The adventures of a hard-working, straight-talking entrepreneur
BOOK REVIEW: RICHARD GILLIS In for a Penny: A Business Adventure by Peter Hargreaves; Harriman House; £9.99 (?11.50)
PETER HARGREAVES is a very rich and successful financial adviser who you?ve probably never have heard of, which one suspects is why he has written a book. When you get to be worth in the region of £300 million (?347 million), having floated a company you started in your back bedroom for £800 million, the need to tell the world must be hard to contain.
That said, Hargreaves tells his story simply and without recourse to guru-speak, which in the business-publishing game marks it out as worth a read.
But those looking for a quick way to make £800 million will be disappointed; the lessons Hargreaves dishes out can be pared down to: ?have a good product and work bloody hard?.
The first part of the book tells the growth story of Hargreaves Lansdown, the wealth management company he started with business partner Stephen Lansdown in 1981, which now handles more than £8 billion in assets and is worth £920 million.
In many ways, the ?Business Adventure? of the book?s subtitle is the story of the financial industry as a whole, one propelled by small independent advisers making the most of nascent technology, such as personal computers, to get the word out.
A former Unisys employee, Hargreaves was an early adopter of computers, which he used to create an investment newsletter that he then massmailed to potential clients.
This experience has left him with a no-nonsense (a phrase that is hard to keep out of this review) take on marketing, most notably that it can take six months or so between receiving information in a newsletter and action on the part of the recipient.
There is a telling anecdote about the early days of the business. The company first advertised its services in the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph in the early 1980s for £200. In the days before e-mail, Hargreaves waited for the responses to come through the post.
On Monday there was nothing, Tuesday ditto. A small handful came on Wednesday, leaving both partners gloomy about the lack of buzz.
Then, a key moment in the Hargreaves story: he recalls opening the office door on Thursday morning to find envelopes piled high in the corridor outside.
Sitting there, throwing the envelopes up into the air, he remembers thinking: ?Now I?m going to be a millionaire.?
As the business grew, so too did the challenge of managing people, and it is here that Hargreaves?s curmudgeonly side is given full licence. Meetings are a particular bugbear ? ?the scourge of industry? ? and he calls on everyone in business to wage a constant campaign to abolish them.
?Meetings stop people from doing their jobs,? he says, and if you cut them out you can also lose about 90 per cent of middle management. ?One good way to stop meetings is to make sure there are no chairs.?
This, you suspect, is not a joke and, while it might be fun reading his book, working for Hargreaves sounds like a living hell.
The author sees carparking as central to business philosophy: always leave them hungry for the spot so they get in early.
Another insight into life within Hargreaves Lansdown comes when the company moves into a new building. Rather than let his employees spread out to fill the space, Hargreaves secretly builds a false partition wall to keep them hemmed in, only removing it when the company is forced to expand. On top of this, he only recruits ?when the existing staff are so overworked that they will accept anyone new?.
Such luxuries as chairs, or people, are for the public sector, the entire notion of which he despises. When the British government recently announced it was to raise the top rate of tax to 50 per cent, Hargreaves was apoplectic, threatening to move abroad and suggesting that, rather than raise tax, the government should ?slash the public sector instead?.
?It?s no surprise to discover that 60 per cent of all management consulting billing in the UK is to our wonderful public sector,? he says.
It follows that anyone with the letters ?MBA? after their name would be well advised to think twice about pitching to Hargreaves for work. These people purport to be business experts but few have any experience running a business, he says. ?They talk in a form of management speak that no one understands, have no idea how to handle people and, invariably, if you put one in charge of a department, everyone else wants to leave.?
In for a Penny is full of this sort of stuff. Hargreaves stays just this side of golf-club rhetoric and offers genuine insight into life in the money game, as governments and the public look on at the spivs trousering seven-figure salaries for quick fixes and dodgy money.
Against this backdrop, his is a refreshingly old-fashioned voice, and there is something reassuring about imagining the irascible Hargreaves walking among the clever fools of the financial world and giving them a poke in the ribs.
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