THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Brent Hoberman - Lastminute is his baby, welcomed into the new economy thanks to a dream-team partnership with Martha Lane Fox. And with dot.com armageddon predicted, he still holds fast to an ambition to 'own the market'. C

THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Brent Hoberman - Lastminute is his baby, welcomed into the new economy thanks to a dream-team partnership with Martha Lane Fox. And with dot.com armageddon predicted, he still holds fast to an ambition to 'own the market'. C

by ANDREW DAVIDSON, Magazine journalist of the year
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Well, I thought the interview was going swimmingly. Then, half an hour in, Brent Hoberman, the young, good-looking, urbane boss of lastminute.com, takes a couple of mobile calls. First call, he's saying: put him in with Martha. Second call, he's pleading: I'm in an interview Five minutes later he says to me, um, just got to pop out and see this person.

Anyone interesting?

Hoberman's panting-puppy face - think Pete Sampras meets a slimline Stelios - creases into a frown. Well, not sure I should tell you, he umms and aahs. Oh go on.

OK, it's David Crossland of Airtours ...

Well, if Crossland's in, you'd better go and see what's up. Back in a mo, says Hoberman, with that curious, nervous laugh of his that goes up a note at the end. And so he leaves me alone in the vast first-floor meeting room at his company's Buckingham Gate office.

The minutes tick by. The room, I'd say, is about 40ft by 15ft with an enormous conference table running down the centre, 20-odd seats dotted round. I've got time to take in these details. Nineteen awards on the sideboard, a nice picture on the wall, the large catering pot of Nescafe, a kettle. Fifteen minutes go by. Thirty. Oh look, there's a Doris Day CD, too. Forty-five minutes. But no CD player. An hour. And no Brent.

Or anyone popping in to tell me where he has got to.

Que sera, sera. Was he doing something mega with Airtours? Had he just forgotten about me? Probably. I never saw him again. After an hour and a bit, I left him a note saying 'Had to go' and went home to await his apologies. Nothing.

So I e-mailed him to ask: Can we finish the interview on the phone? Sure, he replies. Then, almost as an after-thought, sorry I had to dash off.

You're sorry? I had to waste over an hour of my life looking at a Doris Day CD cover ...

That's Brent, laughs one of his friends, before pleading: Don't do a hatchet job on him - it's just the way he is. Bit disorganised, always leaping from one thing to the other, but a great visionary and not a nasty bone in his body.

'Did he really do that to you?' repeats Martha Lane Fox, lastminute's co-founder. 'Oh God, when he does things like that I just want to curl up in a corner and die, but really ...'

Yes, yes, I know. And he is charming later on the phone, excited like a schoolboy because he's got lastminute onto 49 million chocolate bars in a promotion with Nestle. 'They've sent me cartons and cartons of them,' he laughs, 'If you want some chocolate, come round.' It's very hard to dislike him, even if you've been stood up by him. Anyway, he's got a business to run.

And what a business. Lastminute.com is probably the best-known of the UK e-commerce start-ups that have come from nowhere in the past few years to dominate City-page headlines. Best-known because it's a smart idea, it's had a high-profile float, and because Hoberman, 32, has in Lane Fox, 27, a photogenic co-founder who is possibly rather better at organising than he is. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that.)

But it is Hoberman's baby: he thought up lastminute, he has the biggest chunk of shares and he sorts out where it's going. And at the moment, that looks like global, as the lastminute concept - a site where punters can pick up late bargains on travel, accommodation or entertainment, and where suppliers can find a market for slow-selling (or no-selling) goods - catches on around the world. It still makes a loss (pounds 35 million last year), as it will do until 2003, still has underperforming shares, and there are still curmudgeonly jeremiahs who believe that it will go bust, and that even new chairman Allan Leighton, the former Asda boss, is backing the wrong horse. But if you had to pick a survivor, many would finger lastminute. As a key supplier puts it: 'It's one of the few sites to have captured the imagination of people who aren't internet-oriented.' And that is quite some achievement.

Rapid expansion? You bet, says Hoberman with that trademark aw-shucks grin. 'It's about owning the market. If you do it properly, you put out indicators to everyone else: don't touch this space because we are going to own it.' Europe, Australia, Africa, lastminute is coming. Ironic, really, when you read that Hoberman developed the concept because of his own inability to organise anything in advance, always putting it off until the last minute. And now he is plotting the course of a burgeoning multinational.

Was it always going to be so? Probably. Hoberman, one-time management consultant, says he owes a lot to the role model of his maternal grandfather, Len Shawzin, a Lithuanian-Jewish South African, who built a single clothes shop into a chain of 600 (buying up the UK chain Hammells in the process).

The mix of influences is stirred faster into Hoberman, too - born in Cape Town, brought up partially in America and France, educated at Eton and Oxford. Ask him if he feels British and he pauses, then says: 'I feel British when I'm abroad, but not quite when I'm here.'

There is his New York-based dad, an engineer turned fund manager, obsessive in character, who kept his son supplied with the latest computer gizmos during his British education. And his wealthy South African mother who, post-divorce, dragged little Brent out of the US to the poshest bits of England while she shifted bases from Paris to Portugal via the south of France. And his big sister Nicky, now a painter, educated in France and Oxford. And his new Belgian wife, Genevieve, an interior decorator.

That's quite a cocktail. 'We always used to think Brent was a bit Eurotrash,' laughs his best friend Rogan Angelini-Hurll, research analyst at Salomons. 'And obsessional,' adds Lane Fox, 'about women and ideas.' But he was also ambitious and, beneath the rich-kid lifestyle - jetting off to see his mother on one continent, his father on another - driven to prove himself, working on business plans even while at university, using his parents' contacts and resources to realise his goals.

Angelini-Hurll, who attended Eton and Oxford with Hoberman, says his friend's eclectic background gave him just the right grounding, turning him into a confident networker with the drive to believe a gamble like lastminute couldn't fail. It was not a gamble that Angelini-Hurll, who worked on the lastminute business plan, was inclined to take himself.

'I've got a theory that those entrepreneurs that succeed are the ones with either no money and nothing to lose or quite a bit of money. Brent had quite a bit of money. I had a good job, a wife, a baby. I had too much to lose.'

If all that makes Hoberman sound like the last of the international playboys, he's not - but nor is he a kid who pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He was blessed with looks, brains and money, to which he has added a large dose of determination. He's also tasted failure. After Oxford, he was turned down by McKinsey, but found another consultant, Mars & Co, to take him on. He was pushed out by Mars (he spent too much time on his own schemes) but found another consultant, Spectrum, willing to hire him.

Clearly, like the relentless womaniser of folklore, Hoberman is unfazed by rejection - a key characteristic of any entrepreneur. 'Brent is full of ambition and determination,' says Janice Hughes, managing director of Spectrum. 'He always said he was going to follow in his grandfather's footsteps, and he has.'

Why e-commerce? 'I thought it had to happen. The economics were so compelling,' says Hoberman. 'And my experience of America helped. I would go over there wide-eyed - always thought I should copy something and bring it over here - but every time I had an idea, my dad would give me 100 reasons why not.'

It was his interest in the internet that made him leap at the job offer from Spectrum, a media breakaway from Booz Allen Coopers. There he met Lane Fox. 'I was the 10th hire and she was the 11th.' The two hit it off.

Lane Fox remembers her first impression of Hoberman: 'Tremendously hard-working, but with this huge social life, a massive amount of friends who adored him.' Hoberman says he was struck by just how good Lane Fox was at motivating a team. 'On the day she left Spectrum, people cried.'

If this all sounds treacly - Brent and Martha, the nicest people in the new economy - it's hard to find anyone to disagree. A lot of what people like about the lastminute founders is their youthful enthusiasm, untarnished by cynicism. What outsiders mistrust about them is simply their success and inexperience.

Hoberman stayed at Spectrum for three years, advising companies such as the BBC, Cable & Wireless and Pearson. He loved the fact that he had access to clients - that, in technology, 'youth can have a voice'. At the same time, as ever, he was working on his own ideas, in particular the lastminute concept.

'Rogan (Angelini-Hurll) was freelancing for Spectrum and he jotted down some thoughts on the lastminute idea. We wrote 10 pages but we decided it was too early, there weren't enough people on the web.'

Did he think of going to America?

'No, the advantages I had were over here, the people I knew and my understanding of Europe.' So he waited - a torturous time when, he says, he was convinced that someone else would do it first. 'I was terrified. I was always reading the newspapers, scouring the industry press, the newsletters.'

He sat on the concept for more than a year, leaving Spectrum to take a brief job at LineOne, a joint venture of BT, News International and United News, then put in a four-month stint helping Tim Jackson start up QXL, the online auction business. Hoberman remembers badgering Jackson at a tech conference, trying to get him to work with LineOne. Jackson in turn offered him a job and wanted him to buy in. 'He wanted something like pounds 300,000 or pounds 400,000,' says Hoberman. 'I could have got it, I guess, from family, but I wouldn't have wanted to.'

Hoberman stayed at QXL long enough to see what was possible. It was mutually rewarding. Jackson says Hoberman 'made a great contribution to the company while running bizdev, and helped set some key elements of our strategy. I would have been really happy had he stayed ...' Hoberman says he made invaluable contacts that helped him get his own software built.

Why did he leave? Because the pull of lastminute was too strong and, basically, because Hoberman thought he had a better business plan than Jackson. Did they fall out? Those who know the two say they are chalk and cheese, but both deny a rift, although Hoberman says they have an agreement not to comment on each other now. Jackson, who perhaps perceives the agreement differently, e-mailed me his comments and CC'd them to Brent.

(Hoberman later told me they do this out of 'mutual respect'.)

So Hoberman, bolstered by a loan from his dad, went off to set up lastminute.

He tried to rope in his mate Angelini-Hurll, who wouldn't take the bait.

He remembered Lane Fox and took her out to dinner in Notting Hill, hoping to persuade her. She was cautious, but eventually succumbed to his 'enormous self-confidence'. They refined the business plan in less than a month and in six weeks had raised pounds 600,000 to get it off the ground.

Sound too easy? Probably, but people forget that, at one stage, people were throwing money at tech start-ups and Hoberman and Lane Fox looked a good bet. 'Brent has huge perseverance, charm, he's a quick thinker and moves fast to seize opportunities,' says Tom Teichman, founder of NewMedia Investors (an early backer of Hoberman) and now a non-exec on the lastminute board. 'When I first met Brent and Martha, they just had that electricity.'

And, adds Teichman, their idea was a good use of technology, which they pushed tirelessly to get up and running. Others remember them working till 1am many nights, coming in on Christmas Day, charming suppliers and investors, moving methodically from stage to stage. 'The fact that they worked at Christmas shows the kind of urgency these guys had,' says Julie Meyer, founder of First Tuesday, who helped Hoberman and Lane Fox raise money. 'And they hired well. They took on some really smart people.'

But most of all they got the timing right. They hit the first big wave of enthusiasm for tech start-ups just as it was beginning to curl, and they thought big. Some believed Hoberman and Lane Fox were mad to be so ambitious - one company that worked with the two dubbed them 'Janet and John' because of their naive inexperience - but they proved the doubters wrong. Good concept, right timing and, of course, a sudden press interest in Martha, which pushed them further, faster, than even they believed possible.

Hard to handle? 'People were critical of Martha for getting so much publicity, but it wasn't up to her,' says Hoberman. 'Once a few photos are out there with a bit of a story, anyone can write about you.'

But in terms of advertising and PR, it was worth millions. Was he jealous?

No, says Hoberman. Lane Fox adds that he doesn't have that kind of ego.

'If he had, do you think he would have let me get away with all that?' The problem was that they knew the mass coverage would lead to a backlash.

'Once I saw us on the front cover of the European edition of Business Week,' says Hoberman, 'I felt then the hype was too high.'

As individuals, he says, they are still feeling the reaction to that.

He cites a City editor who told a friend of his: 'We are going to get the smug bastards down'; the apologies he has had to wring out of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times for factual errors; the endless articles about how people are envious of what they have achieved. Many journalists, he perceives, want them to fail.

Is he paranoid?

'No. I got really upset with the envy thing, because I just don't see that as the case. They are trying to build up an envy that is peculiarly British. Martha and I don't believe we are smug. Someone asked me the other day: How do you stop yourself from being complacent? And I said: You've never met a complacent entrepreneur - it's an oxymoron. Every milestone you achieve, you want to achieve more.'

But then you don't meet many entrepreneurs who use words like 'oxymoron' either, and maybe that's what has dogged lastminute. Investors, analysts, the press: none can really make Hoberman out. Who is this charming, educated, rich kid who has come from nowhere to head one of the hottest companies in Britain? Surely, somewhere along the line, these kids will get swamped?

And yet, no-one wants to miss the wave ...

A lot of that filtered through to lastminute's haphazard float earlier this year. Harried by the imminent worldwide collapse in tech stocks and accusations of poor handling of the share issue, it left a sour taste with many. The company has since struggled to get anywhere near its issue price of 380p (at time of writing it is a fifth of that) and has taken some heavy criticism for its customer service and the delays in implementing promised new technology.

There are also whispers from suppliers that lastminute's back office is 'not terribly efficient'.

Tough times? 'Well, people called the float a fiasco, but the only thing that was a fiasco was that some people didn't get their certificates, or their cheques bounced, and that's not to do with lastminute. It's all to do with IRG, which publicly apologised for that. I wish we had been advised - and I can't believe we weren't - to offer people a minimum threshold for what they wanted. That would have been more sensible. If they don't want to have less than pounds 1,000, then they don't have to have it.'

Then there are the worries over the longevity of the concept. Some have forecast that Hoberman's baby will be overtaken by more specialised sites - who goes to lastminute for cheap travel any more? Hence, perhaps, the rush to grow overseas.

Hoberman admits that the swift purchase in August of French rival Degriftour Group for pounds 60 million in cash and shares was one of the key motives for raising money in the float. 'We've always respected what the French company did,' he says. His frustration is that the good news is now always ignored.

Did Degriftour boost the lastminute share price? Not a lot. Likewise the appointment of Leighton, a shrewd choice to allay City fears of inexperience.

Yet to have got this far when so much else in e-commerce has gone wobbly is still something. Why them? Hoberman shrugs. 'In every business story,' he says, 'there is an element of luck. It's about getting people to back you. I am an eternal optimist and always believed that it would work. If you think about all the risks, you never do anything. That's why lots of people have great ideas that they never do.'

Where does he get that optimism? 'Well, not from my dad,' he laughs.

'He's very cautious ... He invests in others who invest!'

He says he probably gets it from his mother's side of the family, from the example of his grandfather. 'I always respected the fact he got where he was without walking over people. He didn't succeed through ruthless ambition but good business practice.'

That, according to his friends, is what Hoberman tries to stick to. His strengths are selling ideas, immersing himself in detail, plotting the future. Inside lastminute, Lane Fox concentrates on day-to-day operations, managing the 500 staff. Hoberman deals with technology and business development.

'He's got a good tech brain,' says Lane Fox, 'and he is not afraid to go into the micro-detail, never takes anything at face value.'

And, unlike others, he hasn't let success go to his head. For nearly three years, he has been an iconic figure in London's new-economy set - Julie Meyer says that when she arrived in London two years ago she was told there were only two people she needed to meet, Hoberman and Jackson - but that hasn't made him unapproachable or difficult to deal with. In fact, the legion of admirers who cite favours done for them by Hoberman just keeps growing.

Any downside?

Well, laugh friends, he is still somewhat chaotic, rarely on top of his schedule, a tech whizz who relies on others to organise everything for him and who has never quite mastered the basic things like driving a car safely. 'Brent is the worst driver in the world,' says Angelini-Hurll.

'He once told me he couldn't concentrate on driving for more than two minutes at a time and I believe him. Look at the floor by the passenger seat in his car and you'll see the carpet is worn out where a brake pedal should be!'

To the list, says Lane Fox, should be added the fact that he is also a terrible dancer and bizarrely faddish about his food. Never eats vegetables, never eats fish, only eats meat. Doesn't smoke, rarely drinks alcohol, constantly swigs Diet Coke. What does that say about him? Bit of a control freak, actually, laughs Lane Fox.

But how can you be a disorganised control freak? I don't know. What I do know is that, as I finish writing this piece, Hoberman has just gleaned that I've got my nose out of joint about being abandoned. And like the detail man he is, he is addressing the problem, if slightly defensively.

He's e-mailing me: Martha says ... I didn't mean to ... I said I would be ... I offered you the ... I'm really sorry if ...

Yes, yes. Just send the chocolate.

HOBERMAN IN A MINUTE

1968 Born 25 November in Cape Town, South Africa

1980s Educated at Eton and New College, Oxford

1992-4 With Mars & Co Consulting of London and Paris

1994-7 Senior associate, Spectrum Strategy Consultants

1997-8 Business development for LineOne

1998 One of founding team, QXL

1998 Sets up lastminute.com as founder and president

2000 Floats lastminute. Becomes CEO and director.

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