Small Business: Simple recipe put the icing on the cake: William Raynor on a second-round success

IN TERMS of management, Robert Habermann is a minimalist - and more than a little unorthodox, he readily concedes. His company, trading as Robert's Fudge Factory, is a supplier to every British Rail buffet through Traveller's Fare, and to hundreds of other outlets, mostly small shops. Yet he remains in complete control.

He has shrugged off competition from what he calls 'me-too operations' and has refused offers from potential investors despite the depressed economic climate. 'I've seen too many people trying to go too fast and coming unstuck in the recession,' he said. 'Besides, I love my business and don't want any partners changing the way I run it.'

With no head office, Mr Habermann runs his business from the shop floor - and even has time to pursue a second career as a jazz singer.

He doesn't require staff to be full-time (other than himself and the chief sales representative) nor to have special skills. Nor does he rely on advertising or public relations campaigns: 'We rely on word of mouth.' What he believes in above all, he says, is providing the 50 people who work for him the freedom he was denied when he tried accountancy and stockbroking, his late father's professions.

Since abandoning the employee treadmill he has learned his lessons the hard way. One of them was listening to advice. 'Don't aim at making lots of money,' an American friend of his parents told him. 'Aim at being the best, and everything else will follow.'

The message took time to sink in: his first venture, franchising equipment and recipes for 'instant' toasted sandwiches, was undercapitalised and failed 10 years ago. But he still had the shell of his company, Toasty Bars, whose name he has not bothered to change, and an unexploited family recipe. He used the recipe to create chocolate fudge biscuit cake in the kitchen of his mother's flat behind Marble Arch in central London.

Answering the call of Norman Tebbit, he had a bike on which to carry trays of samples. In his first week he sold seven trays, or 105 pieces. Each week he increased his target by at least 10 outlets and he was soon able to buy a used car and repay his creditors.

His company now has eight delivery vans and - with 7,000 trays made every week from the original recipe and more than 20 others - a turnover of more than pounds 1.5m. 'Turnover's vanity, profit is sanity,' he said. Last year profit trebled.

From the start, most of his employees have been students from Australia and New Zealand, recruited at first through magazines and later by recommendation: 'I only wanted them to work two to three days a week because it's such a boring job.' Part-time working soon became company policy.

Cheap labour? 'It depends how you look at it,' said Mr Habermann. 'We've devised a system for the factory that allows them to choose when they work. They come to us and find friends, a base in a strange city. They're intelligent, punctual and nice to have around. They don't have time to get bored. The drivers, all female, are free to use their vans out of hours. If they don't like the work, they can always leave.'

His book-keeper is a retired professional who puts in one day a week, as does his personal assistant. His regional managers are self-employed and have built up thriving businesses of their own; so has the man who makes his caramel slices.

'It's one thing to have a good idea,' he said. 'But the secret is learning how to implement it - to hasten slowly, not be greedy, and let it grow.'

(Photograph omitted)

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