage. My advice to anyone this time around is make sure you never take a personal loan from the bank that funds the company. And don't put too much trust in your fellow directors."

At this John Coyle nods in agreement. He borrowed from the company's bank. He also feels badly let down by former colleagues. And what about borrowing in general? Like Sophie Mirman, Walker is chastened. "I'm a lot more cautious." His new company has no debt. "It is funded entirely by shareholders' money." But unlike Sophie Mirman, he would love to relive the Eighties. "If I could build another Brent Walker, I would. If I find that these units I'm setting up just break even then I will build up slowly, but if I find they are making a lot of money, I'll borrow as much as possible to expand." He doesn't favour Mirman conservatism. "If you want to run one thing and be comfortable it's fine. But it's not very exciting, is it?"

On other matters, they agree. Harrowing experience seems to give former victims a nose for bad times. George Walker says: "At Brent Walker, the top management thought it best not to talk about weaknesses. But now I make sure that everyone knows where we are."

Will these reborn entrepreneurs of the Thatcher era survive another slump? Mirman believes that having no borrowing and being small in a well-off, niche market will save her this time. Coyle is happy being less beholden to the banks, careful not to be in expensive offices and believes he has found more trustworthy colleagues. "It is a triumph of hope over experience," he muses.

Walker relies on the seductiveness of gambling. "It looks like tough times are coming. But a bet is a packet of fags, a beer. That's our market: builders, painters. A bet doesn't matter to them. I've got good options on shares and a reasonable salary. If this company works as well as I think it will, I should be wealthy again, slump or no slump."