Phone firms lead middle market league

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Mobile telephone companies also dominate the Middle Market 50, the category designed to recognise the achievement of large companies that have continued to grow. Both first-placed Caudwell Subsidiary Holdings and second-ranked Peoples Phone Company are in the cellular telephone business.

Meanwhile, Morse, a computer products dealer, demonstrated consistency by following up last year's first place in the award for companies with annual sales of more than pounds 5m in the first year by coming third.

Peoples Phone is well-known, especially in the South-east, at least partly for its on-off plans for a stock market flotation. Caudwell has been around slightly longer - since 1986 rather than 1988, even though it only got started in mobile phones in 1989. Until then, says John Caudwell, the managing director, who founded the company with his younger brother, Brian, and two others, the business was car sales. But that was not an area in which he was keen to stay. "It was a means to an end," says Mr Caudwell, adding that the poor reputation of car dealers was a particular concern.

Mr Caudwell stumbled into the business simply through wanting to buy a mobile phone for his personal use. His method of countering what has become the sharp image of mobile phone dealers is to concentrate on customer satisfaction. Competition is so fierce that it is impossible to make prices lower. Consequently, he and his 400 employees seek to win and retain customers by surpassing their expectations on delivery times and other aspects of service.

While others are struggling to make a return, Caudwell has seen sales grow from pounds 13m in 1990 to more than pounds 90m last year, when profits passed pounds 2.5m. In the process Mr Caudwell, 43, has become very rich - a recent listing of Britain's richest people estimated his wealth and that of his brother at pounds 50m.

It is a long way from his first efforts at enterprise, back when he was a teenager working for the Michelin tyre company. Mr Caudwell, who claims that even as a child he wanted to run his own business, started a grocer's shop, only to close it after a year because it did not make any money. However, he still kept ventures going while working for Michelin, until 1978, when what he terms his "successful business career" began - with cars.

But although he may have moved on he is still keen to achieve new goals. Indeed, if he finds that targets he has set himself are too easy he revises them. His aim now is to achieve annual turnover of about pounds 250m before floating on the stock market and then looking for "companies with synergy" to acquire.

It is not enough to have a vision, he says. You must have ambition that knows no bounds as well as the tenacity and durability to cope with all the stress and the long hours. "Without that I wouldn't have done it."

Full details of the Middle Market 50 will appear next week.