'We went overnight from nowhere to pounds 2m'

Six years ago, Stuart Marks set up marketing and promotions firm Handling Solutions (HSL). In 1993 he sold out to Park Foods, Britain's biggest hamper company, for pounds 9.5m. Now, at just 29, he is attempting a buy-out of Park, a pounds 166m business.
I enjoyed school, but didn't shine. I got good O levels, but flunked A levels and missed out on university. Both my parents had businesses: my father a contract food packing firm which he was just selling, and my mother a small fashion accessories outfit - scarves and ties, that sort of thing. At the age of 19, I wanted to turn that into a roaring PLC, on the stock market and everything. I used to get a box of stock, bits and pieces, find a town and go out selling. Just for six months but it gave me massive experience, dealing face to face, getting knocked back plenty of times.

For all my ambitions, my mother wanted to keep it small, so I joined a cardboard box factory as a management trainee. Coming from a fairly privileged background, a private school, it was a real eye-opener for me working on the shopfloor in working-class east Manchester. The first day I went home and cried. But then I really enjoyed it. There were just 30 of us and when the works manager was out or down the pub, I was running the place. With hindsight, I'm really glad my father's business wasn't there for me to go into. I'm quite independent and might have got stifled.

After two years I was headhunted by a customer, for all the wrong reasons. As business development manager, I got to drive a Cavalier SRi, which was better than my Ford Escort. At 23, those things were important. It was a marketing services company, similar to HSL, doing "response fulfilment" in the jargon - collect six Kelloggs tokens and we'll send you a mug, that sort of thing.

The firm was very successful, but part of a huge advertising group, Omnicom, and a bit of a black sheep of the family. At the time I'd had a number of years in business so I decided to strike out on my own. I bought a small firm, PHS Nelson [later renamed HSL], loss-making but with pounds 500,000 of sales, for pounds 35,000. I'd love to tell you I put my house on the line, but I didn't. The backing came from my father. At first it was "no way", but I was persistent. He said to me: "You've got one chance, so make the most of it." When I sold to Park Foods, we were turning over pounds 10m with pounds 1.5m of profits a year.

The reason I bought rather than start from scratch was that I thought it important to show new clients we had something up and running. We had a tremendous first year. A big competitor went out of business. We picked up their major account and went literally overnight from nowhere to pounds 2m sales a year. If you have to have a lucky break in business, this was it. It transformed us and gave other companies the confidence to use our services. We went from strength to strength, picking up top accounts like J Sainsbury, British Airways and Gallaher cigarettes.

We branched out into sophisticated database marketing, handled Sainsbury's first Saver Card in 1992, and are now involved with its new Reward loyalty card.

With three years' good trading we looked at the stock market, but the time and the cost were horrendous. My father knew Peter Johnson at Park Foods, so we started talking. Being under a larger umbrella did appeal to me and, as it has turned out, things have worked well for both sides.

I'm very ambitious and can make emotional breaks. But I'm also a low- key person. I'm totally untouched by the money and am pretty level-headed. My only extravagances are a Mercedes sports car and an annual trip at Christmas to the Caribbean.

Business has got to be fun and it's important you keep things in perspective. The most important aspect of a service business is the relationship with your clients, and this is an area I work very hard to maintain. However, you have good days and bad days and my only worry is that, despite the inevitable problems, clients realise they get nothing less than our best.

I got married four years ago and our daughter, Olivia, is now 16 months old. I still work 16 or 17-hour days and often at weekends, but the one thing having a child certainly teaches you is to manage your time better. Looking back, HSL grew so fast, I wish I had invested in more managers. I used to be a one-man band and underestimated how important it is to have a good team.

The people at Park Foods were terrified that, at 27, I'd jump ship with all that money in the bank. But in my view when you do a deal, you stick to your part of the agreement. I give a lot of loyalty to staff and clients and expect a lot in return.

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