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Me And My Partner: Martin Rutty And Tim Gilbert

At 18, Martin Rutty was a despatch rider. At 19, he started Speed Couriers, and his best friend, Tim Gilbert, joined him. Two decades later, they have a pounds 15m business and hold the world record for a 14,500-mile helicopter flight from the UK to Australia
MARTIN RUTTY: We were at school together, and good buddies. We were both into swimming and cycling; at 16, we got into motorcycles and that cemented our relationship. My father bought me a broken-down moped, thinking: "This will keep Martin busy." I got it working in a week. We'd spend months taking motorcycles apart and putting them together. We never took anything too seriously because we're eternal optimists. Other people create problems but we're the opposite. We have a crisis and we think, "Great." Tim had a Robin Reliant car and I remember coming back from the pub, saying: "It doesn't half stink of petrol." As I spoke, flames shot out of the Fiberglass front. You've never seen us move so fast. We watched it burn to a chassis and three charred wheels - we thought it was hilarious. Tim used the insurance money to buy a better car.

When I left school I had a year out. A friend was working as a courier, so I went for an interview. I was given a parcel and told to go to Bedford on my Triumph 650. I knew it was somewhere up the M1 but it took two hours to find the M1. I broke down on the way home, and was freezing cold in my denim jacket, but thought it was fantastic. The fact that I had hypothermia was academic.

Tim and I used to commute together up the Old Kent Road. He was working in a merchant bank. I went to university, but it wasn't for me so I left and went back to work as a courier. All I knew was that I didn't want to work for anyone, because I'm a rebellious bastard. I was on the edge of trouble for most of my adolescence. Tim's much more sensible, stable and a very clear thinker. He has a great grasp of the consequences of any action, while I have a flair, through pig-headedness, for saying: "I will make something happen." I built up rapport with clients, and one said: "How about being a company messenger?" I said: "No, I want my own business." He said: "Okay, I'll set you up." That was my springboard.

Soon, I persuaded Tim to join me. We had drifted through school, having competitions to see how many roll-ups we could make from half an ounce of Old Holborn (about 70 really thin ones). We began working from a coal cellar in New Oxford Street. It was grotty and damp, and we'd go out and do a job and hope the phone would ring when we got back. We went from being a couple of likely lads to a company of 10 people. I was riding bikes for five years and was blissfully happy. Our business grew almost by default. By 1985 we had a turnover of pounds 2m and were working all hours. Tim and I had pounds 25,000 in the bank so we went out and bought an aeroplane; I think the attraction was in the unknown, in pushing your boundaries. We just egg each other on.

In the late 1980s, we had moved to a big new premises when our accountant said: "According to my figures, you're going to go bust in three months." There was all this mad spending and we weren't immune to it. (One PR company would phone us regularly to go and fetch a pint of milk, paying pounds 2.75 for delivery.) We'd bought 11 or 12 Volvos to start up a chauffeur service, something we couldn't afford when things slumped. We lost 25 per cent of our turnover in a few months. We had reserves of pounds 18,000 and owed the bank pounds 250,000.

In 1988, we had to decide whether to cash in our chips. Once we had made the decision to stay, we cracked on and worked like crazy. It was the hardest time of my life; I was married with a mortgage and my first child, and had moved to Shropshire. For four nights a week, I stayed in a camper van at the office. I ran operations; Tim was trying to get the finance turned around. We had to stop serving customers who hadn't paid us - a "take no prisoners" approach.

Tim was superb in dealing with the bank manager, persuading him to continue to lend to us. Tim would look him in the eye and say; "We have a plan." We knew the dire straits we were in, six months before the recession really started. When it got hard, we were ready. We sent out lots of mailshots to other courier companies saying: "If you want to sell up, sell to us." I spent five years buying companies then integrating them into our business. Tim was developing a software system to co-ordinate operations. I'll say: "What needs to happen is this", and he will say: "What that will require is A, B, C ... "

We decided to provide a national delivery service, and needed realtime computer software. Orange gave us the chance to handle a massive account, and we werecompeting with TNT and Securicor.

Plans for our helicopter trip started over a beer 18 months ago. The trip was part of us proving the business was secure. You never really find out how successful you are until you're 8,000 miles away. Tim and I became a lot closer. There was a lot of tension, but we had time to talk, mostly flippantly. We'd play I-Spy. We started talking about how amazing the world is. If it wasn't for Tim, I would probably be in prison by now. I've got a lot of energy, am very impulsive, and if I didn't have a steady hand, could be misguided. Tim's a great ally.

TIM GILBERT: Martin hasn't changed much. He's still cheeky, a maverick and an independent thinker in a way that sometimes needs a bit of reining in. I would often say: "Don't be ridiculous." I remember him suggesting we go to France on a moped and I said: "You can't do that." Sure enough, he did. I grew up conventionally and Martin woke me to the idea that you could do anything. We put effort into doing nothing. We managed to go two terms without handing in any work for English A Level.

I was offered a place at university, but I'd spent 15 years making it my business to do sod-all. Instead, I went to the career service and they said: "We have just the job." It was at Schroder, and I was a human spreadsheet. That was before the days of red braces and fast cars: the clerks were below stairs and the highly educated people had the decent jobs. I thought: Am I on the right side of the divide?" "No," I thought, "I'm clever enough, but I haven't got the key to the door." Martin said: "Come on, let's go and ride bikes", and I saw it as a way of making a lot of money.

There was something compelling about our long-term relationship. Other partners couldn't keep up with it. To be earning a tenner a week year in year out was not everybody's cup of tea. Martin used to say: "I want to be a millionaire by the time I'm 30." I was interested in maintaining a middle-class lifestyle, which meant you had to earn a shedload. It was pre-Thatcherism and nobody really had their own business. A lot of the time I found myself thinking to myself: "You can't do that." But there was always Martin saying; "Watch me."

In the mid-1980s, when things were difficult, I felt there wasn't any option but to get the business back on its feet. I knew we could do it; I'm not troubled by self-doubt. We were besieged by debt, and Martin had moved to Shropshire and had broken his neck after crashing his hang-glider. He was a bit low, stuck at home, and said: "What do you want me to do?" I said: "Most businesses in a recession go bust due to lack of cash. Get on the phone every single hour and ask for that money. And don't go near the bank manager." He did a great job. My biggest challenge was to keep the bank manager on side. One morning I knew he'd come to close us down and change the locks. It was a tense encounter; he reached down for his briefcase and I caught his eye and said: "I'll get it back for you." There was this long pause. Then he said: "All right then." We were close to losing it all.

We realised we were too dependent on one location; we needed a network. Big corporations wanted a single point of contact. We set about knitting together the businesses Martin was buying. We moved from being a rag- tag-and-bobtail courier business to developing measurable information corporations can manage. It meant we could be sitting on the ski piste in Courcheval and watching what was going on in Birmingham.

One benefit of on the helicopter trip was an enforced eight weeks of sitting and talking. We never ran out of things to say - we have no unsaid stuff. We had pictures taken before we left, and we look absurdly young and cheerful. I think Martin will keep looking to me to sort out his ideas - what's plain daft from what's completely inspired.