Me And My Partner; David Landau and Heidi Bergmann

David Landau, 49, taught art history before launching `Loot', the free-ads paper, in 1984. He hired Heidi Bergemann, 51, as a typist and she is now group managing director; the company turns over pounds 34m, operating in London, New York and India
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The Independent Online
DAVID LANDAU: The idea for Loot came about by chance. I bought a copy of an Italian paper called Secondamano - (second-hand) in Milan airport; I thought it was an antiques magazine. I'd never seen a free- ads paper before. I got to London, took a taxi and went to every newsagent on the way home. Nobody had ever heard of one. I spoke to my sister and her husband, Dominic Gill, and decided that if we found the money, we would launch a free-ads paper.

The time was right for me, and Dominic was also looking for something exciting to do. We knew it would be a business, but at the same time, a public service. People could advertise absolutely anything they didn't know what to do with.

We started small and grew very slowly. The one thing we hadn't counted on was that people wouldn't believe us when we said ads were free. We thought we'd be flooded by calls but the phone was dead. The calls we did get were: "Are you sure you're not going to send me an invoice?" We really had to convince people they weren't being taken for a ride.

It took three years to come to a stage where people were buying enough copies to make it survive. It was difficult to convince our distributors to go on. But I was completely sure that it was going to work and be successful, and that gave us strength to continue at a time when family, friends and bankers were telling us to pull out. Every week we were selling more copies and getting more ads.

Heidi came as a part-time ad-taker in 1985. Within 30 minutes of arriving, it was clear she was the best. Within a week, I knew she was competent, reliable, effective, intelligent and efficacious. We had an office manager who told us she was pregnant and was taking maternity leave - the decision to make Heidi her successor took about 30 seconds. From then on, she was a steady presence and influence in the company, and she's seen it grow to 1,000 staff. She's been making everything happen as smoothly as if we were still just 15 people.

She speaks to people with sincerity, very humble in the way she interacts. She listens carefully. Everybody considers her the mother of Loot, and goes to talk to her about their problems - although she's now group managing director, in charge of worldwide operations. We obviously have a human resources department, and they are terrific people, but ultimately, if somebody has a serious problem, they will go to Heidi. Our motto is: "A perfect service by happy people" and she's really made sure, throughout the years, that people are happy.

She has another phenomenal gift: the ability to understand and follow up what's happening in each company. She remembers the weaknesses she spots, and tries to get the right people to the right level to cope with these. It's the ability to be a mother figure and, at the same time, almost a scientist in her approach, knowing the business in all its minutest detail while not losing an overall view. She underestimates herself; she's not one of those managers who would be promoted beyond her capabilities. She thinks "I can't grow" then beats all expectations.

I've had a more strategic role in the company, though I had no experience in business. I've tried to understand how big things work and I came to the conclusion that they work exactly the same way as small things. There's no magic about it. You can run with the same ease a company of three people and a company of 3,000. The difference is the size of decisions.

Everything comes from empathising with the problems of other people. A company is a group. It's not an idea, a structure, items or an office. It's people, working to a common goal. Every member of staff is encouraged to share ideas; my role is to decide which make more sense than others.

Loot contains, every day, a slice of the life of the town. Every day it carries 25,000 ads, a day in the life of normal people. I think historians will learn more about real life by looking at a copy of Loot than at indices and statistics. There are so many things in there.

We are spreading the company, splitting it into publishing, online and international divisions. But Heidi and I work very closely together. We spend more time together, rather than less. We're the only people to share a room; that's so we communicate without getting up. We have filing cabinets between us, but we just raise our voices.

We often travel together to far-flung places, and it's fantastic to have somebody so efficient. She protects my back and makes sure everything really works. In one country, we had to rewrite the drafts of contracts but had no disc of the previous version. I thought I'd have to copy the whole lot out, but Heidi came to my hotel room with a portable PC and typed the entire contract in a couple of hours.

She is the fastest typist I have ever seen. After years of sharing a room with her, I still stand up and peer over the filing cabinets to see whether she's pulling my leg. I can't believe someone could control their fingers to such a degree. It takes me about 27 times longer.

HEIDI BERGEMANN: I was brought up in America but became disillusioned with the American dream. I came to London and decided to stay. In 1985, I was running my own word- processing business and needed a bit of extra work. A friend put me in touch with David, and it was a good way to fill my schedule. It wasn't long before the office manager went on maternity leave and David offered me the job. I didn't expect it to be a long-term career. But I remember saying to David: "If you want me, this is the salary I want - and some shares." At the time, it was a small group of private shareholders, but he made and fulfilled that promise.

David comes from a world very different from my own, and I thought of him as a rather distant, intelligent and busy businessman. The wonderful and surprising thing, when someone has that type of persona, is when he cracks out with the most incredible self-effacing humour. He used to go home and say: "Goodnight, babies." I've always had enormous respect for him; he's self- disciplined and sets a tremendous example in work ethic, integrity and values. He believed in what he was doing - and had a dogged determination to realise his dream.

I had a 25-year history of working in different companies; typing, secretarial, office manager, book-keeping. I'd worked in insurance, a housing association, law firms, social research and for a barrister. You learn an awful lot if you're bright and intelligent, working in a support role. At Loot, I was able to bring a lot to bear. I would compose builders' specifications for our refurbs, and never had a problem reading a legal contract. It's a dynamic company and we've always grown at such a pace. It's been incredibly exciting.

One key to our success, fostered by David, is to hire intelligent, motivated people and give them autonomy. If you made a good decision in the first place, people rise to the occasion and surprise you. We try to give people the chance to progress in the company and involve them in decision- making. We feel people who contribute should also be taken care of. There's an awful lot of behind-the-scenes work to help individuals. In the early days, my role was very practical. I was the finisher, communicating things to everyone, coming up with an operating plan.

Making a success in business is part of life. If you believe in honesty and integrity, it's a thread that runs though everything you do. There used to be the idea that you put on a "face" for work. That's not what it's about when you're doing a 50- or 80-hour week.

What helped me grow was being given space to fulfil a new role. That's something I've tried to pass on to others. There have been points when I've felt nervous, thinking: "Can I take on this level of responsibility?" I come from the school of learning-by-doing. I take courses, read books and learn from people. David will say: "Let's do it", and I often come back with something which would modify the idea, or put it in context or give a series of steps.

I learnt from David that if you make a mistake, there's no point in profusely apologising. You put that energy into doing something better next time. He's inspired me to own up, take responsibility and use the energy to turn it around. Apart from death, nothing is final; any time you have that honest exchange, the best in human nature comes to the fore.

We've had surprisingly little conflict. David tends to be a more private individual and that works well; we talk very little about our personal lives. At the same time, there's tremendous care and respect. He knows I am 100 per cent committed to the company and will give my utmost to make it a success. He's good at sensing when I'm stretched, and gives me that reassurance about how much he values me. I know that if I ever needed anything, he would do everything he could to help me.