Me And My Partner; Andrew Dunn and Simon Clarke
Andrew Dunn, founder of Ski Scott Dunn, met accountant Simon Clarke in the Alps in the late 1980s and the pair have worked together ever since. In 1996 they launched Scott Dunn World. Their combined business revenue now exceeds pounds 3m
Wednesday 31 March 1999
I distinctly remember meeting Simon when he arrived to see his sister, who happened to be working for us. He had driven out to the Alps in a black TVR car. I have always been good at running the business and having ideas, but the accounts were in a shocking state. I said to Simon "Can you take a look and prepare the books for the auditors?" He realised it was a little bit more than just a run-through. He said "Listen, one way is to join you and invest in the business." That's exactly what he did, and became the full-time finance director.
At the time, every brochure had some pretty blonde girl on the cover. We said, how are we going to be different? We did a totally black brochure, and that immediately got us noticed.
We had a loyal clientele, but we realised we had to expand if we were to have a good living. We've ended up with the cream of the ski resorts and some of the best properties. My grandmother taught me that you should always buy the most expensive, because generally it's going to be the best. There are some little things we have always done when nobody else would go to such lengths. It's the fluffy bathrobes and the postcards which are there in your room, the toiletries in your bathroom and the bottle of water on your table. Our greatest asset is our staff. We now have 14 in London and 57 overseas.
We got hit hard during the recession, and kept thinking, how deep can we dig into our own pockets? Then we took on board a whole new series of shareholders, from bankers to barristers. We weren't going to fail through lack of effort. I would take it as a personal insult if someone said they had had a bad holiday. I would be devastated.
Our non-executive chairman and I have always been the bullish ones, but Simon was confident we would get through the difficult times. Simon always sits and listens, and then comments. I will talk continually without necessarily having thought of every aspect or eventuality. He is naturally the cautious partner.
We have never advertised the company: word-of-mouth is far better, and that is why we have to make sure every single holiday is excellent. It has always amazed me how travel companies would send out letters which would say, "Dear Client". In the early days, I used to hand-sign every letter. Also, Simon and I know everything that goes on in the office, which is open-plan. It's important that you can overhear what people are saying.
My role is increasingly managerial, taking an overview of products. Competition in the travel industry is fierce, but no one is really doing cooks and nannies. We are transferring the Alps to the summer, and that's hugely exciting. You want to be with your children, but equally you want to read a book by the pool or play tennis.
We have never fallen out. I am more hot-headed and he would never lose his temper. I think he chose to work with me because he saw the possibility of being part of something which could grow and be successful, to which he could contribute - a chance for him to make his mark. I have infinite trust in Simon, and you know when you can trust someone.
SIMON CLARKE: When I met Andrew, I was working in the City: my father had set up an optical business, and myself and my brothers were to be drawn into it. But in 1989, the business was bought by Boots. I was working as an auditor and knew it wasn't really what I wanted, though it was nice to see how other companies worked.
Andrew is a brilliant front man, but I think it was getting a bit lonely. Some of the back-room books and processes were being neglected. That's my strength, and I decided to go straight into it. I thought it was an opportunity I couldn't miss. I knew Andrew pretty well - my sister and I shared a house - and after that first ski season, we got talking. It was an exciting business to be in, and Andrew was very enthusiastic, very inquisitive, and doesn't mind asking anyone a question, even if it's an incredibly stupid question. He's always getting knowledge from people and finding out how things work, then he stores that information away. Years ago, when he was up in Scotland with friends, they nicknamed him "Harry Keen". Lots of people know him as Harry now. He's always been the buzzy one.
One of the first things I did on arrival was to say that the company cars had to go. Until you actually look from afar at a business, you can't see these little things. Andrew is half Scottish and I hate paying bills, so we try and get value for money.
The great thing we had, in a small company, was to be able to sit down and make a decision and implement it. I loved that informality and flexibility. There were no memos, and we could react very quickly. When we set up, there weren't many regulatory barriers, and a lot of people were setting up so they could go skiing and perhaps make a few bob. Andrew already had a long-term view. He was the first to sacrifice his holidays to get the company going. He loves skiing more than anything but that wasn't his intention in setting up. He had the vision, and we both had the same idea of what we could achieve. He has the energy, and I follow in his footsteps and back him up with a bit of reality.
We could have blossomed very quickly, but we both agree that it is still a niche market, and we have controlled it. We know most of the people who ski with us.
Andrew would take on a lot more and some of those things might well have been very successful, but I am always a little bit of a stick in the mud. You might have one good year, but if a downturn comes, you need spare capacity. I have instilled in Andrew that every single bed is not just a guest - it's money. We have paid for every apartment, so we must get some money for that bed, even if it means discounting. Andrew was very much the gentleman travel agent, and wouldn't discount because it meant somebody in a chalet might have paid more. That's a smashing principle, but economically it's just not viable. Now, he's understood that point and will do everything in his power to make sure every bed is sold.
One of Andrew's strengths is that he listens to people. We have a very fluid office: we go out for drinks together and Andrew and I will empty bins and clean the kitchen, so I think our staff respect us for that. We don't have an us-them relationship. In the last year, we've started to take on different roles. We have come to the point where we have to be much more leader-managers. There are things that happen now that we don't know about, and we're having to move up the ladder somewhat.
I am still cautious: we can work very hard and get everything super, but if there's no snow, it's disappointing for us and for the guests. I hate having that element out of our control. Being an accountant, I'm neat and tidy, even pedantic, and I like things to be finished off in numbers and projects.
Andrew has been wanting to buy and build chalets for several years, but I have always held off. We are not builders - our strength is running holidays, and I don't think we should be pulled away from that. I am keen to concentrate on what we do best. He says it would put a lot of value into the business, but I am risk-averse. We have got a nice lifestyle and we are selling good holidays. My motivation is not to grow numbers drastically and sit on a pounds 20m company. Andrew might be a little bit more motivated by getting a conglomerate going.
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