How a car hire millionaire's star showing on a BBC documentary opened old business wounds

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The Independent Online

A car hire tycoon's decision to allow BBC television cameras into his headquarters appeared to have backfired yesterday as he drew comparisons to an odious sitcom character and provoked a commercial and personal assault from his former partner.

A car hire tycoon's decision to allow BBC television cameras into his headquarters appeared to have backfired yesterday as he drew comparisons to an odious sitcom character and provoked a commercial and personal assault from his former partner.

Clive Jacobs was filmed returning to the shop-floor at the Surrey call centre of his Holiday Autos firm to kick staff into shape. But his homilies on how to motivate employees and clinch a deal led to the 41-year-old multimillionaire being compared to Ricky Gervais's fictional boss in the spoof documentary The Office.

However, in a potentially more damaging move, his former friend and business partner Nick Stolberg launched a campaign to poach Holiday Autos customers in an attack that he admitted was "most definitely personal".

Mr Jacobs and Mr Stolberg set up Holiday Autos, which is Britain's leading car rental broker, 15 years ago and worked together as it grew rapidly to have a £52m turnover by the time Mr Stolberg left, selling his stake for an estimated £6m. The pair have been feuding for years, partly over who was the original brains behind the venture, and last night's BBC2 screening of The Secret Life of The Office was the catalyst for a fresh outbreak of hostilities.

The programme featured Mr Jacobs deciding to take personal control of his call centre as it struggled to meet targets, telling staff that if there were any "blockages" in the company, "I'm the best plumber around".

He was shown throwing a mobile phone in the bin when it rang on someone's desk, telling staff that leaving phones switched on in the office was gross misconduct and warranted instant dismissal. Mr Jacobs also interfered with managers' departments without telling them, and walked into meetings uninvited, despite explaining to the film-makers that "the art of communication" is the secret of a successful entrepreneur.

Mr Jacobs was ranked the 681st richest person in Britain last year, worth an estimated £55m, after leaving school at 16 and scratching a living for several years before hitting on the idea of setting up a car rental brokerage while working for a travel agent.

Summing up his management style, Mr Jacobs makes baffling statements such as: "Instinctively, detail is a big part of my being. You are either like it or not."

Mr Jacobs accepts that he irritates colleagues, saying: "They know that I'm the one that spots the light bulb that needs changing. There are a lot of light bulbs in this building."

At one point, as colleagues laugh at staff having individual meetings with their boss, he says: "I think they're saying you could not wish for anything worse than a one-to-one with me. I don't know what this laughter is. Can you explain the laughter?"

Mr Stolberg anticipated the programme with a full-page advertisement for his rival firm, Autos Abroad, in the London Evening Standard, claiming that customers would be "horrified" to see how Holiday Autos was being run.

He alleged that Mr Jacobs was "so egotistical" that he wrongly claimed to be the original founder of Holiday Autos, and he offered customers who had booked with Mr Jacobs' firm a range of incentives to switch to his company.

Mr Stolberg, whose business ventures since leaving Holiday Autos have included an airline and a short-lived mid-Nineties boy band, Upside Down, said later he took out the advert because Mr Jacobs allegedly made inaccurate statements in the documentary.

Labelling Mr Jacobs an "insensitive power-freak" with the "biggest ego of anybody I have ever met", he said: "The clash between Clive and myself is most definitely personal but there is also a business factor. Holiday Autos was set up to offer the client the best deal on the market; it was a spirit that was genuine, honest and successful."

Mr Jacobs would not comment directly yesterday, but Holiday Autos released a statement saying Mr Stolberg voluntarily left the company amicably, eight years after it was founded.

"At that time, Holiday Autos employed around 45 staff. It currently employs nearer to 800 worldwide – justifying its position as the number one leisure car rental broker," it said. The company would not comment on Mr Stolberg's advertisement but said it welcomed competition as part of a healthy marketplace.

Neutral parties were divided in their assessment of the two warring entrepreneurs yesterday.

Neal Baldwin, deputy editor of Travel Weekly, said the establishment of Holiday Autos was "shrouded in mystery" and there were stories of the founders being so overwhelmed by the success they had a flat stacked with bags of cash. "They will argue for ever about who started it, but they were both there at the time."

A former colleague of Mr Jacobs said: "Clive is not a patient man. He's the sort of person who goes into a meeting and is supposed to keep quiet but 10 seconds later is telling everyone how to run the business."