'One of my directors turned to drink, the other lost confidence'

Gary Ashworth, 36, built his accountancy recruitment agency into a pounds 2.5m business listed on the Alternative Investment Market. But when the recession hit, he found himself staring over a cliff with no one there to help him
Some people would think that Colin - the four-foot yellow giraffe who stands next to our boardroom table at Abacus Recruitment - is the perfect non-executive director. He doesn't disagree with anything we say and he's extremely cheap as board members go. But Colin is there as a reminder that sometimes what you need are directors who will challenge you.

I didn't realise how important a strong board was until the recession started to bite. One day in 1989 I opened the paper to discover that our biggest client, Disaster Call, had gone under owing us pounds 100,000. It was the first time we had to look over the cliff and wonder if we could carry on.

I only had two directors then. One of them turned to drink and the other started taking excessive time off, lost confidence and became shy about talking to clients. Since then I've made sure the foundations are stronger. I now have six board members, not counting Colin, two of them non-executive.

That experience taught me some other lessons. The first was humility. Until then I'd been a 20ish entrepreneur, driving around in a convertible Rolls-Royce and learning how to fly a helicopter. The second was not to trust the banks' judgement. They wine and dine you when the sun's out but they take the umbrella away when the weather turns bad. I mortgaged all my personal property the day Disaster Call went under, and still the bank was urging me to sell assets while the market was at rock bottom.

Abacus wasn't my first business, and it was in stark contrast to the precarious business I started when I was 17 - selling parts from motorcycles that had been written off in crashes. I also booked bands for the local halls around Marlow in Buckinghamshire.

Even then I asked myself the same three questions. How much will it cost? How much will it make? And how long will it take? Even now, deciding whether to go into a particular business still seems that simple. If I were to write a book it would be titled Business Planning on the Back of a Paper Napkin.

I spent two years selling for an engineering company, then toured Europe for a few months and returned to work for an accountancy recruitment agency. By the time I was 21, I realised I could do for myself what I was doing for the company.

I had a partner in the beginning and between us we put up pounds 1,600 to set up Abacus in 1982, and borrowed another pounds 12,000. Neither of us had much financial credibility with our families, and we didn't get the loan until we visited our 14th bank. That was NatWest, which was also the first, fifth and ninth bank we visited. Fortunately, bank managers don't talk to each other.

We had a tiny office in Queen Street, near the Bank of England, which we called the Wendy House because it was so cramped. There were just the two of us and a manual typewriter. We had an egg timer because we couldn't afford a stop watch to test typists.

The day before we opened I took a walk down Oxford Street and counted 104 recruitment agencies between Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch. We had to be different if we were to succeed, and we did that by specialising and by being obsessed with trying to uncover the hidden needs of our clients, however quirky.

We get all kinds of people coming through this office looking for work. We placed one Australian woman with an international bank, only to get a phone call four months later after they discovered she was a he. I hope that experiences like that have helped make our staff more tolerant. I spend some of my time working for the Institute of Employment Consultants and "Opportunities", a charity that found work last year for more than 1,000 people with disabilities. We also try to take on issues like ageism. Three-quarters of employers want people under 35 so we've stopped putting ages on CVs.

One of the things entrepreneurs need is the ability to spin lots of plates at the same time. You have to start one project while bringing another to completion. That means you have to move fast. Once, in 1987, I noticed a group of five agencies had gone into liquidation. I bid for them that day on a hunch that I could find pounds 100,000 to pay for them. Had I waited for the financing to be in place, I would have missed the opportunity.

Another essential is a sense of balance. As a lad I wanted to be a musician, and there is a certain amount of artistry and creativity in running a business. But it's important not to get too bogged down and to maintain outside interests. I spend a lot of time with my children. And I have resurrected my early interest in music by managing a jazz singer, Rebecca Wheatley, who recently released a CD. I'm not likely to become a full-time promoter, but it is a tremendous learning experience, and helps add some balance to my life.

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