My Biggest Mistake: Alec Reed

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Alec Reed, 59, is founder and chairman of Reed Personnel Services. He left school at 16 with hopes of being a farmer, but began work as a clerk with a shipping company. He studied at night for the examinations of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and later rose to become chief accountant of a division of Gillette. At 26, he set up on his own, founding Reed Employment, which today has 170 outlets. Mr Reed is a member of the council of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and visiting professor of enterprise and innovation at London University's Royal Holloway College.

FROM a cool analytical point of view, my biggest mistake was going public. My competitors started years before me with companies such as Alfred Marks and Brook Street Bureau going public in the late 1960s. It soon became clear that we could follow them - but it was too obvious a goal.

I did a survey of banks and advisers that had handled flotations and from that drew up a shortlist. When the choice was made we began an endless series of meetings with bankers, lawyers and accountants to develop a prospectus.

This was 1970, however, and there was a recession on. As a result, it became obvious that it was impossible to make forecasts. So we delayed until the following January. By this time, we knew how much money we had made in the past year so there was no risk to our backers.

At the time of the launch, the bank suggested that, instead of having a press conference, we should invite journalists from various newspapers for one-on-one interviews. The Times sent someone who wrote a piece advising investors to sell Brook Street and buy Reed. The following week, after the share issue, the Daily Mail compared us unfavourably with Brook Street. Lots of people asked for their applications to be cancelled and the issue just scraped home - it only raised about pounds 300,000 for me.

The kernel of the mistake was to have sold a third of the business for pounds 300,000. The reason I did it was to pass shares to members of my family. In those days you had to pay capital gains tax even if you gave things away, so I had to sell some of the company. I have never wanted to dilute the family's shareholding.

Even with the delay, the whole thing was such a rush that nobody really had time to explain every detail.

In these meetings, the client does nothing; everything is done for you. As a result, I didn't realise it was left to me to put details of the issue in my tax return. The Inland Revenue got very aggressive and charged me a lot of interest. I sued my tax accountant, and won. It was an unnecessarily worrying time.

Another thing about going public is that rivals can buy shares in your company to get competitive information.

In the year leading up to it, I spent 100 per cent of my time thinking about the flotation. After that we had post- public illusions of grandeur. I spent another year wondering how to behave as a public company, when we should just have done what we did before - because that's why people have backed you.

We have tried to remain innovative. Prior to the flotation we had a couple of diversified businesses, including ICC Information Services, which offered analyses of private companies.

And after going public, we built up a chain of chemists' shops, Medicare, which we sold to Gateway seven years ago for pounds 20m. We invested pounds 5m in the company and returned pounds 15m profit to shareholders. It was the first time it had been done, and involved the public company being liquidated for an instant and Medicare being set up as a separate company to the quoted one, Reed Executive.

The lesson I have learned is to be patient. Nothing changes as frequently as tax legislation, so one's window of opportunity will open eventually.

(Photograph omitted)