Pitted against the best

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The Independent Online
Brands Hatch is to motor racing what Mecca is to Islam. British motor racing was virtually founded there in 1927 and enthusiasts continue to flock to the Kent race track to take in the petrol fumes and ear-splitting whine of cars with the dedication of trainspotters and callous enthusiasm of circus-goers watching the high-wire act.

In a gleaming blue-glass building overlooking the natural amphitheatre, the guardian of Britain's motor-racing heartland is talking about deals past and future with characteristic determination.

Sitting on a bright red leather sofa, the boss is celebrating last week's landmark deal that raised fresh finance and could launch the £10m-a-year business towards a new period of expansion and, within a few years, a stock market quotation.

And what an incongruous sight the boss makes. With her high heels, Versace- style silk shirt and ski-tanned face, Nicola Foulston looks more Sloane Square than pit-stop.

But the 27-year-old's eyes reveal a glimmer collegues call determination and ambition and enemies describe as greed and arrogance.

"She knows what she wants and, having survived all that's gone on in the past 10 years, she shows every sign of getting it," said a former colleague.

Ms Foulston's involvement with Brands Hatch began when she was 11, when her father suddenly fell in love with motor racing and brought his elder daughter along to help polish the cars and run errands.

John Foulston, the founder of Atlantic computers, built up a £40m fortune through computer leasing and, in May 1986, bought Brands Hatch for £5.25m to satisfy his new-found passion for racing.

A year later, while testing an open-topped Maclaren, a rod worked itself loose in the 800 HP engine and jammed the throttle open.

The thrill-seeking entrepreneur died on impact with the track's wall.

"Because he was such a huge personality, the tragedy came as a great shock," remembers Ms Foulston, 19 at the time. "But, looking back, he was alway taking risks and talked about the possibility of death so frequently it no longer surprises me."

By that time the young heiress was already waist-deep in the motor racing industry, having left her university course in mathematics ("ironically, the computer programming bored me") to run her father's personal racing team, which she successfully turned from loss to profits.

After the horror of the accident she might have turned her back on the sport. Something made her stay.

It was not love of the sport that killed her father that kept her interested in Brands Hatch. She confesses to being a bad driver and fumbles to remember the names of cars a true enthusiast would trot out easily. Many in the motor racing fraternity suggest that she is contemptuous of their sport.

When she suggested that accidents - undeniably a rare source of excitement in the tedious races - could be made more interesting by giving marshals microphones, some professionals were shocked.

It seemed to prove that she was more interested in making money than promoting their revered sport.

Ms Foulston does not deny the charge. "My job is to sell tickets, not to strip a racing engine," she says. Talking with a determined zeal, she says in business she finds a chance to compete with men, something denied to her on the race track.

"Women do not win formula one races, because they simply are not strong enough to resist the G-forces. In the boardroom, it is different. I believe that women are better able to marshal their thoughts than men and because they are less egotistical they make fewer assumptions."

So when her father died, not only did she stay in the business, she took over. In 1990, when the 22-year-old was appointed to the board and the long-serving managers, John and Angela Webb, walked out after a boardroom clash, she persuaded her mother to appoint her managing director.

She found the company a shambles, says Ms Foulston. It was run in an amateur fashion by blazer-and-cravat motoring enthusiasts who had no understanding, or interest, in business. The management was characterised by deals done on the hoof, calculations done on the back of cigarette packets and favours done for old pals. The headquarters was in a portable cabin, everyone wore jeans, there were no computers and little financial reporting.

Ms Foulston's achievement over the past five years has been to turn a glorified car enthusiasts' club into an expanding, well-financed business. The static paper profits, which have not improved from the £1m made on a £10m turnover in 1990, hide a tremendous amount of work.

The headquarters and conference centre, named after her father, were built for £2.6m. New pits were built at a cost of £2.9m. A deal with BMW gave the Nigel Mansell driving school 40 new saloons. Renegotiation of television coverage meant the company stopped paying for coverage and instead received an income of £100,000 a year. And a host of services that had been hived off to third parties at immense cost were brought in house.

"I changed a sprawling mess which leaked margins everywhere into a vertically integrated business with a strong cash-flow, solid balance sheet and proper reporting structures," she says.

At this stage she could have sold the refurbished business to a racing enthusiast or property developer for a fortune. She could have settled down in her Sussex country house with new husband, Craig.

Instead, that baptism of fire has increased her appetite for deals. She talks enthusiastically of buying a ticket agency, setting up joint ventures with toy companies, developing the tiny merchandising operation, hosting pop concerts and exploiting the opportunities of Sunday betting.

These ambitions help explain the deal done last week with John Moulton, the venture capitalist at Apax Partners, and Peter Rickitt, the corporate financier who has links with Manchester City football club.

On the surface, it seems the young entrepreneur is losing control of the business. In fact, the complicated family ownership of the race track never allowed Nicola to be a full proprietor.

Now she has clear control of a 10 per cent stake, her trusts have spread their risk and - most importantly - she says she now has managerial help from people who know more than she does.

"I am 27 and I am limited only by my lack of experience."