'I thought: Oh God, I'll have to buy a loo roll'

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The Independent Online
Laurence Isaacson, 52, is a founding partner of Group Chez Gerard, the London restaurants group. It now has a stock market value of pounds 42m. But he began in advertising with The Creative Business

If I had been able to play the drums I'd be seriously wealthy by now. I had plenty of opportunities. I went to primary school in Liverpool with members of the Beatles and later attended the London School of Economics with Mick Jagger. Instead, I joined Unilever, and then went into advertising.

People in the ad industry are either suits or creatives, and the creatives hate suits who have ideas. But I'm an entrepreneur, and they have to be a bit of both. That's how I came to be the suit in an advertising agency - The Creative Business - and the creative person in a restaurant company - Group Chez Gerard.

Starting a business with a partner is far easier than doing it on your own. If you can find a partner with complementary talents and strengths, two plus two equals five.

I found my first partner when I was 28. I was very ambitious and thought I should be on the main board of my agency, Foote Cone & Belding. Instead, they offered me an account directorship in Germany. In 1972 I went to Frankfurt and thought that if I had to live there for two years I'd go mad.

That was when David Bernstein, Garland Compton's creative director, invited me to form a new company with him. He said he wanted somebody who would do all of the things he didn't like doing. I put in pounds 2,000, which to me was a lot of money even though it was only 20 per cent of the capital.

It's very difficult going from a cosseted, wall-to-wall-carpeted rut where everything is provided for you to being two guys alone in a small office. I remember thinking: "Oh my God, I'm going to have to buy a loo roll." Our first office was a windowless room under Floral Hall in Covent Garden. It was at the time of the three-day week and the electricity used to go off regularly. I had trouble finding a candle to work by.

Finding clients was much easier. We didn't poach from our previous agencies but we did pick up work from clients that had already left. We were also prepared to work on small projects. My first client was Reckitt & Colman, and we went on to work for Nestle, London Weekend Television, Guinness, British Rail, Shell and Unilever among others.

You have to create an aura of success before success arrives. We couldn't bring clients back to our cellar office, and we couldn't afford to take them out for lunch or dinner, so we'd buy them breakfast at the Connaught. It's prestigious, they don't eat much and it looks like you start work early every day.

For our first birthday we wanted to have a party that was glamourous, but on a low budget. I was friendly with the house manager of the Royal Opera House and persuaded him to rent us the Crush Bar. There's a brilliant staircase, and our clients, potential clients and the press were greeted in grand style. It looked like a million bucks but only cost a couple.

I only ever had one bad debt. I had gone on holiday and while I was away the client complained to my partner that the work I had done was wrong, although it wasn't. We fired him as a client. It cost us a few thousand pounds, which in those days was a lot of money, but it was an important principle.

You have to have a high degree of morality in business. We could have grown a lot faster but we refused to work for tobacco companies because we didn't want to encourage people to buy cigarettes. We also turned down an offer from an executive with one of our clients who wanted personally to buy a fifth of the agency. Three months later, we lost the account. It would have been easy to sell him a share and win a lot more business from his company, but it would have been wrong.

The first time I got out of the ad business was in 1980. I helped start a little London restaurant, Le Cafe des Amis du Vin, as a hobby with Neville Abraham, who had originally approached me to devise an advertising strategy for his mail order wine business. It was so successful that we wanted to do it full time, so I sold my share in The Creative Business to RSCG, the second largest agency in France, for about pounds 250,000.

When Neville and I started Group Chez Gerard we put in pounds 200,000 each and borrowed another pounds 400,000. We didn't think that running two restaurants would keep us busy enough, so when David, who was by then Creative Business's chairman, asked me to buy back into the agency, I did.

We bought it back for very little as the profitability had gone downhill through lack of a good business manager. For three years we built it up again, bringing in my brother Michael as creative director.

The agency recovered quickly and the restaurants were expanding rapidly. So in 1990 we sold The Creative Business again, this time to FCB, so that we could concentrate on the restaurants. As an entrepreneur, you hop from business to business, but you have to know when to change horses.